David Sucec, BCS PROJECT

Tucked in among the arches and the reefs, hundreds of panels of rock art are displayed on the walls of the winding canyons in Utah—painted, pecked, and drawn by Native American artists during the prehistoric past. Many of the most striking rock art panels were created by Utah's first expressionist painters, Western Archaic hunters/gatherers, and while we do not know their name for themselves we have identified their painting style as the Barrier Canyon style.

Utah’s collection of rock art styles rank among the best in the United States—in numbers, in time-depth, and in aesthetic quality. From the thirteen to fifteen apparent styles of Utah rock art, the Barrier Canyon style is generally recognized as the state’s premier prehistoric form. Surprisingly, Barrier Canyon style rock art sites are still being discovered on the Colorado Plateau. When the BCS PROJECT began to document the Barrier Canyon style in 1992, the number of known sites was about 160. By 1998, the number was thought to be about 230. Today, the number of sites is estimated, by some, to be more than 250.

The Barrier Canyon style is unique in Southwest prehistory because its culture was hypothesized entirely from the existence of its rock art—paintings on the canyon walls of the northern Colorado Plateau (southeastern Utah, western Colorado, and northern Arizona). Only recognized, by Southwest archaeologist Polly Schaafsma, as a distinct rock art style some thirty years ago; the Barrier Canyon style has since emerged to be one of the two major Archaic-period painted rock art styles in the United States (perhaps in the entire New World). Even when considered on a global scale, the Barrier Canyon style is a remarkable body of visual images.

Archaic Painting Style
The style seems to have great time-depth. In 1990, Schaafsma estimated the origins of the Barrier Canyon style to fall within the time-span of a cultural strata archaeologists assigned to the early Archaic period—between ca. 6925 b.c.e. and 4725 b.c.e. The terminal dates between c.e. 500 and 700. In 1994, Utah archaeologists Alan Schroedl and Nancy Coulam published recalibrated radiocarbon numbers for the strata that pushed the dates back another 400 to 500 years—between ca. 7400 b.c.e. and 5100 b.c.e.

The early dates are based on the recovery, in the late 1970's, of a number of hand-sized clay figurines and figurine fragments during the excavation of Cowboy and Walters Caves by archaeologist Jesse Jennings and the University of Utah. The caves are about eight miles upcanyon from the Great Gallery and the clay figurines were found to be a match in style to some of the Barrier Canyon style painted images.

At several rock art sites, there are instances of Fremont and Hisatsenom (Anasazi) Pueblo images superimposing Barrier Canyon style images. However, there are no known examples of Barrier Canyon style images overlaying those of the Pueblo and Fremont styles. Evidently, Barrier Canyon style rock art predates both these styles. The early Pueblo style dates to about c.e. 750 and the Fremont becomes apparent, in the archaeological record, at about c.e. 100 – 400.

General Barrier Canyon Style Characteristics
In addition to its impressive time-depth, five general style features seem to characterize the Barrier Canyon style. The style is noted for 1) its two dozen or so large rock art sites (galleries of 90 to 300 feet in length) exemplified by the Great Gallery and the Harvest Panel in Canyonlands National Park. 2) The consistent attention given to aspects of visual form and virtuoso painting techniques. 3) Its life-size to heroic scale anthropomorphic figures such as the Holy Ghost. 4) An unusually large number of variations, variety of form-types, particularly spirit figures, within the image-inventory of the style. And 5) compositions apparently representing friendly associations of animal, bird, snake and plant images with anthropomorphic spirit figures.

Large Rock Art Galleries
Of Utah’s many impressive prehistoric rock art sites, none is more striking than the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Wayne County, Utah. The Great Gallery is the type-site for the Barrier Canyon style and the largest of the Barrier Canyon style rock art gallery sites. More than 300 feet in width, the Great Gallery contains more than 60 figures, many of which are anthropomorphs of life.

Typically, the billboard-sized galleries are not found near habitation sites but are often in very visible locations near the mouths or junctions of long canyons. These paneled canyons would have afforded the nomadic people, in their annual seasonal rounds, passage through difficult terrain to and from higher ground. Walking in these canyons, it is not difficult to imagine the significance these ancient rock art galleries would have held for the individual viewers representing hundreds of generations of a dynamic people—who lived on the Colorado Plateau for at least six thousand years.

