I’ll get to the real post in a moment, but first, a little background. As long- (really long) time readers know, possibly my favorite place in the world is Little Creek Mountain, a flat-topped 5,500 – 5,800 foot mesa in extreme Southwestern Utah, about 2 miles North of the Arizona border. What brought me there was the wonderful maze-like network of mtn bike trails built by the legendary Harris brothers, but the botany, geology and archeology are all fascinating as well.
Several years ago, trail-builder and local Morgan Harris told me about some rock art sites in the area. One stuck in my mind. He described a location in the interior of the mesa where there was a petroglyph atop a flat pad of slickrock alongside a shallow wash. And the interesting thing about this glyph was that it appeared to depict a map. A map of the mesa.
As- again- long-time readers know, I am fascinated with maps and geography, and the idea of this ancient map completely captivated me. A few years ago, on a solo trip with an extra hour of daylight to spare, I tried to locate the glyph, following Morgan’s directions from memory, but with no luck. A couple of years later, on a trip with the guys* I talked them into killing another hour helping me search, but again we came up empty.
*I think it was OCRick, Clean Colin, Rainbow-Spirit Paul, and maybe Hunky Neighbor, but not sure.
Perhaps I had the directions wrong, or maybe we walked right past it; petroglyphs can be like 3D pictures- invisible till you see them, then blazingly obvious. And besides, was it really a map, or was Morgan seeing something more than there was? After all, most of the rock art I’ve seen seems to be people and animals and geometric patterns and such- I hadn’t heard of any maps. Anyway, finding it has languished on my desert to-do list for probably a couple of years now…
As I mentioned in Wednesday’s post, we spent Thanksgiving down in St. George, repeating our winning formula from last year: just the nuclear family, rent a nice condo with pool & a hot tub, pick up to go Thanksgiving dinner on the way out of town, and bring bikes. Seriously, it’s awesome. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it.
Friday morning we packed up turkey sandwiches and headed on over to nearby Land Hill, to hike the Tempi’po’op trail. Land Hill is a bluff that overlooks the Santa Clara River, and the rim of the bluff is packed with petroglyphs. This was our second time there, and we know there’s still plenty of great rock art we haven’t found yet.
Side Note #1: The Tempi’po’op trail is also open to bikes. And it looks like it was be a pleasant little ride. But, my strong advice is not to bike it your first time, and the reason is that probably >95% of the rock art is off the trail, along the rim. If you want to find the art, you need to be about 20’ south of the trail, hopping from slab, to slab, looking down and paying attention. Now, on a subsequent trip, if you can remember the sites you want to visit, then by all means ride your mtn bike. But walk it the first time.
Side Note #2: There’s some interesting botany on this trail as well, including several Ironwoods and a couple of tree-sized Cliffroses that are really impressive. And the lichens are fantabulous.
We had a wonderful time. The whole family got into it, each of us making our own finds and discoveries. There were human figures and masks and Bighorn sheep and giant bear-paw-prints and snakes and fascinating geometric patterns- grids, checkerboards, intersecting patterns of lines and all sorts of things. Really, I can’t recommend this trail highly enough, especially as an easy family-friendly outing.
I’ve seen a fair amount of rock art, and already knew a bit of the pre-European history of the Virgin River valley, but that evening, back at the condo, I spent a couple of hours researching rock art in the area.
Humans have been living in or passing through the valley for something like 10,000 years, and this is reflected in the rock art in places like Land Hill; many glyphs are only 800 or 900 years old, but others date back maybe 5,000 years or more. Around 450 AD* Indians started arriving and settling in the Virgin River in greater numbers through an apparent series of in-migrations, and engaged in farming and village-building in flattish sites by the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers that were suitable for irrigation. Over the next several centuries this area became part of a broader culture, extending from near Las Vegas to South-Central Utah, known to archeologists as the Western Anasazi.
*Found multiple dates for this one. May be more like 0 AD.
The Western Anasazi don’t get nearly the airplay of the Mesa Verde Anasazi, Kayenta Anasazi, or Chacoan cultures further to the east. In part that may be because their ruins lack the spectacular cliff dwellings of some of their Eastern neighbors, but for centuries the Western Anasazi thrived in Southwest Utah and Southern Nevada, and had clear, regular trade links with cultures to the East and South, as evidenced by art, architecture and pottery. The culture persisted until ~1150 AD, when the Pueblo Indians of the valley appear to have left the area for destinations further South.
Extra Detail: The whole topic of the migration, abandonment, decline, disappearance or whatever of the Colorado Plateau region by the Anasazi- of all types- is a huge, complex and controversial issue that I’m not going to get into in this post*. In the specific case of the Virgin River Anasazi, a common suspect for the last 20 years has been a 30-year drought around the mid-1100’s. Other researchers however, question this drought-hypothesis, and propose other possible explanations, such as climate change on plateaus higher up and to the East, which could have forced people down off those plateaus, and into places like the Virgin River valley, changing the population dynamics and leading to conflict or collapse.
