We found the hidden and amazing "rattlesnake" petroglyph in the Santa Clara River Reserve which led to discoveries of a mix of representational and abstract-geometric designs in the St. George, Utah area.
Utah is the Rock Art State. On March 6, 2017, Utah's governor signed into law designating Native American rock art as Utah's official works of art.
Panel of petroglyphs high above the Santa Clara River on the Anasazi Trail in Ivins, Utah. This area was used by both Ancestral Puebloans and Southern Paiutes.
What do they "mean"?
Thirty years ago, I liked to hike to a single large boulder with a petroglyph of a rattlesnake curved around a recumbent human reaching for a cross in the Indian Canyons of Palm Springs, California (see below). It's made of connected squares, a concentric circle, and a line-enclosed cross. At least that was my interpretation of this petroglyph in the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Reservation. But after reading more about petroglyphs, I've discovered that it might not represent a rattlesnake at all, but a series of connected abstract shapes such as chained squares. Many archaeologists have concluded that questions of "what does this mean?" cannot be answered, especially regarding abstract geometric rock carvings. Instead of attempting to decipher meanings and assign symbols, archaeologists, anthropologists, etc. try to identify patterns in rock art to learn about past cultures and their way of life, and see if designs can be attributable to certain regions. In some cases, however, a definitive symbol or meaning can be attributed to certain petroglyph images, like zigzags that portray lightning to the present-day Hopi Indians. The spiral petroglyph is consistently interpreted as multiple migrations.
In his book, Other Truths not Guessed: The Story of the Sevier Fremont Indian, Kenneth Olsen Kohler says, "The study to interpret the meaning of this pecking or painting may never be found as it lies hidden in the heart of those who understood what they wanted to communicate upon the rock."
** Since writing this post, a reader, who is passionate about petroglyph sites, contacted me with a book recommendation that I found helpful: A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest by Alex Patterson. It is a comprehensive guide to identifying petroglyph symbolism for human-like, animal-like and abstract forms. It illustrates and explains a large array of petroglyphs. Thanks for the suggestion!
Petroglyph in Indian Canyons, Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, Palm Springs, California.
Photograph by Anthony W. Purnel, featured in Palm Springs Life Magazine (see reference below).
A spiral petroglyph on Anasazi Valley Trail, Ivins, Utah
A few months ago, Fred and I met a Bureau of Land Management guy patrolling 4-wheel drive roads near St. George, Utah. He gave us a "tip" about a "rattlesnake" petroglyph on a giant boulder overlooking the Santa Clara River. A short bike ride took us to what might be the boulder we were searching for, but there were no petroglyphs on the side facing the river. It had tumbled down from the vertical cliffs above. We grounded our bikes and made a short steep hike to its backside facing the cliff and there it was - a serpentine form weaving around different abstract images, most of them ovals of connected circles, reminding me of necklaces. The whole rock, petroglyphs included are covered with lichen. The bottom markings are mostly obscured by desert varnish, a thin dark coating made of clay minerals and manganese and iron oxides - more so than the top petroglyphs.
We were amazed that most of this boulder was covered with various carved shapes, including animals, perhaps desert bighorn sheep, which are among the most prevalent animal petroglyphs in the southwest. The lower petroglyphs could have been made before the upper petroglyphs, because they were covered with desert varnish.
Huge boulder with lots of abstract-geometric petroglyphs in the Santa Clara River Reserve near St. George, Utah. The lower petroglyphs are covered more with rock varnish than the top markings.
Both images above are close-ups of "rattlesnake" boulder in Santa Clara River Reserve.
Most of the petroglyphs shown here are located in the Santa Clara River Reserve, administered by the Bureau of Land Management near St. George, Utah. The Anasazi Valley Trail (Tempi'po'op) leads to petroglyphs on tops and sides of sandstone boulders. Many were made about 1,000 years ago by ancestral Puebloans who were farmers in permanent settlements. It must have been an inspiring site for these ancient people because it overlooks the Santa Clara River far below, steadily eroding a route over the millennia, a huge valley of tilted layered rock mesas and drainages, and the Beaver Dam Mountains, snow-covered in winter.
Since moving to the St. George area, petroglyph-finding missions have yielded not only fascinating ancient rock art, but also countless places to explore and a growing appreciation of southern Utah as one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Looks like the head of a snake?
The Tempi'po'op (means "rock writing" in Southern Paiute language) trail near Ivins, Utah. Red Mountain and Snow Canyon State Park in the distance.
The "Geometric Enigma"
Some of the oldest petroglyphs in the New World are 13,000 - 14,000 years old - coinciding with the final stages of the last ice age (Pleistocene epoch). An excellent book, Early Rock Art of the American West: The Geometric Enigma thoroughly discusses abstract-geometric petroglyphs, the oldest form of rock art. In the American West, the authors call this art the "Western Archaic Tradition." It preceded figurative art such as human and animal forms. The authors, who have written other books on prehistoric art, propose theories as to why early American West inhabitants created art, and discuss ancestral minds and symbolism and hypotheses regarding the "peopling" of the Americas.