At all the large Barrier Canyon style rock art sites, life-size human-like figures are prominent. It also appears that many of the anthropomorphic images were painted by different individuals—across an extended time-span, most likely millennia. Yet, considering the indicated time-depth, there are surprisingly few occurrences of image-superimposition within the style and this holds true for all Barrier Canyon rock art sites, large and small.

Image-Making Techniques and Materials
Like the European Stone-Age cave painters, the Barrier Canyon painters were artists who were skillful in image-making, designing and composing groups of figures. They possessed an unusually wide range of painting (pictograph) and pecking (petroglyph) techniques and a mastery of the painting process.

The Barrier Canyon artists painted freely, using a variety of reds (typically a rust-red but ranging from dark purple/brown to light red/orange) made from red ochre or iron oxide (hematite). Frequently they used white and occasionally other colors such as muted greens, yellows, blues and black. The binder, or bonding agent (that keeps pigments or color particles from falling apart when they dry), is not known but, in a few dated instances, there is an indication of some unspecified organic material.

The body or consistency of the paint also varies—from thin washes of color to thickly applied color (impasto). Paint was applied with brushes, fingertips, and hands, with fiber wads and, in one figure, by spraying or blowing paint from the. Occasionally, long splatters of paint, flipped from a brush or paint container, are seen below, above, or between carefully designed and painted anthropomorphic images. A few major figures have been constructed by layering applications of paint or over-painting.

Many Barrier Canyon style painted images are also incised or scratched with vertical lines, wavy lines, and zig-zag patterns. Occasionally, painting techniques are combined with pecking techniques. Barrier Canyon style images are also found pecked, scratched and abraded into the rock without paint. And, finally, a number of images have been drawn directly on the rock walls with pieces of unprocessed red ochre.

Anthropomorphic Figures
Unlike the great rock art galleries of animal paintings in Europe, anthropomorphic images dominate the image inventory of the Barrier Canyon style, both in size and number. They appear in three forms: the spirit figure, the citizen figure and the composite figure. Regardless of type, most Barrier Canyon style anthropomorphic images are represented in an elongated form.

The spirit figure is often seen without arms and/or legs (an image used in other cultures to represent a spirit). The head of the spirit figure can have large, over-sized eyes (with or without pupils); occasionally antennae, ears or horns, and a line or pair of lines arched over the head. The torso frequently incorporates water/life-giving symbols (vertical parallel lines, lines of dots, wavy lines, zig zag lines, and snake images).

While spirit figures are invariably the tallest images at their sites (one figure is estimated at more than nine feet in height), they can be painted, pecked or scratched in any size, including a miniature scale (less than three inches in height). It appears (219 sites) that about eighty -five to ninety percent of anthropomorphic Barrier Canyon style images are of the spirit figure type.

With a few exceptions, the citizen figure is quite small, less than six inches in height, always with arms and legs and in active postures. The citizen figure can also have an elongated torso and short arms and legs but is usually in rough proportion. The hairstyle and patterns of body painting may also vary but, when present, the body painting suggests the vertical, linear motif of the spirit figures.

Also few in number and apparently not representing anything from this material world, composite figures are combinations of body-parts from dissimilar species. They are seen in several combinations of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic composites. Anthropomorphic torsos may have sheep heads with snake tongues, wings, birds-feet or plant roots for feet. Snake bodies may have sheep heads with bird’s legs and feet. Sheep torsos may have canine heads, human arms and hands, or bird feet.

Variant Spirit Figures
Most likely, the BCS artists or image-makers were from related small Archaic bands and groups who, if they were like other hunter/gatherers, assembled together in larger groups only once or twice a year when food resources were plentiful. Within a style-life of perhaps more than 6,000 years and a cultural territory roughly 250 miles north to south and 135 miles east to west, one would expect to find some stylistic variation within the imagery.

