The Procession Panel

Nothing prepared me for the Procession Panel despite all the rock art my hubby and I had seen over the years.
The Procession Panel is a famed tableau carved in a cliff face on the east side of Comb Ridge, and, as its name indicates, portrays a procession of three long lines of people from the west, east, and south heading toward a big circle in the middle.
It was reportedly discovered by hikers in the early 1990’s. However, with the many indigenous peoples, early Eastern explorers, and cowboys who traveled through the region, I find it difficult to believe the hikers were the very first to view the panel, but that was the first time it came to the attention of archaeologists.
The fall afternoon when we discovered the panel was beautiful with clear blue skies and cool temperatures. I loved hiking up Comb’s tilted sandstone slope even though it taxed my lungs and legs.
I huffed, puffed, and sweated, but our Saturday outings were a welcome break from our usual workweek when we were all too often engrossed in our cell phones or computers.
After we reached the panel, we weren’t positive all of the figures were heading toward the great kiva, which the circle seemed to represent.
Ted wondered if instead it depicted a migration from the sipapu, the place of emergence for the Puebloan people.
Certainly, when we examined our photos later, some people seemed to be facing away from the center, but they could have been dancing, twirling around with arms raised overhead.
Most archaeologists believe the panel represents a great gathering, whether real or visionary, and was created during the Basketmaker III period from 500 AD to 750 AD.
One archaeologist even counted the number of people—179 to be exact.
I admired how the artist or artists portrayed so much with such economy of line, especially considering the difficulty of carving on sandstone.
Some people carried staffs, baskets, or flutes, one had a bird on his head, some wore headdresses while others were stick figures, delineated as human by the mere suggestion of heads, torsos, arms, and legs.
The artists had also carved animals into the rock, including deer, big horned sheep, and a coyote along with atlatls and a spear protruding from a five-toed deer. A horned serpent undulated underneath.
As Andrew Gulliford points out in his Durango Herald article, “In Southeastern Utah, the Procession Panel Speaks across Time,” the images show “a fundamental shift in the lives of prehistoric Pueblo peoples. A millennium ago, individual ceremonies and rituals gave way to group events.”
I wondered if the petroglyphs were a type of art magic, depicting a ceremonial gathering which drew people from three quarters of the region, and once in the great kiva, they would enact the creation of their world.
Mircea Eliade, in his classic book, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, discusses how civilizations around the world created sacred space, a place where the three dimensions of existence were connected: chaos, earth, and heaven.
By imitating the work of the gods in creating a world, humans gained the ability to break through from their “profane,” everyday existence to the divine. Chaos was sometimes envisioned as a serpent, water monster, dragon, or giant over which societies built their worlds.
During the act of creation, religious leaders placed or designated a sacred staff, pole, pillar, tree, or mountain in the center, which Eliade calls the axis mundi, enabling access to all three vertical planes of existence with the intent to contact the heavens.
Once heavenly power was tapped, their world flowed out horizontally from the axis mundi in the four directions.
That creative act of making a world was repeated through ritual time after time, giving people direct access to the divine, which Eliade describes as “a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world....”
He recounts an experience of an Australian tribe who, rather than planting their sacred pole in one place, carried it with them, thus taking their world wherever they went.
When the pole accidentally broke, the traumatized tribe wandered around for a while without any sense of direction and eventually lay down to die.
Eliade writes, “. . . human existence is possible only by virtue of this permanent communication with the sky . . .. Life is not possible without an opening toward the transcendent; in other words, human beings cannot live in chaos” (34).
He notes, however, that not all humans were drawn to communicating with the sky realm.
In The Sacred and the Profane, published in 1957, he talks about how “industrialized man” no longer believed in the spiritual dimension.
Although he overgeneralized, many people from that era did, in fact, view the world as a gigantic machine with individuals as cogs in the wheels, so their lives were fraught with futility.
Living in the 21st Century is much different than during the industrialized period, but with Zoom meetings, emails, texts, Netflix, Google, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence, I wondered how much credence our culture gives to accessing the heavens.
Fortunately, in San Juan County, where the land is saturated with ancient, sacred art and where people with diverse beliefs, cultures, and backgrounds come together to pray for rain and snow, obviously many still believe in the transcendent.
In this season of gratitude, I’m profoundly grateful for that

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