Rock Art

What is rock art?

Rock art is a form of communication that has been practiced around the world for thousands and thousands of years. It is an attempt to preserve a message or information for more than a day (Loosle, 1998). There are two categories of rock art: petroglyphs and pictographs. A petroglyph is an image that has been pecked or scratched into the rock. A pictograph is an image that has been painted onto the rock. These two practices can be combined so that pecking and painting could be used to create a figure. These figures are often displayed in prolific areas for all to see. Smooth-faced cliffs (often facing a preferred direction) and boulders with desert varnish are the most chosen canvases of rock artists. The dating of rock art is an expensive and usually destructive. None of the rock art in the area has been dated by such techniques, instead contextual evidence is used. Ceramic anthropomorphs from Fremont sites have been found that resemble the same forms found in the rock art. And because of the similar stylistic characteristics, the rock art is considered Fremont.

Classic Vernal Style

The Classic Vernal Style of rock art is characterized by anthropomorphs that have trapezoidal torsos (broad shoulders and narrow waists), large heads, well-defined extremities, and necklaces. These figures have a dominating and commanding presence on the panel. They are often shown with head ornaments, earrings, and objects in hand. Figures with horns, headdresses, and/or weeping eyes are thought to have certain powers and abilities. The zoomorphs seen vary from mountain sheep to deer to snakes. Abstract and geometric shapes are also found in the same frame as Classic Vernal figures, but do not play a major role as in other Fremont cultures.

Example of Classic Vernal Style rock artWhen compared to the rock art of other Fremont cultures, it is easy to see how the artists who perfected the Classic Vernal Style emphasized technical design, execution, decoration, and geometry. If one were to put a Classic Vernal panel side by side with panels from Nine Mile Canyon, San Rafael, and San Juan II, the differences would be apparent. The panel from Nine Mile would have zoomorphs as the most dominant figures and all the forms would be smaller. Virtually absent are the details and ornate decorations from the anthropomorphs. There would also be more abstract and geometric forms. The San Rafael panel would be crowded and very busy with figures that are carelessly executed and ill defined. Larger figures are rare and the anthropomorphs are simplified. Finally, the San Juan II panel would have figures with smaller heads, drooping feet, and very simple ornamentations.


No one really knows what the rock art is trying to say and most often people see what they want to see. Every panel scene is different and relates a story known only to the Fremont. The following categories are just a sample of hypotheses developed by archaeologists to explain why the rock art was created.

Event Commemoration: These panels depict important events in the lives of the local Fremont ranging from battles to astronomical occurrences.

Hunting (aka Sympathetic magic): These scenes show the desired goal of a hunting episode.

Example of map type rock art.Maps: These panels are believed to be maps of some kind. Some believe that they might be migration routes or Spanish treasure maps. Others think that they are trail-markers or sign posts.

Ritualistic Seasonal Events: The rock art may have been used to indicate times of the year for rituals and planting.

Shamanistic Visions: These panels depict what shamans would see when they entered trances. Once out of the trance, the shamans would record the images or scenes on rocks.

Territorial Marker: These panels could be interpreted in two ways: 1.) Used to show that one has crossed into certain clan’s territory or 2.) Used to teach important information about a group’s or local area’s history.