Although several variations of spirit figure types are apparent, there are, surprisingly, only a few instances of image superimposition within the style. The apparent succession of unsuperimposed images at the large galleries indicate an uncommon regard was held, by the artists, for the earlier variant images. The locations of the large galleries within the culture area and the preponderance of certain variant images at particular sites suggests that some variants are of the spatial order—representing, perhaps, several cultural branches. And, in addition, a very limited temporal sequence has been established through superimposition of variant spirit figures. The clearest sequences are seen at the public galleries at Buckhorn Wash and Courthouse Wash.

In addition to the painted spirit figure variants, at least two variants of clay figurines have been identified. Found in several dry caves, the most common type has an unfired gray or red body, is hand-size, with lines of punctuated dots (form punctured while wet). These figurines date from ca. 5600 b.c.e to ca. 4600 b.c.e. The other variant is represented by a single, hardened or fired, red figurine with traces of red ochre. Excavated from Walters Cave by Jennings, the red figurine is apparently older but its dates are not certain. Possible dates range from 8030 b.c.e. to about 4600 b.c.e. Vertical parallel lines have been engraved (using an indirect percussive technique) on the front of the figurine from head to base. Both of these figurine variants have corresponding variants among the painted images at the Great Gallery.

Intimate Relations
At many Barrier Canyon rock art panels; animal, bird, snake and plant images are seen in a "friendly" association with both spirit and composite figures. The compositions do not appear to be representations of hunting scenes—images of hunter and prey. Rather, their posture often suggests a familiar, even a familial, relationship. In the apparent intimate association of their figures, these compositions differ significantly from the anthropomorph and animal compositions that are seen in other Utah and Southwest rock art styles.

Some animal forms appear as if they are attracted to the spirit figure—approaching the figure rather than running away or appearing indifferent. Rabbits can be seen standing on or running along the outstretched arm of several spirit figures. Bird images can be seen flying toward, around, and between spirit figures. Bird, snake and quadruped images are seen hovering over the heads, off the shoulders or flanking certain spirit figures. A few bird-like images even appear to be balancing on the upturned hands of the spirit figures.

Spirit figures are frequently shown holding snake forms in their hands or connected to the end of a handless arm or shoulder. An Indian Rice Grass plant grows out of the fingertip of one spirit figure and roots grow down from the soles of the feet of another.

The presence of this type of relational (figure/animal) motif is also considered, by many, to be evidence that there was a shamanistic tradition alive, at least during a certain period of time, among these Western Archaic people.

The Holy Ghost in Space
The aesthetic center of the Great Gallery is the Holy Ghost Group—certainly the most striking Barrier Canyon style composition and, very likely, the most remarkable prehistoric painting on the Colorado Plateau. The size and elevated locations of the Holy Ghost images rarely fail to impress visitors to this well-known site; yet, what distinguishes this panel, among other Utah prehistoric rock art sites, is its masterful design and sophisticated spatial construction(s).

The Holy Ghost composition has the appearance of visual depth. At a distance, it is easy to see the composition, framed by a shallow arch, as a group of dark figures standing, or hovering, around (behind, in front, and to the sides) a tall light figure (Holy Ghost) which is, literally and figuratively, "head and shoulders" above them. In addition, the head of the Holy Ghost is represented in a three-quarter view—the only three-dimensional representation of an anthropomorphic head in Utah and, probably, the United States.

We are accustomed to seeing convincing representations of visual space in the paintings of today but this interest (on the part of the artist) in recreating a three-dimensional space on a flat surface really only extends, scholars think, to the classical Greeks (ca. 300 b.c.e.) and, certainly, the European Renaissance (ca. c.e. 1400). The Holy Ghost Group was probably painted before 2,000 b.c.e., perhaps well before.

What could account for this early, clearly intentional5, representation of the space of the "real world"—in a world of prehistoric rock art, which was, for tens of thousands of years, dominated by a flat-looking, frontal or profile, two-dimensional image and format or visual space?

This question is one of many that are provoked by the elegant and haunting Barrier Canyon style figures and compositions. Yet as scholars seek to unlock the mysteries of these paintings of surprising originality and beauty; they are being degraded and destroyed by vandalism and are weathering away from natural processes and age. Although virtually unknown, the Barrier Canyon style rock art images constitute an important part of the aesthetic heritage of the Western Archaic culture.