Travel Curious

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Rock art and ruins, understanding, appreciating and respecting it

Rock art is the generic name of artwork left behind by ancient people. The artwork typically falls into two distinct categories, either drawn on the rock surface with pigments (pictographs) or pecked or carved into the rock surface (petroglyphs).



Of the estimated 4000 rock art sites in Utah, about 80% of them are petroglyphs carved into the rock. Often they are carved into the dark patina sections called  “desert varnish”, with the rock layer under the patina being lighter which makes the image stand out. 


Example of Petroglyphs rock artAlmost impossible to interpret rock art panel with figures that look like they are riding brooms from Seven Mile Canyon



This artwork was drawn on the rock surface using pigments. Pictographs often have more detail due to the nature of being able to use different colors and layers to create more intricate images. Barrier Canyon style artwork is the most typical representation of Petroglyphs artwork.

Example of Pictographs rock art
Figures from the Buckhorn Wash rock art panels


What are we looking at?

Since Native Americans had no written language, very little is known for certain about the different symbols and drawings you will see.


Some rock art is representational, meaning it looks like something recognizable such as an elk or a big horn sheep (Zoomorphic), other artwork is more abstract, with human-like figures (Anthropomorphic), spirals, and lines, that don’t seem to create any clear meaning. Almost all rock art interpretations are just that, someone’s interpretation of what they think the meaning might be, some artwork has general consensus to its meaning but much of it does not.

The owl panel rock art with the big man in Moab
The Owl Panel in Moab



Davis Canyon the Five Faces
Pictoglyph – the Five Faces in Davis Canyon


When you see a rider on a horse with a hat and an image that looks like a wagon, we can guess within reason that the image depicts a white settler, but we don’t know if the image has more than just a depictional meaning. 

Seven Mile Canyon South Fork 1

Seven Mile Canyon South Fork 25

Things get even more difficult to interpret when you see an image of a human-like figure holding something that looks like a snake. Is it a depiction of a man holding a snake or is there more to it, is this trying to depict a ceremony or someone to be worshipped?

Seven Mile Canyon South Fork 19



How old is it?

Even the dating of rock is highly in dispute, as there are not enough pigments to test using carbon dating, so exact dates are difficult to nail down.

A beautiful Big Horn Sheep pictoglyph rock art example



Paleo-Indians from 13,000 BC – 7800 BC or Archaic, is considered to be the oldest
Barrier Canyon with a wide range very much in dispute from 8,000 BC – 500 AD
Anasazi / Basekt maker from 500 BC – 750 AD
Fremont / Ute 200 AD – 1,300 AD


Screenshot 2022 11 13 203244


Protecting Rock Art & Ruins
Respect rock art and archeological sites. Petroglyphs are an important part of our human and national heritage and can be fragile. Follow Leave No Trace principles so future hikers have the same experience and sense of discovery that you do.


  • Touch and entering ruins is vandalism and a federal crime, with stiff penalties including fines and imprisonment.
  • Do not enter ruins
  • Eat your lunch away from the ruins
  • Do not dig around ruins
  • Do not pick up pieces of pottery 
  • Don’t touch rock art. Oil from your hands degrades the rock surface.
  • Don’t make fires near rock art sites.
  • Don’t enhance the petroglyphs with chalk, liquid, or paint.
  • Don’t make rubbings, molds or castings of petroglyphs.
  • Don’t carve, chisel, scratch, engrave, spray paint or write on rock art panels.


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