Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cub Creek Rock Art: Dinosaur National Monument


Dinosaur National Monument, 210,000 acres in size, spans the border between northwest Colorado and northeast Utah. Within the monument is a thick deposit of Jurassic Age dinosaur bones preserved in the lithified sands of an ancient river. Earl Douglass, a paleontologist working for the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh, discovered these fossil bones in a tilted rock layer in 1909. Today, paleontologists have chipped away at this rock layer to reveal an incredible array of dinosaur bones. This remarkable tilted rock forms one entire wall of the Quarry Visitor Center, allowing the public to see the bones preserved in their natural state.
Long after the dinosaurs that roamed what is now the monument vanished, prehistoric people of the area created designs on rock. Throughout this area “rock art” can be seen on many canyon walls as petroglyphs (drawings pecked or carved on a rock surface). Pictographs (drawings painted with natural pigments on a rock surface) are rare in the park. Within a few miles of the Quarry Visitor Center are several remarkable rock art sites along Cub Creek.
The Fremont Culture
The Fremont people created the rock art in the Dinosaur National Monument over 1,000 years ago. These people, named after the Fremont River in south-central Utah, were in the area as early as 200 AD and settled in small villages around 400 AD (Cassells, 1990). Fremont cultural artifacts are found throughout much of the eastern Great Basin Desert, the upper Colorado River and Green River drainage (Hagood and West, 1992).
Unlike their southern neighbors, the Anasazi, the Fremont people did not build large cliff dwellings. Instead, the Fremont —living in small bands—made temporary dwellings above and below the ground. Along Cub Creek, in what is now Dinosaur National Monument, the Fremont people lived in small villages of pit houses—shallow circular pits, dug into the ground and covered with mud, branches, and animal hides stretched over a simple framework of poles. They also lived in rock overhangs, shallow caves, and other natural rock shelters.
The Fremont hunted bighorn sheep, mule deer, bison, and smaller animals to supplement the corn, beans, and squash they grew. They also gathered grass seeds, piƱon nuts, bulbs, and cactus fruits. Tree-ring and radiocarbon techniques have been used to date some Cub Creek sites at around 650 AD (Cole, 1995). Other sites may be older.
The Fremont Culture ended sometime around 1300 AD, perhaps after severe droughts forced them to move, or possible assimilation by the Shoshone who moved into the area from the west and south (Hagood and West, 1992). In fact, the Fremont may never have left and simply evolved into a new group as their lifestyle changed over the centuries.
Mummified remains of the Fremont, along with artifacts, were found in willow-lined graves in the park (Untermann and Untermann, 1969). Treasure hunters, at the close of the 19th century, robbed the graves.

Because the Fremont Culture developed a lifestyle beyond mere subsistence, they had time to create artwork that survived long after they were gone. Their canvasses were smooth surfaces of near-vertical cliff faces and high canyon walls. The Fremont people in the Cub Creek area commonly used the buff-colored Weber Sandstone, formed by both wind and marine deposition during the Pennsylvanian Period.
By chipping or scratching through rock surfaces darkened by desert varnish (a natural deposit of mineral oxides and organic material) with sharp tools, these ancient artists exposed the lighter sandstone beneath, creating drawings of animals, human figures, deities, spirits, and abstract geometric designs.
Although many designs are recognizable, their meanings are not. It is unknown if the rock art was religious, ceremonial, a record of everyday life, or an artistic expression of prehistoric artists. Researchers have compared Fremont rock art with the symbols of more recent native cultures, however interpretations still remain elusive.
The large panel in figure 1 displays themes common to other Fremont sites also in the area: animals, plants, human figures with triangular bodies wearing necklaces, and
geometric designs such as lines and zigzags (Schaafsma, 1995).  Human-like figures, having horns or antennae coming out their head, are visible in figure 2 and 3.  A large dog appears in the left corner.  Different artists worked large panels such as this one over a number of years.  Figure 4 is a depiction of Kokopelli, the flute player. Cub Creek rock art is distinguished by several large lizard figures, like the one in figure 5.

Figure 1.  Rock art of the Fremont people is found on canyon walls of the park.  This panel, near Cub Creek, includes several anthropomorphs, or human-like figures.  Bighorn sheep, once hunted by the Fremont, are portrayed. A number of geometric signs can be seen.  Corn plants are in the bottom right.  Photo date 2/2001 by S.W. Veatch.

Figure 2. A Fremont artist carved this ancient mural into sandstone over 1,000 years ago. This artwork may be a reflection of the Fremont's religion.  A large dog appers on the left corne of this image. Photo date Feb, 2001, by S.W. Veatch.

Figure 3. Close up of the previous panel showing a spirit being with arms raised and hands open. Photo date Feb, 2001, by S.W. Veatch.

Figure 4. Kokopelli, the flute player of Anasazi mythology, reveals Fremont interaction with native cultures of the Four Corners area. Photo date Feb 2001, by S.W. Veatch.
Figure 5. A number of lizard images appear only at this site along Cub Creek. Photo date Feb, 2001, by S.W. Veatch.

Table 1. Classic Vernal Style  (Fremont rock art differs in style, theme, and content throughout the region.  The classic Vernal style dominates the rock art in the Dinosaur National Monument)
Anthropormorphs (human-like figures) Large trapezoidal bodies with broad shoulders and stick legs are ornately decorated with horned headdresses, earrings, and necklaces.
  • Some figures hold shields or mystical objects.
  • Most designs are outlines, however some are completely pecked to form solid figures.
Zoomorphs (animal-like figures): Bighorn sheep, birds, snakes, lizards, and other animals are easily recognizable.
Abstract designs: Concentric circles, spirals, rows of dots, and a variety of lines are common.

The rocks tell many stories in this remote and rugged land. Preserved in the sands of an ancient river is a time capsule from the world of dinosaurs —a fossil bone deposit that gives the park its name.
The rocks in the park also provide an additional view into the past, giving us a hint of the feelings and notions of the Fremont people. The extraordinary shapes and designs of Fremont rock art, taken out of the cultural context of these prehistoric people, are impossible to interpret with our present knowledge. Even though many symbols are recognizable, the meanings have vanished along with the Fremont people. The story the drawings once told—over 1,000 years ago— is lost with the relentless passage of time and is now a secret held in the rocks.

Much of the information presented in this paper was gained from a number of field trips undertaken by the author. A number of new images of rock art were obtained with a recent field trip with the South Suburban Park and Recreation Department of Littleton, Colorado. I thank Dr. William Orr of the University of Oregon and Elizabeth Simmons, Metropolitan State College, Denver, for their advice and critically reviewing this paper.
References Cited:
Cassells, E S., 1990. The Archaeology of Colorado. Johnson Books, Boulder, 325 p.
Cole, S. J., 1995. Legacy on Stone: Rock Art of the Colorado Plateau and Four Corners
Books, Boulder. 279 p.

Hagood, Z. and West, L., 1992. Dinosaur: The Story Behind the Scenery. KC Publications, Las Vegas, NV 48 p.
Schaafsma, P., 1995. Indian Rock Art of the Southwest. University of New Mexico
Press, Albuqurque, NM 329 p.
Untermann, G. E. and Untermann, B.R. , 1969. A Popular Guide to the Geology of Dinosaur National Monument. Dinosaur National Monument Association, Dinosaur National Monument, Utah - Colorado. 126 p.

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