The Trowel and the Drum

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Dry Fork Canyon

TRACCE no. 10 – by Jeffery R. Hanson

The Trowel and the Drum: contrastive Approaches to Rock Art.
Located on the McKonkie Ranch in the Dry Fork Canyon near the town of Vernal, canyon walls contain some of the most spectacular examples of prehistoric petroglyphs…

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Research in Northeastern Utah – USA

Located on the McKonkie Ranch in the Dry Fork Canyon near the town of Vernal, canyon walls contain some of the most spectacular examples of prehistoric petroglyphs (images carved or pecked into rock) in the United States. Field work during the summers of 1996 and 1997 by the University of Texas-Arlington resulted in the recording of over 120 panels of petroglyphs extending along sandstone canyon walls for over one mile. These petroglyphs exhibit a wide variety of forms, ranging from detailed anthropomorphic and zoomorphic images to astronomical and geometric shapes.

Dry Fork Canyon - Utah

Dry Fork Canyon petroglyph Uintah Freemont culture – Utah

To date approximately one third of the petroglyphs have been illustrated and interpreted. It is estimated that it will take another three field seasons to complete the recording process on all panels. This detailed documentation is necessary because the petroglyphs are fragile. Some panels are exfoliating naturally, destroying images, while vandalism and graffiti have also damaged many panels. The recording techniques are also necessary because they form the data base with which to achieve the goals of the project.

We have chosen the metaphors of the trowel and the drum because they convey the two contrastive approaches and paradigms of the research.

The Two Voices: Science and Religion

The overall goals of this project are threefold:

  1. to discover the historical and cultural context of the Dry Fork Canyon petroglyphs
  2. to interpret the meaning of the petroglyphs
  3. to promote public awareness of these petroglyphs as fragile, irreplaceable cultural resources and as active Native American sacred sites which currently provide spiritual and religious inspiration.
Dry Fork

Dry Fork Canyon petroglyph Uintah Freemont culture – Utah

The unique aspect of this project is that to accomplish these goals, two contrasting perspectives or “voices” have been incorporated: archaeology, with its emphasis on empirical scientific processes and linear logic; and the religion of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, which emphasizes a relational logic within a holistic spirit world.

The archaeological Voice

Archaeologically, the petroglyphs of northeastern Utah, including those within the Dry Fork Canyon, have been associated with the prehistoric Freemont Culture. The Freemont Culture is a name given to a set of archaeological remains found within the general region of Utah and western Colorado which date to between AD 300 and 1000. Remains attributed to the Freemont Culture include stone lined pit houses, above ground Pueblo-like architecture, corn cobs, manos and metates (plant grinding stones), projectile points, textiles (baskets and sandals), and complex pictographs (images painted on rock) and petroglyphs. These remains appear to reflect a regional lifestyle of hunting/gathering and horticulture.

In the material culture and the rock art, archaeologists have suggested that the Freemont peoples were influenced by the Anasazi Pueblo peoples to the south (architecture, corn, and especially the rock art motif called Kokopelli, the diminutive “flute player” symbolic of fertility to modern Pueblo Indians). However, it also appears these influences were shaped and integrated into local cultural traditions.

This is particularly true in northeastern Utah, where the local Freemont Culture, known as the Uintah Freemont, blended southern and local influences in the petroglyphs of Dry Fork Canyon. This “Classic Vernal Style” rock art contains Kokopelli, but also complex murals of anthropomorphs with elaborate headdresses, necklaces, and facial configurations. This style also contains the “shield bearing warrior” motif which is thought to be of Shoshonean derivation. The co-occurance of these motifs are critical to the research because they speak to an important hypothesis regarding the “Numic expansion”: the migration of Shohonean speaking peoples from the area of southeastern California sometime before the AD 1000, and whether the archaeological culture known as Uintah Freemont can be linked with groups such as the Eastern Shoshone and Ute, both known to have inhabited the region during historic times. The research at Dry Fork Canyon can explicitly address these archaeological questions, as the archaeological voice presumes these petroglyphs to have been made by humans.

An Eastern Shoshone Voice

The petroglyphs are being interpreted by spiritual practitioner and Sun Dance chief John Tarnesse of the Eastern Shoshone, a tribe that currently lives on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Consistent with general patterns of Shoshone religion, John believes that areas where petroglyphs occur are “houses of power”, places of spiritual inspiration and knowledge. These are places where individuals pray, fast, and communicate with the spirits that inhabit the area.

Dry Fork

Dry Fork Canyon petroglyph Uintah Freemont culture – Utah

As an example of this, while interpreting one petroglyph panel during the 1996 field season, John received a song from one of the anthropomorphic figures, and used this song in his Sun Dance in 1997. Further, it is his belief that the origin of the petroglyphs lie in divine rather than human hands. According to this belief, the pecked figures were made by spirits and the carved or “incised” figures were made by the ninabineh, “little people” thought to inhabit the region prior to humans. It is John’s belief that much of the sickness and misfortune occurring among the Shoshone and other Native Americans stems from a separation from the Native religions, and as a healer he believes that the source of healing and well being comes from knowing what the petroglyphs (read spirits) are saying, from protecting them, and respecting them as sacred.

To date, only approximately 50 of the panels have been interpreted. Interestingly, in many of John’s interpretations thus far, a recurring theme of a southern origin for how the spirits present themselves (image motifs) exists. This dovetails with the archaeological voice concerning the Numic expansion.


The metaphor of “voice” is used here because the discourse in prehistory and “rock art” studies has been dominated by the non-Indian scientific community. It has only been in the last few years that members of the Native American community have challenged this hegemony, and have actively sought to be included not only in interpretations about their past, but in policies concerning cultural properties and the treatment of their sacred sites. In this project, both the archaeological and Native perspectives are necessary to provide a more holistic meaning to our past and present.

This project also acknowledges that while contrastive, and in some ways mutually exclusive, these two voices work as a dialectic and bring together an overall knowledge and humanistic understanding of the cultural place of the Dry Fork petroglyphs as something beyond “rock art”, but as places with a cultural context- ritual centers which link us to both the ancient past and the ethnographic present.

Jeffery R. Hanson
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Box 19599
University of Texas-Arlington 76019


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