Tom Clyde: Enigmatic pictographs
When I was around 10 years old, I spotted a cave near our house. It’s in a canyon that we hiked and rode horses in all the time. The cave was up on a bit of a cliff face and hard to see in the shadows. I was very excited and described it to my parents. My mother, who was skeptical of anything outdoors, warned me in the strongest way that the cave was surely the home of mountain lions, bears, and I would be dead within seconds of getting anywhere near it. Dad said it was kind of gross.
I did the only reasonable thing. After lunch, my cousin and I went straight to the cave without stopping for a Popsicle. Dad was right. The cave was really gross—filled with pack rat nests and the walls coated with bat poop. It was also disappointingly small. Eventually one of us spotted something on the wall. If we squinted just right, in a bright red color, there was what looked kind of like an antelope or mountain goat, and next to a huge animal, maybe a buffalo, with a spear in it.
I had been to Mesa Verde earlier that summer with my cousin’s family, and was completely enchanted by it. Anyplace I saw two rocks stacked on top of each other, my imagination drew a complete village around them. Any color on a rock that was slightly different had to be a pictograph. Without question, the color on the rock in the back of the cave had to be a message from the ancients.
We dragged my Dad and uncle up to investigate. They both said it was just natural coloration in the rocks, and coincidentally looked like something. They pointed out lots of variations in the rocks, though none of them that vivid red. They explained that the cliff dwelling Indians were in Southern Utah, and the Indians who had lived here didn’t paint on the rocks. That put it to rest for decades. Defeat.
And then a month ago, a neighbor showed up with photos of a big panel of pictographs from a site about 15 miles away. He knew about the marks in the cave, and if there were pictographs down the road, surely what we saw had to be the real deal. I was still skeptical, but contacted the State History people, and a couple of archeologists came out for a look. I was expecting some tweedy old geezer, but instead had two young women who seemed like they were archeologists because they could get paid for rock climbing. They pronounced them to be the real deal. Fremont Indians, over 1,000 years old, and spotted a couple of other places that may have been markings that had washed away to the point that only a trained expert could see them at all. Vindication.
Just as cool was another spot they found with the names of some of the earliest homesteaders in the area written in pencil. I recognized their names, and the date 1883 fixes when their families started farming here. They were teenagers at the time, maybe ducking into the cave to wait out a rain storm, or taking a break from work.
The archeologists visited the other site with my neighbor, and concluded that it was mostly fake, but not entirely. The giveaway was that some cowboy had written his name across the panel in 1883 in exactly the same color of paint as the markings he had written across. Some of them were Fremont, but most of them seemed to be Sherwin-Williams. That was disappointing news because those drawings were far more detailed, including a man in a sombrero, which was not fashionable among the Fremonts. There were strange markings, including something that looked a lot like my grandfather’s cattle brand. It crossed my mind that he might have been the artist, though he didn’t start using that brand until about 1920, and wasn’t even alive in 1883.
The idea of some cowboy or timber cutter in 1883 painting fake pictographs is almost as intriguing as if they were authentic. Why? Where did he learn about that kind of thing? Probably not in the one-room school house in Woodland. Maybe they wintered cattle down in the Bears Ears. Who knows.
The experts are still sorting through what they think is real and what they think is fake. It’s all the same color, with the exception of a black dog that seems to have been added by J.L. Smith in 1904. It ought to be fairly evident which paint is 1,000 years old, and which came in a bucket from Heber Mercantile. But they are quite certain that the drawings in the cave near my house are the real deal. Quite certain.
This morning, I went on a bike ride. On a rock face on the side of the highway, I saw dozens of markings in that vivid red color. Those had to be natural coloration because that rock face was 30 feet deep until UDOT blasted the cliff away to widen the road. So now the whole thing is in doubt again. It’s an enigmatic gift that keeps on giving for somewhere between 150 and 1,000 years.
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