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Closing the Circles

Friday, November 11th, 2016: Fall 2016, Rock Writing, Trips.

"Artisans of the Rock", painting by Joe Venus

Rising From the Pit

Rising on a chilly morning in Price, Utah, after spending two days frenetically exploring the prehistoric rock art of Nine Mile Canyon, I was determined to learn more about the so-called Fremont people who had apparently created it a thousand years ago. When I left my motel, heading down Main Street to the Prehistoric Museum, I saw snow on the high ridge above the Book Cliffs to the west, product of the storm clouds that had moved over the area yesterday while I was out in the canyon.

Mostly alone in the silent archaeological galleries of the museum, I eagerly studied the exhibits, which focused primarily on the ancient Fremont culture that had spanned most of Utah, while providing both more ancient (Ice Age) and more recent (Native American tribal) context. Information, while new to me, was provided in fairly conventional forms, leaving me to gradually absorb and process what I’d learned, during the next few weeks, and to eventually add insight from my own eclectic research and work.

But one revelation happened immediately when I walked into the main gallery. Straight in front of me at the back of the hall, illuminated by spotlights, was a full-scale reconstruction of a Fremont pit house from Nine Mile Canyon.

When I first encountered the Fremont legacy and archaeological theories in the late 1980s, during my rock art expedition with Katie, I thought of them as less interesting, more primitive, and therefore doomed neighbors of the Anasazi who lived in cliff dwellings to their south and east. And when I heard about Fremont “pit houses”, I dismissed them as crude animalistic nests. Who would want to live in a pit?

But as I walked toward the reconstruction, it came alive for me, and I suddenly saw myself living there willingly and happily, snug in a spacious, vaulted open plan shelter that would be warm in winter and cool in summer, with everything I needed organized and within reach. This was much better than the supposedly more advanced Anasazi’s ancestral pueblo cliff dwellings with their cramped, dark, uncomfortable warrens.

I also immediately recognized other vitally important implications that made the Fremont more interesting and more inspiring than the Anasazi. And while methodically reviewing the surrounding exhibits, I learned to my surprise that one theory of the Fremont’s “demise” is that they eventually merged with the Nuwuvi and other adjacent tribes that were migrating into Fremont territory as part of the hypothetical Numic Expansion. So the Fremont may be an important part of the story of the Nuwuvi, the native people I’ve been closest to for decades.

Finally, an information panel attached to the museum’s “Pleistocene hunters” diorama described the scientific controversy over the cause of the famous Quaternary Extinction Event. One old theory, popularized in the media, holds that Native Americans hunted the Pleistocene megafauna to extinction. But native technology was clearly never powerful enough, and native populations never large enough, to achieve that. The dysfunctional compartmentalization of science ensures that many contemporary biologists cling to the disputed theory that makes them feel better about their own work, regarding natives as irresponsible savages.

Houses of Peace

During the years after Katie and I explored the Anasazi cliff dwellings of the Colorado Plateau, I was bothered by how cramped, uncomfortable, and inconvenient they seemed. I could hardly believe they had been used as full-time dwellings, but even if they had, their hidden, often inaccessible locations and fortress-like construction suggested that, far from the crowning achievement of an advanced civilization, they were more likely the refuge of timid people who lived crowded together like ants, with no privacy, in constant fear of attack.

The misleadingly named pit houses of the Fremont, on the other hand, were clearly the spacious private homes of families who were living in peace, at ground level, unafraid of attack. They had somehow managed to develop a peaceful, egalitarian, and sharing society over a wide area to the north of the Puebloans, whose conflicted and violent culture would cause the invading Spanish so much grief in later centuries.

The museum’s description of archaic social organization, informed by the social organization of recent desert tribes like the Nuwuvi, shows that the egalitarian and communal culture ascribed to the Fremont was not only sustainable, it was sustained for 7,000 years in the Great Basin and Mojave Desert, while Anglo-Europeans and other so-called advanced cultures developed their extremely hierarchical, unjust, unstable, and incessantly warlike nation-states and empires which would come to dominate the entire world. And the Fremonts’ material remains show that native ecology likewise remained stable and sustainable through those thousands of years. The only important changes during that long period represented resilient adaptations to changing climate, as communities became more or less settled or nomadic, more focused on agriculture or foraging and hunting.

In essence, the Fremont were part of a timeless tradition following natural cycles, so the Anglo-European scientific bias toward technological progress, origins and endings, ages and eras, carbon dating and linear timelines, is misleading and inaccurate. Forget the 7,000 years. Fremont are today and always.

