Prehistoric people left pictorial history in area
Post Independent Staff
Editor’s note: This story is the last of a three-story package on the canyon owned by Oni Butterfly. The first two stories ran Sunday.
When people think of petroglyphs, they often think of Utah.
In fact, a surprising amount of rock art exists right in Garfield County. And there may be a lot more yet to be found.
Andrea Brogan, an archaeologist with the White River National Forest, said few people seem to be aware of the amount of rock art that is close to home. She was surprised herself to learn how much has been discovered in western Garfield County.
“It’s one of those things, you find one and you hear about two or three more,” she said.
In fact, prehistoric people have left a pictorial history of themselves in the area.
“I think we’re just sort of scraping the tip of the iceberg by what we see out there. I know there’s more out there and there’s clues about the people,” Brogan said.
Brogan has taken an interest in Oni Butterfly’s efforts to protect rock art on her property in the Dry Hollow area south of Silt after meeting Butterfly while cross-country skiing on the Flat Tops.
Now that Butterfly’s canyon is protected by a conservation easement, the rock art there is the first Brogan is aware of south of Silt and Rifle to have some sort of protection. But she knows of other property owners in that area who also are considering seeking protection for rock art on their land.
Some other local rock art sites are in the Mamm Creek area, and on a spot along the Grand Hogback north of Silt. A higher-elevation site is in Sweetwater east of Glenwood Canyon.
There is a pithouse in the Battlement Mesa area, and rock art has been found in Glade Park on the Uncompahgre Plateau, and in abundance in the Dinosaur National Park region.
Some local rock art is in pristine condition, which might be attributed to its being on private property. By contrast, vandals have damaged the Sweetwater site.
Brogan said some western Garfield County sites have even denser concentrations of rock art than on Butterfly’s property.
That’s saying a lot, because several panels of petroglyphs can be found in her canyon. And Brogan said some of them are of “a great age.”
“They’ve been there a long, long time,” she said.
She can tell because some were pecked into sandstone that had been reddened by oxidation. Now, the lighter, underlying sandstone that was exposed by the artists is starting to oxidize too.
Brogan thinks some of the artwork is as much as 4,000 years old.
The prehistoric people who lived in the area are called the Uncompahgre, a branch of the Utes. Brogan said some experts think the Utes date back only to about 1100 A.D., but the Utes themselves say they been around much longer, and she tends to believe them.
She bases her belief both on the physical evidence, and on her discussions with Ute elder Clifford Duncan about how far back Ute mythology and oral tradition go.
Brogan said other evidence on Butterfly’s property suggests Ute occupation continued there until as recently as 200 years ago.
She said there are indications that villages once were in Butterfly’s canyon. These include remains of wickiups, which were wooden shelters.
“There are many of them on her property, in clusters,” Brogan said.
There also are signs of tools used to cut juniper branches, and chert debris from stone tool making. A stone ax and grinding stone used for seeds also have been found.
“There’s all this evidence of villagers living there, probably seasonally,” Brogan said.
Butterfly’s canyon appears to be good winter habitat for deer and elk, she said.
The people “were probably following that food resource, migrating with them,” she said.
Some of the artwork shows deer, elk and bighorn sheep.
The people there also may have gathered wild, edible plants. In addition, Brogan wonders if they planted crops, based on a petroglyph suggestive of a stem with leaves come off it.
That would be “very exciting, because the Utes themselves weren’t farmers, necessarily,” Brogan said.
It’s possible people in the canyon were being influenced by the Fremont, and trying to cultivate corn, she said.
Other petroglyphs are a complete mystery to Brogan. Among these are some concentric circles, like those found in targets.
“Who knows what they mean? Only the artist that created them knows,” Brogan said.
A 1982 Bureau of Land Management study concluded that the circles, at Butterfly’s property and others in the area, may indicate cultural contact between the people who drew them and the Fremonts, as Brogan also suspects occurred. The circles are common in Fremont-related rock art but rare in Uncompahgre art.
Butterfly said another petroglyph on a nearby property depicts bear claws.
Said Brogan, “What is that symbolizing? It just brings up all these questions.”
Perhaps a bear walked there, or maybe the symbols indicate the spirit of the bear there, she said.
Butterfly said a bear has visited her canyon, and she also has seen a mountain lion with a cub.
The canyon sometimes receives winter visits from bald eagles, and an old golden eagle nest is on the canyon rim. Redwing blackbirds and other birds are drawn to the wetlands at the bottom. Perhaps not coincidentally, some of the rock art depicts birds.
By protecting the canyon’s archaeological features, Butterfly also is helping protect clues about the lives and mythology of the people who once lived there.
“This is really interesting information about the early prehistoric uses of the area,” she said.
Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516
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