Ancient Rock Art: The Petroglyphs and Pictographs of Moab

“Stop!” I barked out, startling Bill… who at that point had no idea what was on my mind. “Park over there, by that car on the other side of the road.” With an eye roll (I’m sure of it), Bill passed by the cliff, did a u-turn, and then pulled over in the spot I’d indicated.

Being sick and unable to ride my trusty steed on the incredible Moab mountain biking trails, I’d been acting as shuttle for Bill to do some fun rides in the area. As I sat in the car, attempting to read a book, I was very distracted. Looking around the desert with its cliffs and mesas, my mind, curiously, was preoccupied with finding petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs and pictographs, ancient forms of rock art, of communication, of pictorial mapping…  hold such fascination for me. They can be thousands of years old. Perhaps it’s my love of any rock, or my fascination with the development of creative expression throughout human history, but those ancient pictures, painted (pictographs) or chiselled (petroglyphs) on cliff faces, are inspiring. Intriguing. They fill my mind with questions. And with stories imagined of lives lived, and the experiences that might have shaped individual personalities and the development of our shared culture.

Driving out from the trailhead parking lot, Bill took the wheel, sweat drenched, dusty and happy from the thrill of his ride, beside me. Quiet and preoccupied, I concentrated on the cliffs as we hurtled by. My mind still on those petroglyphs. Where were they? Could I find some? If I looked carefully enough, could I spot them?

And then, that magical “Stop!” moment… I’d spotted some at last!

The car had hardly come to rest when I burst out the door, onto the gravel shoulder. “Look! There! At the base of that cliff!” Without waiting for poor Bill, I made my way up to the chiselled carvings, past huge boulders at the base of the cliff. Bill followed in my wake, which was an easy thing to do, given the way I was stopping frequently, hacking away with the strain of breathing while going up the slightest of inclines.

IMG_2804 2
That black patch of varnish across from the boulder has the carvings on it that I spotted from the road.
Can you see them now?

The first petroglyphs we saw were the kind that are hammered out of the varnish of the rock.  An ancient form of graffiti? I don’t think so. A permanent testament to an ancient people, they most likely they tell stories, indicate maps, and delineate special places, giving advice and direction (along with a healthy dose of awe and reverence) to those who happen upon them.

And that’s when we happened on the man. His was the car that we’d parked alongside on the road.  He’d been out searching for ancient rock art, too. Having just emerged from the canyon across the road, he approached us and said, “Did you see Intestine Man, over there? It’s a really famous one.”IMG_2799.jpg

Intestine Man was a painted pictograph. Its detail was incredible, despite the crude way the people were drawn on either side of the clearly dissected man. Eerie, its morbidity brought so many questions to mind.

Can you see the painting, a few metres to the left of Bill, just past the cleft in the rock? It sure blends in, eh?

We’d had to scramble up and then shimmy along a ledge of rock to get close enough to see, and marvel at the detail, in the painting. Does intestine man, and the macabre scene, have an audience?

“Did you see the ones across the highway?” he shouted up to us, as he was preparing to leave. “I just came out of Seven Mile Canyon, and there were lots along the base of the cliffs in there.” He gestured over to the cliff across the road, and to a primitive gate leading into the canyon. If that isn’t an invitation to adventure, I don’t know what is!IMG_2806

We thanked him with a thumbs up and a wave. As he got into his vehicle and pulled away, we spent a little while longer marvelling at the detail in the gruesome pictograph, then scrambled down to ground level. As we approached the roadside, I said “Let’s go see if we can find what he saw!” Bill, wanting me to have some fun in what was left of our vacation, humoured me, locked up the car, and headed out slowly across the highway with me. (I’m sure I heard him muttering something about missing his coffee under his breath.)

Two cliffs marked the entrance to the canyon. Streaked with black, they held promise of treasure, to be sure!

From a distance, it’s hard to make out any petroglyphs. But walk along the base of that cliff, and a whole world opens up, waiting to be explored. Can you see them?
Can you see them now? These are more petroglyphs… the chiselled type of ancient rock art.
How about now?
With snakes (or is that a river?), feet of varying sizes, animals and mountains, this petroglyph certainly told a story.
Look at the line of dots up high… surely this one is a map? And look at the magnificent stature and head dress of the person on the right. Full of confident body language, I wouldn’t mess with him! (Could it be a her?) Were there more carvings to the right that have since eroded away?

It’s fascinating to try to find the rock art of the area, so I will keep the secret of where, exactly, we spotted them to myself and let you marvel at what we found. What stories they tell of both historic and prehistoric times! We’ll never know for sure what they mean, but they’re fascinating puzzles nevertheless.

If You Go…

  • Look for flat, varnished surfaces at the base of cliffs, at man-height with caves/overhangs nearby. Varnish is the hard black coating that forms on desert cliffs from the action of oxidation of minerals like manganese, and the actions of extremophile bacteria and they take well to chipping out primitive pictures. Those landscape details seemed to be the common thread we noticed in the locations of the petroglyph rock art we found.
  • Look for flat, smooth red sandstone areas at the base of cliffs for pictographs (the ancient painted images), often at man-height. And if you spot one painted image, there’s a very good chance that there are others in the nearby vicinity.
  • The Moab area is full of petroglyphs and pictographs. While you can go see them (from a distance) at protected places like the Newspaper Rock, just wandering around on your own you’ve a good chance of seeing them. Climb Utah has some great detail on Newspaper Rock, if you’d like to go there.
  • Should you want to find out more, go to Discover Moab’s page on Moab’s Rock Art Sites.
  • Many of the stores and galleries in town sell rocks with imitation petroglyphs of some of the popular figures scratched into their surfaces. While they’re nearly all the same, clearly sourced from the same artist, they’re an inexpensive and fun souvenir of a fascinating place.
  • This goes without saying, so I’ll direct it at the selfish idiot who jackhammered dinosaur tracks out of the Moab rock in 2014…. Look, don’t touch. Marvel, be inspired and amazed, but take only photographs.
  • I’ll leave you with the advice of the Discover Moab site:

Rock art sites on federal lands are nationally protected areas. The art is extremely fragile, once damaged the site can never be repaired to its original condition. Please avoid even touching the rock surface. Surprising as it may seem, the oils in a single handprint can chemically affect the rock surface. Take care so that others may marvel at these fragile and beautiful remains of the past. You will see evidence of vandalism such as bullet impacts, names and dates incised on the rock surface, remains of latex molds and chalk marks. Do not attempt to remove any form of vandalism, including signatures, dates and names. Site repair requires technical expertise and can be made more difficult by the good intentions of those without highly developed skills.


2 Comments on “Ancient Rock Art: The Petroglyphs and Pictographs of Moab

  1. Drat! What bad luck to become sick on vacation. Been there as well, I’m afraid. Be well soon. We’ve found some rock art ourselves and are fascinated by it. I wonder what sort of world these people lived and died in so very long ago.

    We’re in Moab now, hooked up cheek to jowel in an RV Park for four nights, squandering water and electricity like we had an unlimited supply of both. We’ve been boondocking, mostly, and living the solitary life whilst living off solar and our tanks. Stimpy is good for up to ten days that way but we have to ration water aggressively – especially for showering and dishwashing. “Navy” showers for sure. RV parks are a poor substitute, though. We both love the big sky.

    Get well soon and say hi to Bill.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry about the accommodation! It is crazy busy there. I think the word is out. Have fun…. and I look forward to photos of your hikes and adventures. Maybe your petroglyphs finds too??? Thanks, too, for the kind words. One day at a time, right?

      Liked by 2 people

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