Ancient Art Stands the Test of Time

Last summer, I had an opportunity to see some of the older art that's available for viewing in the Americas. In July, we visited the Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah. This enormous monument includes the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers, a large quarry of dinosaur fossils, Native American petroglyphs and pictographs, incredible geology, rugged scenery and, in the summer, of course, heat!

Cub Creek cliff petroglyphs overview

It was the petroglyphs that held a special fascination for me. Many petroglyphs are found fairly low and would have been easy to design and to work on. I mean that relatively -- the actual carving of the stone with perhaps a stone chisel would have taken days, weeks, even months. Others are found high on sheer cliffs, and these left me amazed at the ingenuity of their designers. Some are not particularly beautiful; others show an incredible attention to detail, and especially so under such difficult conditions.


This cliff along Cub Creek in the Utah side of the monument, just a few miles from the dinosaur quarry, has what were, to me, the most beautiful petroglyphs. The very prominent lizard catches the eye, and leads to so many other examples of art by the Uintah Fremont people. While I was researching this artwork, I discovered that the cliff is very close to an area of visible fossilized dinosaur tracks - which closely resemble the prints made by the small lizards that inhabit the area today. Could it be that the artists saw these tracks and interpreted giant lizards (dinosaurs) into their art?

Closer view of the petroglyphs

This question was posed by the writer of a piece I found about the Cub Creek petroglyphs. It becomes even more interesting when viewing the group of images on this section of the cliff where at least a half-dozen lizards appear to be focused on or stalking a small human figure shown just above one of the large lizards. This human figure is about a foot long, and approximately 15 feet up the cliff face.


However, my own interest in the petroglyphs at this location centered on the amazing and intricate detail of the most prominent lizard figure, as well as its placement on the cliff. In real life, this lizard is at least 6 feet long, and is placed high enough on the cliff that it would have required the artist to be on a ladder or scaffolding of some type. This lizard image is also more carefully incised into the rock face, and with greater attention to realism than any of the other art that surrounds it. When zoomed in, the chipping is much more precise, closely packed and deeper than on any other petroglyphs I saw while we were there. There are at least 8 lizards depicted in the portion of the cliff face shown above, but only that one is super-sharp to this day, perhaps 1000 years after it was completed.

A lizard can be seen more than halfway up the cliff face

These were not the highest petroglyphs on this particular cliff. As seen to the right, a single lizard is shown just about halfway up the height of the cliff. I keep wondering how its artist (or artists!) managed to reach this particular spot. Was he lowered from above on ropes like window washers? That doesn't seem practical - although yucca fiber ropes have the greatest tensile strength - for the many, many hours of work involved. Was a scaffold built, that could hold the weight of more than one artist as they worked together to chip away the desert varnish and make a figure that would be visible from a distance? (Again, this lizard is at least 6 feet long and begins about 10 feet above the tiny ledge which is itself high above the trail. Figure a 30-foot scaffold?) Did they also use ropes from above as a safety measure? Was it a work by a team? Did anyone fall in the process of creating this image? Why was this one set apart from all the others? Was it finished? When zoomed in, the tail does not show the same attention as the body of the lizard; it is more faded and the individual chips seem to be more widely spaced. Additionally, its tip is bulbous, rather than pointed as with all the others nearby, which brought up another series of questions in my head.


I haven't even included the human figures, the exceptionally intriguing image that looks like a vase full of flowers or a fountain spouting water, or the dot art, or the... well, you get the picture. Altogether, this tiny sample of ancient art exemplifies the individual tastes and vision of the creators - some realistic and detailed, others abstract or evoking the spare representations of Japanese sumi-e or Chinese ink wash illustrations - and the fact that they were people just like us but who happened to live many hundreds of years ago. I wish I could interview some of these artists to find out their reasons for what they created, to understand their lives and loves, to know them as individuals. And I highly recommend viewing their art in person wherever in the world petroglyphs are found. #petroglyph #travel #prehistory #NativeAmericanart #paleontology @DDethlefPhoto @DeniseDPhotos


Please check out my own (much newer) art at my website, www.denisedethlefsen.com. If you want to keep up with my ramblings about travel, art, photography and nature, as well as new photo art as it's posted, please 'sign up to stay connected.'

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