High on a red rock ridge in southeastern Utah lies a petroglyph panel that depicts a fundamental shift in the lives of prehistoric Pueblo peoples.
A millennium ago, individual ceremonies and rituals gave way to group events. On a massive sandstone wall, 179 carved human figures march in three lines toward a circle that probably represents a great kiva. To stand before the Procession Panel is to feel the power of ancestral Puebloan villagers coming together to dance, sing, feast and to become one.
As I stood there the first time, warm from a late afternoon sun and the hike up from the dry wash below, the silence of the rock contrasted with the movement etched upon it. Everywhere on this huge Navajo sandstone panel figures move, flow and emerge out of a tall crack and across space and time.
As heat radiated off the west-facing rock, I took off my pack, stripped down to a T-shirt and jeans and quietly stared. Motionless. The figures walked in front of me around two large mule deer bucks and assorted anthropomorphs or human/animal images. It was difficult to take it all in.
Hiking across the Southwest, I seek painted pictographs or petroglyphs carved by the ancients. Early artists carved dozens of desert bighorn sheep with their distinctive hoofs and horns; exotic warriors and their headdresses from the Basketmaker III period; splayed Lizard Man figures with outstretched arms, legs and genitalia; and hundreds of handprints.
Many petroglyphs seem to be a random animal here, a hunter there, perhaps a reclining flute player or two, knees bent, enjoying their own music. But the Procession Panel stands out depicting an annual or semi-annual group event of great import and majesty. Runners have arrived carrying symbolic canes or crook-necked staffs to lead families and friends. Ancestral Puebloans carved the 40-yard-long, 8-foot-high panel between 500 and 700 A.D. Like all great rock art, it tells a story, which, centuries and centuries later, we try to understand.
Among tumbled and jagged rock, interspersed with cacti, bunchgrass, small juniper trees and the occasional sagebrush and ephedra or Mormon tea, the rock art panel rises above the sandy soils and speaks across time. I wonder if some of the participants wore small copper bells from Casas Grandes in Mexico. Did they carry sacred scarlet macaw feathers traded north thousands of miles from the jungles of Meso-America or did they bring the parrots themselves?
Surely, they walked in rhythm. Small children running. Babies carried in cradleboards. Elders shuffling along with walking sticks. Everyone talking, laughing, feeling safe. Together now, after months apart planting corn, hunting deer, waiting for the call to come, to join in.
Animals, too, are carved into the smooth dark desert varnish on the rock. Mountain sheep, coyote, a long-horned serpent as well as atatl darts from prehistoric spear throwers. Basking in the sun, the Procession Panel stood for centuries until teachers discovered it in February 1990. Just hiking along, they found one of the great Basketmaker III depictions of group ritual from 1,300 years ago.
Durangoan Robert L. Powell, a member of the San Juan Basin Archaeological Society, in a 17-page report, wrote the first description of the Procession Panel site for the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah state archaeologist.
Powell described figures on the rock and noted unique characteristics. After explaining groups of converging marchers, he stated: “The next five men are special: each one has his left arm hanging down and his right elbow bent so that his right hand is even with his head. Each raised hand has tiny incised figures (or ceremonial wands?); the lower hands do not have fingers. They all have clearly separated legs and are larger.”
There’s a “bird man” shaman, men wearing backpacks grasping ceremonial staffs and a desert bighorn whose front two feet seem to be rotating a wheel, yet the ancestral Puebloans had no wheels.
“An ambiguous figure is directly under the rear of the coyote and in front of the first large deer,” Powell noted. “It may be a mask with a headdress, two eyes, a large nose and whiskers. Or it may represent two men holding hands with a square artifact above them.”
He added that one of the buck deer “in a rare and realistic manner is shown with a penis ... but unrealistically he has five toes on his feet. Like most of the other animals, he has deep indentations in his face, heart, hooves. A spear protrudes vertically from the bottom of his belly.”
I hope this meant venison was served at the celebration, at the great kiva represented by the circle where the etched figures seem to be heading.
Powell spent hours studying intricate details of the Procession Panel. I can only stare and wonder, caught up in the movement, realizing that where this panel stands near the top of the ridge is one of the few crossover places between drainages. Perhaps a group of ancestral Puebloans came up the same incline, climbed over and around the same rocks, stood beneath the panel created to honor and remember them.
In Crucible of Pueblos: The Early Pueblo Period in the Northern Southwest, the editors suggest that perhaps “procession panels do not depict actual events but are instead representations of cultural concepts and narratives.” Either way, the imagery represents “public gatherings” and “the role of ritual in uniting individuals into bands or larger communities.”
“These gatherings would also have facilitated the long-term vitality of local residence groups by providing opportunities for the exchange of information, marriage partners and material goods, and by providing a framework for the resolution of disputes,” says former Colorado State Archaeologist Richard H. Wilshushen and other researchers.
Translation – a party. The Procession Panel represents a party. I want to go.
I can feel the movement of the dancers, the steps in unison. I can hear the chanting, the singing. Maybe it’s only the wind coming up and over the steep escarpment, blowing out of Monument Valley, across the Navajo Reservation, to this place of awe.
The Utah Legislature thinks the highest and best use for the region should be oil and gas development. Five Southwestern tribes are urging President Barack Obama to protect the area as Bears Ears National Monument. I believe in the monument proposal. We have so much to learn from the Hisatsinom, the Hopi word for those who came before.
Descending the ridge, my pack felt lighter. My dog’s tail wagged more often. Just why did that bighorn have its hooves on a wheel? How many figures, arms up, hands waving, are emerging from the elongated crack in the Navajo sandstone?
I’ve returned again and again to answer questions and to ask new ones. The ancient ones call me. I want to go to the party.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email him at email@example.com.