When cultured members of Western civilization think of fine art, they tend to think of it within the confines of galleries or art museums. An art gallery or art museum is a building or space for the exhibition of art, usually visual art. The galleries or museums can be public or private, but what distinguishes a museum is the ownership of a collection, housed within the four walls of a man made structure.
Long before the first art gallery was built in the latest rebirth of western civilization we have called the renaissance, there was another art gallery in existence. It had neither walls nor a conservator, in the conventional sense. It was in fact, standing in a country that was unknown to the scholars and erudite of the European renaissance. It was located in a remote canyon, in a desert, in an area that a millennia after its creation was to be called Horsehoe Canyon.
Human presence in Horseshoe Canyon has been dated as far back as 7000-9000 B.C., when Native Americans hunted large mammals such as mammoths across much of North America. It is thought that the canyon was abandoned by Native American peoples by about 1300 A.D.
The Great Gallery as it is called, is one of largest and best preserved collections of Barrier Canyon Stylerock art in the United States. The gallery was a product of the Desert Archaic culture, a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers predating the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloans. The panel itself measures about 200 feet long and 15 feet high. The panel contains about 20 life-sized anthropomorphic images, the largest of which measures over 7 feet tall.
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The Horseshoe Canyon trail head starts on the west rim of the canyon. Two-wheel-drive access to the west rim of Horseshoe Canyon is from Utah Highway 24 via 30 miles of graded dirt road, or from Green River on 47 miles of dirt road. Driving time is about 2.5 hours from Moab in good weather. The access road can easily become impassable during a storm.
The best times of the year to visit Horseshoe Canyon are in the spring or fall. From the west rim trail head, the hike to the Great Gallery is a 7 miles round-trip, descending 750 feet and requiring about six hours. Watch out for camouflaged rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the path. Don’t forget to add on several hours for your photographic endeavors. In hot weather this hike can be quite strenuous. Bring plenty of water, the water in the canyon is not fit for drinking without purification. The three and one half mile hike will take you through groves of cottonwood trees and along the bends and curves of the canyon. After an hour or two of walking, the Great Gallery will be up on the canyon wall to your right.
The Barrier Canyon Style is not thought to be a product of recent millennia. The age of most panels remains indeterminate. The limited information places the pictography between 2,000 and 4,000 years old.
In 2005, visitors to the Great Gallery discovered a leather bag eroding from wind blown sand. The outer bag was fabricated from a rectangular piece of tanned antelope hide with the hair removed. Radio carbon dating put the origin of the bag within a date range of AD 770-970. Visitors have been coming to this gallery for a long time!
A hearth recently excavated at the base of one Barrier Canyon Style panel provided a radiocarbon date of approximately 3000 years in age. However, it has proved impossible to tell if the panel was created before or after the hearth was used
Panel features distinct to the Barrier Canyon Style used in the Great Gallery include tiny people near the figures shoulders or tiny birds flying about the pictographs heads. Sometimes, animals are seen perched on shoulders of the life-sized forms.
One figure has miniature anthropomorphs painted upon it’s torso. Another is decorated with animals in similar fashion. Most of the Great Gallery’s life-sized figures are also adorned with varying shapes and patterns. All the figures are completely devoid of appendages. This technique is equated with most examples of this style.
One of the largest figures, the seven-foot-tall “Great Ghost” was created by pecking fine lines and blowing or splattering paint onto the rock, creating the appearance of a buffalo robe. The attendant figures were later randomly pecked on, possibly ritually, so they appear more weathered.
All of the figures are painted in browns and reds.
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Though Horseshoe Canyon is most famous for its rock art, the canyon’s history has many chapters. Hundreds of years after the prehistoric artists left the area, Europeans arrived. Outlaws like Butch Cassidy made use of Horseshoe Canyon in the late 1800’s, taking refuge in the confusing network of canyons, especially those around Robbers Roost to the southwest.
Later, in the early 1900’s, ranchers built several stock trails into Horseshoe so cows and sheep could reach water and feed in the canyon bottom. Eventually, the ranchers constructed a pumping operation to fill water tanks on the canyon rim. Many of these modifications are still visible today.
Prospectors explored the area in the mid-1900’s, improving many stock trails to accommodate vehicles and drill rigs. Though they searched the rock layers for oil and other minerals, no successful wells or mines were ever established around Horseshoe Canyon.
With the inclusion of Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands in 1971, all grazing and mineral exploration was discontinued. The trail into the canyon that all visitors descend on today is a livestock route that is a relic of the areas ranching era.
The Great Gallery in Totality
If you are physically able to make the journey, I believe that it will be a day of your life more wisely spent then most. If you are afraid to make the trip on your own, the National Park Service hasranger lead trips.
A trip to the Great Gallery is every bit as impressive as a trip to a fine art museum in any showcase city of our western civilization. The media used may not be modern in the technological sense, but the emotion and life force that inspired these prehistoric artisans was as profound as that which possessed any of our “Great Masters”.
After a peaceful several hour long stroll along a pleasant canyon bottom, you will round the final bend that separates you from the past, and it will be there, just as has been for several millennia. Your heart will start beating a bit faster. Your brain will begin to comprehend what lies before you and for just a bit, you will not even care to take out your camera.
About Miles Hecker
Miles has been involved with photography for over forty years. He teaches digital photography at Casper College in Casper,Wyoming. His photos have won awards fromNatures Best magazine,Photo.net, The Luminous LandscapeandWyoming WIldlife . Miles’ photos have been published in American Vignette, Backpacker Magazine, Natures Best Images, Popular Photography, Wyoming Audubon, and Wyoming Wildlife. He is co-founder ofWyoFOTO LLC.