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Utah Rock Art is Officially World-Class Art
by Vicki Barker

An historic moment has transpired in art history books of America. The famous and iconic Holy Ghost rock art panel from Canyonlands National Park is being presented for the first time this year in major college-level textbooks as great, world-class art in league with the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, France and rock art of Australia.

The Canyonlands panel, part of The Great Galley in the Horsehoe Canyon detached unit of the park near the Maze District, is one of a group of panels including some 200 figures -- most painted in a blood-red hue and spanning an alcove wall more than 100 feet long. They range in size from half-an-inch to eight feet tall, created by Archaic hunter-gatherer societies around 2,000-3,000 BC (some say possibly 8,000 years ago).

Rock Art Etiquette

  • Don’t camp near a rock art site or build a fire beneath a rock art panel.
  • Leave artifacts, rocks and vegetation exactly where you find them at rock art sites.
  • Don’t dig when at a site or touch petroglyphs or pictographs.
  • If you see someone digging or chiseling at a rock art site, do not attempt to confront them or stop them, as they may be armed. Get their license plate number and call law enforcement.

For information about rock art in Utah visit

The Holy Ghost image is one of two examples of Utah rock art included in a standard textbook used to teach freshman art history at colleges nationwide -- Marilyn Stokstad’s “Art History.” The main version, a huge 8-pound volume of 1,296 pages, also contains the world-renowned Nine-Mile Canyon Hunting Scene (from an area near Price) among its 1,300 illustrations.

Aside from the significance of the local works of ancient American Indians achieving world-class status as sophisticated artists of the world, publication in the instructional textbook portends an “exponentially expanding awareness of Utah rock art to an ever-growing audience,” said James Farmer, chairman of the Department of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Another, more obvious effect, is potential increase in site visitation -- perhaps not immediately, but noticeably -- over the next several years,” Farmer told a gathering in Moab of local rock-art enthusiasts and members of the Utah Rock Art Association.

“It’s clearly too soon to tell how truly significant this is, but we can speculate on the implications,“ he warned. Farmer was able to determine that over the past 10 years, about 11,000 people per year have visited the Horseshoe Canyon Annex about 40 miles from Green River, presumably all of them making the 6 ½-mile round-trip trek 750 feet deep into the canyon to see The Great Gallery.

Anticipated sales of the book this year are expected to top 50,000 copies, Farmer said. About 13,000 copies of a shorter volume, which also contains the Holy Ghost panel but not the Nine-Mile Hunting Scene, are expected to be distributed -- all to students only, “meaning that some 63,000 college students will be presented with images of Utah rock art as examples of truly great world art,” Farmer said.

In his 15 years teaching art history in Virginia, the associate professor said only one of his students had heard of Barrier Canyon-style anthropomorphic rock art, despite numerous books and articles in national publications over the years since the Horseshoe unit was set aside by the National Park Service in 1971.

Now, with exposure of the images to more than 63,000 college students each year, Farmer warns of the potential impending crush of visitors to the canyon and other sensitive rock art sites throughout Utah.

“I can assure you that 60,000 of those 63,000 students will immediately forget the images and never think of Utah rock art again,” he said, “but if only 1,000 of these students are impressed enough to pursue further study or to actually visit Horseshoe Canyon, I think that is a potentially significant increase over what would otherwise be expected.”

And, he warned , the process will repeat itself each subsequent year.
Park officials and other federal land management agencies will be grappling with a greater challenge in balancing public access with protection of rock art. In some places, such as the Barrier Canyon-style panels in Buckhorn Wash, log barricades were put up to restrict direct access. At the Great Gallery, the NPS installed a fence to keep people from climbing too close to and touching the pictographs and petroglyphs.

Will the masses come? Will it lead to drastic measures like installation of a protective shield of plexiglass in front of the panels, similar to what happened in the Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas?

Farmer noted that the Lascaux Cave, with its paintings of large game animals like bison and horses, was closed to the public in the 1960s and since 1983, visitors are treated only to a full-scale replica of the cave and paintings just down the road. He observed that at Stonehenge, visitors view the structure from afar. He asked if, as with the Mona Lisa, behind its airtight, bullet-proof glass and restraining railing cord, flash photography is discouraged at The Great Gallery now -- but will all photography ultimately be restricted or allowed only with a permit and fee?

Farmer said to see “The Last Supper” by Leonardo daVinci in Italy requires reservations months in advance for a 15-minute viewing, for a fee that is not refundable if you are late. While the Vatican Museum has yet to limit visitors to see Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel, it is a long wait with countless other visitors who press shoulder-to-shoulder once inside, straining to see the ceiling in a dark, hot, uncomfortable and hushed chapel, he said.

“I find it hard to imagine The Great Galley ever being so popular, but who knows?” Farmer asked.

At this time, the arduous hike in to see the Holy Ghost panel is self-limiting for many, but Farmer wonders to what extent the government might go to accommodate public demand.

He is disturbed by the Peruvian government’s proposal to install trams on the Andes mountains and set the price of admission at $100 for foreign visitors in efforts to address the explosion in visitation to the Machu Pichu ruins over the past decade.

“Will we ever need such entry fees or shuttles to The Great Gallery?” he asks. “The Great Gallery and Utah rock art have now officially entered the arena of real art history, and I’m glad, because I think the styles deserve recognition…but of course, this also brings new obligations and challenges as well. But I suggest you all go see it while it looks the way it does.”

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