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Hiking Happenings March 2007

Gimme That Old Time Religion
by Rory Tyler

The picture that accompanies this article interests me in two respects. First, it is the largest and most elaborate example of a stylized track that is common in the Moab area. Second, on the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, a shadow from the top of the tallest ridge across the canyon shades the petroglyph longer than any of the hundreds of glyphs in the area. What’s it all about? Here’s my guess.

(The glyph in this picture is at Hidden Valley and is one of many at this rich rock art site. The trailhead is three miles south of town just off Angel Rock Road. It’s a two-mile trail from the parking lot to the pass, with a big climb at the start. You reach the pass in about an hour-and-a-half. The trail from the pass leads down to the Moab Rim Trail and the river. The rock art is on the cliff up on your right.)

This petroglyph shares several features with other similar images. These include the separation of the heel and toes, the tined character of the toes, and the distinctly claw marks. For reasons too numerous to go into here, I think this style of track was used by Moab’s Basketmaker Indians between one and two thousand years ago to represent the mountain lion and its powerful position as the top-of-the-food-chain predator on the Colorado Plateau.

You can see other renditions of this track by walking along the south fork of Mill Creek or driving down Kane Creek and Potash Roads. It is part of a suite of images that I have come to associate with hunting scenes. These images include lines of hand-holding figures, zig-zag and ladder-like lines, spear throwers, arrow shooters, a headdress with a single appendage resembling a lion’s tail, big horn sheep rearing in alarm, and a calm, placid sheep with a super-natural set of horns (extra horns or horns with elaborate decoration) calmly watching the melee. I call this last figure the Spirit Sheep.

The anthropological scholar, Joseph Campbell, commented on some common metaphysical themes found among the world’s hunting cultures. He writes, “There is also the idea of a specific animal - that is, you might say, the Alpha Animal – to whom prayers and worship are addressed. It is as though there were a covenant between the animal and the human communities honoring the mystery of nature, which is: life lives by killing. No other way. And it is the one life, in two manifestations, that is living this way, by killing and eating itself.”

For Moab’s Basketmaker it was two animals, the lion and the bighorn sheep, that held Alpha role in the tribe’s sacred pantheon. There are even several glyphs where elements of the hunter and the prey are combined in a single image, implying an understanding of the unifying mystery Campbell describes.

The role of the lion as prime predator is easy to decipher. But what of the Spirit Sheep? Campbell explains that “between the animals hunted and the human communities dependent for survival on their offering of themselves, there has been a covenant established, confirmed, and reconfirmed …that when they had been slain their lives should be returned to the mother-source for rebirth, and reciprocally, when such rites were performed and the mystery of the order of nature thus recognized, the food supply of the human community would be assured.” For Basktmaker Indians, the Spirit Sheep was the power that confirmed the covenant.
The other interesting aspect of the photo, its significant position vis a vis light and shadow on the winter solstice, indicates another metaphysical probability in Basketmaker culture; ascribing mythic significance to astronomical phenomena such as equinoxes and solstices. I discovered this tableau during the last winter solstice while on the lookout for just such an indicator at Hidden Valley. I suspect that Hidden Valley was a sacred astronomical site for the Basketmaker culture of that former age.

Because the motion of earth’s axis changes from season to season, an observer at solstice, summer or winter, has a ten-day window to look for archeoastronomical indicators. Equinox indicators are harder to spot because you only have two days a year to pin them down, the first day of spring and the first day of fall. This year, the spring equinox is on March 20 and, weather permitting. I’ll be going up to Hidden Valley in the pre-dawn from the 17th to 19th looking for possibilities. March 20 will be the day to discover whether or not the ancient Indians used the site for a calendar. If you want to come along, call me at the number below and together we’ll go looking for a little of that old time religion.

Rory Tyler is available for cowboy poetry/campfire song gatherings which include lore, science, history and lies of the Moab area. (Suitable for all age groups). Rates are negotiable. Give Rory a call at 435-260-8496.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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