Rock art figures created by ancient Native Americans can be seen in several places in Capitol Reef National Park. Most are attributed to the Fremont Culture, which existed in areas of Utah from approximately AD 600 – 1300. The Fremont people were contemporaries of the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) of the Four Corners area.
Very impressive petroglyph figures can be seen along a sheer cliff that parallels Hwy 24 just east of the Visitor Center in Capitol Reef. The figures cover several rock panels and the diversity of images is astonishing. A road sign identifies the area, which includes a parking turnout. Boardwalks and viewing platforms have been established to make it easy for visitors to see the figures.
The rock art is a must-see attraction along the main highway through the park. Another rock art panel can be seen in Capitol Gorge, and there are more rock art figures in some backcountry areas.
Fremont pictographs (painted on rock surfaces) and petroglyphs (carved or pecked into the rock) depict people, animals and other shapes and forms. Anthropomorphic (human-like) figures usually have trapezoidal shaped bodies with arms, legs and fingers. The figures are often elaborately decorated with headdresses, ear bobs, necklaces, clothing items and facial expressions. A wide variety of zoomorphic (animal-like) figures include bighorn sheep, deer, dogs, birds, snakes and lizards. Abstract designs, geometric shapes and hand prints are also common.
The meaning of rock art is unknown. Artists may have recorded religious or mythological events, migrations, hunting trips, resource locations, travel routes, celestial information and other important knowledge. Many archeologists propose that rock art uses symbolic concepts that provide an observer with important information and that it was not simply artistic expression.
Some day we may better understand rock art, but only if these sites are not destroyed. The slightest touch removes fine granules of sand and leaves behind a residue of sweat and oil. Please refrain from touching the panels. If you see anyone damaging rock art or any archeological site, report it immediately to a park ranger.
The Fremont culture was named for the Fremont River Valley in which sites were discovered and first defined. The Fremont people lived in pit houses (dug into the ground and covered with a brush roof) and natural rock shelters. Their social structure was likely composed of small, loosely organized bands consisting of several families. Their lives were tied closely to nature and they had to remain flexible, adapting to changes in their environment.
Additional information is available from Capitol Reef Natural History Association, a non-profit cooperating association that sells publications on Capitol Reef’s cultural and natural history.
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