This book proposes a number of hypotheses explaining why prehistoric humans made abstract markings. The Sexual Duality Hypothesis identified a sexual polarity symbolism which included male signs of dots, barbed elements, short strokes, and spear-thrower signs. Female geometric designs included oval, triangular and quadrangular shapes. The Shamanistic hypothesis indicates that shamans acted as a connection to the spiritual world through altered states of consciousness. The initial stage of the shamanistic trance identifies geometric mental images such as grids, sets of parallel lines, dots and flecks, and zigzags. After emerging from the third stage of shamanistic trance, a participant would pay tribute to their visionary experiences by engraving them on rock surfaces.
Yet a third hypothesis is the Neurovisual Resonance Theory, whose premise is that geometric shapes and patterns are appealing to humans, and they were built into the neural structuring part of our brain millions of years ago. Making these petroglyphs helped humans to feel emotionally rewarded and reinforce survival behavior. The brain's visual cortex "resonates" when geometric shapes and patterns are made and a feedback loop is created that provides the stimulus for making abstract marks.
We may never know exactly why these abstract-geometric designs were made and what specific purposes they had, but we may conclude that they are evidence of the artist's desire to to find meaning by presenting it in a tangible form - a petroglyph. Viewing petroglyphs in an inspirational setting causes one to suspend time for a few minutes and imagine how it was made hundreds and thousands of years ago.
I added some images of petroglyphs from my post Utah's Red Rock Country from other adventures in southeast Utah.
For the Geocurious - The Rock Varnish Enigma
Many petroglyphs are created by carving, pecking, and hammering through a very thin (measured in nanometers), dark coating of desert varnish to reveal the lighter-colored rock underneath. This coating is enriched with iron and manganese oxides that cement clay minerals to the rock and is abundant in arid regions. Some scientists say that it is a sedimentary layer that contains bacterial microorganisms, so it has a microbial origin. How exactly desert varnish is formed is still under debate. Studies use microscale imaging techniques to try and figure out its ingredients. Do microorganisms create varnish or do they use varnish as a habitat? Varnish contains 2 to 3 times more manganese than the underlying rock indicating manganese enrichment. Varnish grows slowly - tens of microns over a thousand years. Lately scientists have considered rock varnish to be of environmental significance because it could show change in paleoclimate through the varying thickness of its manganese layers.
Fully re-patinated spiral on Tempi'po'op Trail. The rock also exhibits slickensides: smooth polished rock surface as a result of frictional movement of rocks along a fault. The direction of the lines runs from top left to bottom right.
The Holy Ghost panel in the Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon, Utah
The tallest painted figure is called the Holy Ghost and is ~ 8 feet in height. These figures are thought to represent spirits.
Utah's Red Rock Country
Slot canyon in Snow Canyon State Park
Wire Pass near Buckskin Gulch in Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area.
Recently added to this post: Every time I go to the Santa Clara River Reserve, I find more petroglyphs!
Ancestral Puebloan-style petroglyph on the Anasazi Valley Trail, overlooking the Santa Clara River.
Petroglyphs from Tempi'po'op Trail
The top two images are from the "rattlesnake" petroglyph in Santa Clara River Reserve. They are positioned on the bottom of the boulder where the carvings appear to have more desert varnish than the upper petroglyphs.
Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, Utah.
Geometric petroglyphs near Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.
Near Snow Canyon State Park. Note the petroglyph on the left is covered with varnish more so than the petroglyphs to the right.
Ancestral Puebloan panel on the Tempi'po'op Trail.
Anasazi Valley Trail
Looking toward the west from the Anasazi Valley Trail over Santa Clara River and Beaver Dam Mountains on the horizon.
These may be an example of the "fat footprints" representative of the Western Virgin Kayenta Style that appear in Puebloan sites in the St. George, Utah area. Overlooking the Santa Clara River.
You can tell the older from the "newer".
Near Snow Canyon
Canyon leading to petroglyphs in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.
Petroglyphs just off the Gila Trail in Snow Canyon State Park. Some appear to be older than others.
Deeply pecked abstract geometric petroglyphs near Gila Trail in Snow Canyon.
Overlooking the Santa Clara River near Ivins.
I just happened to stumble upon this amazing petroglyph as I was trying to find a trail down to my house.
You have to climb through two narrow openings to get to this one, and then there are more petroglyphs higher than this that I was not able to climb to.
I couldn't climb up to this one; this is my best attempt at sticking my camera over my head.
How did they get to these places? Obviously better climbers than me!
There are a few small petroglyphs on this wall.
Cottonwoods along Santa Clara River are just beginning to leaf out.
Santa Clara River Reserve - note petroglyphs on cliffs to the right.
Ivins Reservoir and Red Mountain
Breeding, A. 2019. Written in Stone. Palm Springs Life Magazine. Desert Publications, Inc.
Jones, K. 2019. Standing on the Walls of Time: Ancient Art of Utah's Cliffs and Canyons. University of Utah Press.
Lingappa, U., Yeager, C., Sharma, A., Fischer, W. 6/14/2021. An Ecophysiological Explanation for Manganese Enrichment in Rock Varnish. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (from the internet).
Malotki, E., Dissanayake, E. 2018. Early Rock Art of the American West: A Geometric Enigma. University of Washington Press.
Sue and Fred
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west.
To Subscribe to Explorumentary adventure blog and receive new posts by email:
About the Author