*But I just read a fantastic book on the topic that I’ll mention in a reading-list post I hope to do soon.
An interesting thing about the final out-migration though is that it appears to have been preceded by an earlier out-migration, around 950AD, in which Virgin River Puebloans left the valley for destinations North.
In researching the Land Hill petroglyphs, one of the sources, Odyssey of the Pueblo Indians, by William M. Eaton, detailed several of the glyphs in the area. Many represent legends or religious or mythological figures. Others seem to represent specific clans, or basket designs or warriors. Still others have astronomical significance or alignments. And some appear to be… maps.
Here’s an example detailed in Eaton’s book. Now the shot I’m using here is not mine- I think this one we have yet to locate it.
The match isn’t perfect, and as Eaton notes, the Santa Clara River channel has changed over the thousand years since, but there does seem to be somewhat of a match. And Eaton includes several more map examples, including several down in Nevada, and another close by, downstream a few miles, just South of and below the St. George airport runway.
Side Note: Of course, once you see one map, you start to see them all over the place. Here’s an example- a boulder below the cliffs along the Santa Clara River (I’ve cranked up the exposure & contrast to bring out the glyphs in the shadow.)
*Maybe Balolokong, the Great Water Serpent in Pueblo Indian Mythology. Just a guess…
Saturday Awesome Wife had a massage appointment at Red Mountain Spa, so armed with Eaton’s description and crude map, I enlisted the Trifecta and set out in search of Eaton’s second map. Well, we didn’t find the map- or rather I’m not sure if we did, but what we did find was an Absolute Home Run, one that you absolutely have to check out on your next trip to St. George, and that I’m going to share with you Right Now.
There are great rock art sites all over the Colorado Plateau. But many of them are a pain in the ass to get to. One of the great things about the Land Hill site, as I’ve mentioned, is how easy it is to access. But this place is even easier. It’s a hillside chock-full of fantastic rock art, and it’s located- I kid you not- on the hillside immediately behind the St. George Maverik on Hilton Drive.
Seriously, this place is so easy to access, so close to the Interstate, that if you pass through St. George without spending 10 minutes to check it out it would be criminally negligent. We pulled into the Maverik lot and Twin B was the first to spot glyphs on the hillside. Here’s a shot- with no zoom- that I took from the lot; click on it and see how many you can pick out.
There are glyphs all over the hillside, and several cool panels. This boulder atop the hill (left, Bird Whisperer for scale) may be the most impressive, but scrambling along the hillside revealed a number of surprises not visible from below. Here’s one of my favorites; this panel (right, with my foot for scale) faces straight up. The map, which again I don’t think we found*, is thought to indicate the network of irrigation canals around 950AD. I should mention that this site is far from unique in the St. George area. Both the town, and neighboring Bloomington to the South, have all sorts of rock art sites, sometimes in the middle of suburban neighborhoods. What makes archeology in St. George so interesting is that a thriving modern community is smack-dab atop of a once-thriving ancient one.
*But I’m not sure. There are many indeterminate and worn “squiggle-glyphs” that could conceivably be maps of sorts.
Note for Non-North American Readers: Yes, I know, you’re thinking “So what? Every city in Europe is built atop of countless ancient sites…” But that’s not the case for us North Americans. We generally have to go to odd backcountry locations, out-of-the-way national parks, or down to Central America to see this kind of stuff.
The next morning I did my usual family vacation schtick of tip-toeing out before dawn to go mtn biking*. Off to the East, in the dawn gloom, shaded under a low cloud layer, I could see the flat table of Little Creek Mountain.
*I rode the “Rim” network- Rim Runner, Rim Rambler, Rim Reaper- just South of Barrel Roll, and accessed from the same trailhead. It was my first time and I’d rate it as OK but a little unexciting. Barrel Roll is a better ride.
As I mentioned earlier, Little Creek is filled with potshards and other signs of Indian use and occupation, but the earliest stuff dates from around 500AD (Basketmaker III)*. That’s a lot more recent than the evidence of Archaic period peoples down in the valley, and it might reflect later and more advanced cultures having the tools and technology to be able to utilize the higher mesas in ways the Archaics couldn’t. I think about that when I look up at Little Creek from St. George. If it’s true, then for thousands of years, the mesa was unknown. Countless generations would’ve lived their whole lives down in the valley, looking up at the high, dark, table to the East, as unknown to them as another planet would be to us.
*My main source here is the 1980 Master’s Thesis of James L. Heid, which I accessed (and copied) several years ago from the UNLV library. I’m sure more work has been conducted in the decades since, and so this info could well be wrong.
So the Puebloans did make maps after all. I thought about the Mesa. And I thought about that map. I need to go find it. I need to give Morgan a call.