They Painted in the Canyons: Archaic Artists on the Colorado Plateau

Of the thousands of Native American rock art panels in the Southwest, none are older than Barrier Canyon pictographs found throughout the Colorado Plateau and concentrated along rivers, especially the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.
From tiny five-inch animal figures to stunning eight-foot tall human shapes with no arms or legs and alien-like bug eyes, Barrier Canyon Style images are usually a dark blood red color.
They may have been painted 9,000 years ago; many panels are at least 5,000 years old.
Often at the intersections of 700-800 foot canyon walls, I have driven four-wheel drive vehicles and then hiked into remote locations to find these remote panels and photograph these spectacular ochre red paintings.
The images of eerie, elongated figures with shortened arms and legs are hard to decipher.
Of the anthropomorphs, or human figures, only 20 to 25 percent have eyes.
Most have no ears or noses and no way to distinguish gender. Snakes writhe in their hands or above their heads.
Yet circling these fierce, faceless creatures are delicate menageries of exquisitely painted birds, ducks, geese, deer, and occasionally free floating eyeballs with wings.
The artwork is compelling. The locations are often miles from the nearest paved road.
The brush strokes and vibrant paint pigments make the images seem fresh and newly painted, yet one carbon dating of an embedded hair from a paint brush dates from 6750 BCE or before the present time.
The paintings are usually a dark blood-red color, probably made by mixing blood and clay, and possibly using urine as a binder.
The locations are often miles from the nearest road, in the remote recesses of Canyonlands National Park and on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands across Utah, Colorado, northern Arizona, eastern Nevada and parts of Wyoming.
The most famous panels are the Great Gallery, Buckhorn Wash, the Holy Ghost Group, and the Harvest Panel.
Visual artist David Sucec, director of the Barrier Canyon Style Project, and photographer Craig Law teamed up over 25 years ago to begin to inventory this rare Archaic rock art style, which represents some of the oldest outdoor paintings in North America.
The National Endowment for the Humanities, through the Traveling Exhibition Program (TEP) of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums and the Utah Arts Council has funded a small traveling exhibit of 24 photographs plus captions and wall text.
The exhibit will travel for several years across Utah. Now folks who may never venture deep into Colorado Plateau canyons like Sucec and Law do in fall and spring can see these remarkable images.
The Barrier Canyon people did not farm. They had no steady food sources. We have no idea what languages they may have spoken.
They created no distinctive architectural styles, but the art produced by these hunter-gatherers millennia ago stuns observers who come around a corner in a deep canyon and see these enormous panels for the first time.
The “billboard-sized” Great Gallery is 300 feet wide with more than 80 figures, many near life size.
When the team began, Sucec and Law thought there were about 160 Barrier Canyon art sites.
Now they have found close to 450 sites and have studied non-representational motifs, representational motifs, and compositional motifs, which they have found near the mouths or junctions of remote canyons.
“Utah’s first expressionist painters,” Sucec calls them. He adds, “Barrier Canyon style has emerged to be one of the two major Archaic Period painted rock art styles in the United States and possibly in the entire New World.”
Sucec says this is “a style that lasted, if the dates are correct, an amazing seven thousand years.”
He describes “virtuoso image-making techniques” and “life-size to heroic scale anthropomorphic figures such as the Holy Ghost.”
There are no violent depictions, no severed heads, battle scenes, no images of human conflict.
Instead there are “friendly associations of animal, bird, snake and plant images with anthropomorphic spirit figures.”
“Walking in these canyons today,” Sucec explains, “it is not difficult to imagine the significance these ancient rock art galleries would have held for the hundreds of generations of a dynamic people who lived on the Colorado Plateau for a span, perhaps, of more than seven thousand years.”
The time depth and size of the images challenges our perspectives on American art and humanities.
These are not human shapes as we would recognize them.
Rather, they are human-like figures with elongated forms and interior spaces filled in with paint or cross-hatching, wavy lines, dots, zig-zags, and snakes.
Unlike Europe’s ancient cave galleries of painted animals, Barrier Canyon images are composed of spirit figures, citizen figures, and composite figures.
There are no leaping lions or thundering aurochs. Instead these are life forms with antennae and horns.
Almost 90 percent of the images “are of the spirit figure type.”
Composite figures feature “combinations of body-parts from dissimilar species.” Indian Rice Grass grows out of one figure’s fingertips while rabbits gambol on its arm.
The traveling exhibit comes with valuable handouts on “Why Teach Art?,” “The Language of Art,” and, for art detectives from the lower grades, questions about “Ancient Painters: Art in Rock Art” such as “Why was it important for the photographer, Craig Law, to take all these pictures?”
I especially like the question “What forces of nature are destroying some of these works of art?”
There is also a poignant statement from Robert E. Allen, who notes, “We live in an age increasingly ruled by science and technology, a fact that only underscores the need for more emphasis on the arts.
“A grounding in the arts will help our children to see, and to bring a unique perspective to science and technology. In short, it will help them as they grow smarter, to also grower wiser.”
I wonder what the children of the Barrier Canyon artists thought?
Imagine a low-technology lifeway that may have lasted through seven millennia.
What symbols did they share and create? What aspects of their humanity are replicated in ours?
With a small group of friends, we set out to find a few remote Barrier Canyon sites. In side canyons and short slot canyons, we found them.
I’ll not forget a blustery spring day with a storm front moving across Utah.
Seven of us hiked all morning to finally find a few red symbols high on a cliff face shaded by a small alcove. We scrambled up.
There in the silence of the San Rafael Swell the few symbols seen below blossomed into small panels of intricate images expertly drawn in Barrier Canyon style’s signature red paint.
Standing just a few feet from the panels, we could study the masterful brush strokes, the lyrical zoomorphs or animal-like creatures, and the red paint’s perfect preservation.
The artist had added a few white dots and faint white streaks.
Seated on a sandstone ledge, looking south across a vast canyon landscape, rare pictographs just behind my shoulder, the 21st Century melted away.
Time ceased. I thought if we waited, with luck the artist might return. Instead, there was only wind.

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