Petroglpyhs and Dinosaur Tracks in Parowan Canyon
Parowan Gap, a 3-mile long wind gap first cut into the bedrock by an ancient river, is an interesting geological feature that has long attracted visitors, from migrating prehistoric tribes to Mormon pioneers traveling across the Cedar and Parowan Valleys. Beginning 5,000 years ago transient hunters began chiseling into the exposed Navajo sandstone in the Gap; over the next few thousand years over 1,500 figures on 90 panels were added, most by the Fremont, prehistoric peoples who inhabited the Parowan Valley to the east. Later additions were done by the historical Paiute tribe, Spanish explorers, and Mormon settlers.
I have been to a number of petroglyph sites in the southwest and continue to be fascinated by the intricate markings made hundreds of years ago. I have often found the “interpretations” given by modern archaeologists to be lacking however – in the sense that they are presented a bit too authoritatively for my taste, and without alternative. While nearly every petroglyph site has been demonstrated to have alignments that mark events such as equinoxes and eclipses, I have more trouble accepting that certain symbols always mean X or Y, particularly because these theories are often at odds with the less-publicized interpretations by modern tribal members who trace their ancestry from the prehistoric groups we call the Fremont and the Ancestral Puebloan. At Parowan Gap however, the BLM has gone to some lengths to consult tribal members of not only the Paiute who still inhabit the valley, but also the Hopi whose legends include stories of migration through the Gap. They have included these perspectives on each interpretive panel, quoting the stories and oral histories provided to them.
For example, the so-called Zipper Glyph has been interpreted by the Pauite as depicting the migration from the old world to the new, showing the great length of the journey as well as the difficulties encountered including the death of the Great Leader. Modern archaeoastronomers in contrast have stated the glyph represents a combination solar/lunar calendar that marks things such as planting and harvesting dates as well as solstices and equinoxes. While I find the latter, modern interpretation to be credible, the exclusion of such rich mythology as told by the Pauite interpreters seems reductive and in general, a loss of culture. Luckily as I said, both interpretations are presented here, making the Parowan Gap petroglyph area a valuable learning destination for those interested in southwest archaeology. Other excellent interpretive panels provided by the BLM include discussions of petroglyphs as a writing system, how some of the individual symbols are interpreted, and the various methods in which the glyphs were etched into the rock.
I exited the Gap to the east rather than retracing my route and was about 2 miles down the road when I spotted another BLM sign – this one for dinosaur tracks. Obviously I needed to stop. Ancient river downcutting and continuing wind erosion have worked in concert with parallel faulting in this section of the Gap to expose bedrock formed millions of years ago, including layers in sandstone that contain footprints left 65-70 million years ago by the hardosaur. One of the most common grazing dinosaurs of its time, the hardosaurs were a 10 to 40-foot species weighing several tons who had long tails and bird-like, three-toed feet. Today, their raised footprints remain scattered around the boulders of the valley, the depressions long ago filled with stones and sand that has been slower to erode than the surrounding rock.