By the Numbers: Rock Art Motifs in Nine Mile Canyon

After returning home and reviewing my rock art photos, I began to realize I could only justify the effort I spent in the canyon by trying to make sense of the rock art panels in retrospect. And I could only do that by thoroughly analyzing the content of the panels – making up for my rush through the canyon, my inability to hang out and contemplate each panel, my failure to give them the time they deserved.

So I reviewed the photos over and over again, identifying and naming the motifs that seemed important to me, and counting them to get a sense of their relative importance or value to the artists themselves. I know this is one way in which archaeologists have studied rock art, but I didn’t want to distract or bias myself by first referring to the archaeological literature. I needed to go on the basis of my lifelong experience as an artist, and the experience with symbolic communication that I’ve acquired during the 15 years of my Pictures of Knowledge project.

I analyzed 56 panels in total.

MotifNumber of Panels Including This MotifTotal Number of Individual ImagesNotes
Anthropomorphs2053Including legless torsos, which are symbolic and may represent spirits
Anthropomorphs with antlers or horns78Only one is identified as male with penis
Bighorn sheep2596
Bird22Including a turkey
Serpent45Only includes those wavy lines with a recognizable head
Rectilinear Dot Patterns47
Concentric Circles45
Tethered Balls710Balls or circles connected by lines in various ways
Band of diamonds22Rattlesnake?
Spear thrower (atlatl)13

Rock Art Questions and Insights

What did the panels consist of?

  • Humans appeared in only about a third of the panels, indicating that the artists attached more value to nonhuman phenomena, and were not strongly anthropocentric, like Anglo-Europeans
  • There was no sign of conflict or violence between humans
  • Humans were overwhelming depicted as asexual, indicating a lack of gender bias
  • One in every 7 humans depicted was given horns or antlers, indicating superhuman (male game animal) power, and suggesting that showing this power was an important motive for creating some of the art
  • Only one of these empowered humans was shown as male, with a penis, suggesting that “shamans” were not predominantly male
  • Less than 10% of the humans depicted were shown as hunters, challenging the conventional assumption that rock art represented “hunting magic”
  • In Fremont art, as in other desert rock art styles, the human torso is sometimes exaggerated and/or filled with symbols or patterns. Referring to the Fremont clay figurines, these decorations are sometimes assumed to represent clothing, fashion or decoration. But the torso can alternatively be seen as a container for symbolism, for example clan insignias, personal identification, or signs of power.
  • The famous “Great Hunt” panel was unique among the panels. This in itself suggests that big game hunting may not have been as important as it is normally assumed to be. Or even that this panel could be a later fabrication…
  • Almost half the panels included bighorn sheep, reinforcing the importance of this game animal, later driven to extinction by Americans
  • Sheep were shown as being hunted in only 20% of the panels in which they appeared, suggesting – surprisingly – that their importance went far beyond the act of hunting
  • More than a quarter of the sheep panels showed them being herded by dogs, whether for hunting or not. One would think that mountain sheep could quickly escape uphill in these rocky canyons, unless the hunts were arranged in a location where the hunters were somehow blocking their escape. The dog images surprise me, because I’ve never encountered any mention of the use of hunting dogs by prehistoric societies in the Southwest.
  • Only one possible and one likely plant image appeared, suggesting, surprisingly, that farming and foraging were not important to makers of rock art, or not at the time rock art was created
  • However, could the rectilinear dot patterns represent garden plantings or crop fields?
  • Based on my experience, both abstract and representational motifs were similar here to those used throughout the Great Basin and Mojave Desert, reinforcing the sense of cultural continuity and timelessness already cited above under “Houses of Peace”
  • Panels ranged from single motifs, to symbolic compositions, to seemingly random collections, and finally to obvious narratives
  • As in my Pictures of Knowledge work, symbols can be simple or compound (combinations of multiple simple symbols)

How were they made?

  • Were they made continuously for hundreds of years, or only at certain times or during specific periods?
  • Were petroglyphs male-created, and pictographs female-created, or were they made by both sexes?

How were they used?

  • As a tool for teaching youth and perpetuating knowledge and wisdom? This resonates most strongly with my own experience in the Pictures of Knowledge project.
  • As a record of important events or configurations for remembering, emulating, and reinforcing social bonds?
  • As a visual model of a proposed goal, for study and evaluation?
  • As a plan for a proposed project?
  • As an evocation or invocation of ancestors, animals, or spirits they were seeking to benefit from?
  • As maps or directions?
  • As clan symbols or markings of territorial claims?


  1. Mae Swanbeck says:

    Some of the geometric’s are exactly what I photographed north of Bishop Ca. And, they are what appears to be the older imprints.

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