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They painted in the canyons: Archaic artists created compelling images 5,000 years ago

Of the thousands of Native American rock-art panels in the Southwest, none are older than the Barrier Canyon pictographs found throughout the Colorado Plateau and concentrated along rivers, especially the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.

From tiny 5-inch animal figures to stunning 8-foot-tall human shapes with no arms or legs and alien-like bug eyes, Barrier Canyon Style images are usually a dark, blood-red color. They may have been painted 9,000 years ago; many panels are at least 5,000 years old.

To find these remote panels, often at the intersections of 700- to 800-foot canyon walls, I have driven four-wheel-drive vehicles and then hiked into remote locations to photograph these spectacular ochre red paintings. The images of eerie, elongated figures with shortened arms and legs are hard to decipher. Of the anthropomorphs, or human figures, only 20 percent to 25 percent have eyes. Most have no ears or noses and no way to distinguish gender. Snakes writhe in their hands or above their heads. Yet circling these fierce, faceless creatures are delicate menageries of exquisitely painted birds, ducks, geese, deer and, occasionally, free-floating eyeballs with wings.

A detail of a creator figure with rice grass sprouting from a finger at the Harvest Panel in the Green River Study Area. A rabbit floats over the arm and a bird flies nearby.

The artwork is compelling. The brush strokes and vibrant paint pigments make the images seem fresh and newly painted, yet one carbon dating of an embedded hair from a paintbrush dates from 6750 B.C. The paintings are probably made by mixing blood and clay, and possibly using urine as a binder.

The locations are often miles from the nearest road, in the remote recesses of Canyonlands National Park and on Bureau of Land Management lands across Utah, Colorado, northern Arizona, eastern Nevada and parts of Wyoming. The most famous panels are the Great Gallery, Buckhorn Wash, the Holy Ghost Group and the Harvest Panel.


Visual artist David Sucec, director of the Barrier Canyon Style Project, and photographer Craig Law teamed up over 25 years ago to begin to inventory this rare Archaic rock-art style, which represents some of the oldest outdoor paintings in North America.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, through the Traveling Exhibition Program of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums and the Utah Arts Council, has funded a small traveling exhibit of 24 photographs plus captions and wall text. The exhibit will travel for several years across Utah. Now, folks who may never venture deep into Colorado Plateau canyons, as Sucec and Law do in fall and spring, can see these remarkable images.

The Barrier Canyon people did not farm. They had no steady food sources. We have no idea what languages they may have spoken. They created no distinctive architectural styles, but the art produced by these hunter-gatherers millennia ago stuns observers who come around a corner in a deep canyon and see these enormous panels for the first time. The “billboard-sized” Great Gallery is 300-feet wide with more than 80 figures, many near life-size.

Most of the lower wall of the Great Gallery in the Green River Study Area. The “billboard-sized” Great Gallery is 300-feet wide with more than 80 figures, many near life-size.

When the team began, Sucec and Law thought there were about 160 Barrier Canyon art sites. Now, they have found close to 450 sites and have studied non-representational motifs, representational motifs and compositional motifs, which they have found near the mouths or junctions of remote canyons.

“Utah’s first expressionist painters,” Sucec calls them. “Barrier Canyon Style has emerged to be one of the two major Archaic Period painted rock-art styles in the United States and possibly in the entire New World.” Sucec says this is “a style that lasted, if the dates are correct, an amazing 7,000 years.”

He describes “virtuoso image-making techniques” and “life-size to heroic scale anthropomorphic figures, such as the Holy Ghost.” There are no violent depictions. No severed heads, battle scenes, no images of human conflict. Instead, there are “friendly associations of animal, bird, snake and plant images with anthropomorphic spirit figures.”

“Walking in these canyons today,” Sucec says, “it is not difficult to imagine the significance these ancient rock-art galleries would have held for the hundreds of generations of a dynamic people who lived on the Colorado Plateau for a span, perhaps, of more than 7,000 years.”


The time depth and size of the images challenges our perspectives on American art and humanities. These are not human shapes as we would recognize them. Rather, they are human-like figures with elongated forms and interior spaces filled in with paint or cross-hatching, wavy lines, dots, zig-zags and snakes.

At the Ascending Sheep Panel in the Sinbad Study Area, a composite figure is on the left with a human body and legs, female bighorn sheep head, snake tongue and parrot feet. Creator figures are seen on the right.

Unlike Europe’s ancient cave galleries of painted animals, Barrier Canyon images are made up of spirit figures, citizen figures and composite figures. No leaping lions or thundering aurochs, instead, these are life forms with antennae and horns. Almost 90 percent of the images “are of the spirit-figure type.” Composite figures feature “combinations of body parts from dissimilar species.” Indian rice grass grows out of one figure’s fingertips while rabbits gambol on its arm.

The traveling exhibit comes with valuable handouts, including “Why Teach Art?”; “The Language of Art”; and for art detectives from the lower grades, questions about “Ancient Painters: Art in Rock Art,” such as, “Why was it important for the photographer, Craig Law, to take all these pictures?”

There is also a poignant statement from Robert E. Allen: “We live in an age increasingly ruled by science and technology, a fact that only underscores the need for more emphasis on the arts. ... A grounding in the arts will help our children to see, and to bring a unique perspective to science and technology. In short, it will help them as they grow smarter, to also grow wiser.”

I wonder what the children of the Barrier Canyon artists thought? Imagine a low-technology lifeway that may have lasted through seven millennia. What symbols did they share and create? What aspects of their humanity are replicated in ours?


With a small group of friends, we set out to find a few remote Barrier Canyon sites. In side canyons and short slot canyons, we found them.

I’ll not forget a blustery spring day with a storm front moving across Utah. Seven of us hiked all morning to finally find a few red symbols high on a cliff face shaded by a small alcove. We scrambled up. There in the silence of the San Rafael Swell, the few symbols seen below blossomed into small panels of intricate images expertly drawn in the Barrier Canyon Style’s signature red paint.

A Barrier Canyon rock-art figure with small applications of white paint around the border of the figure. Visual artist David Sucec, director of the Barrier Canyon Style Project, and photographer Craig Law teamed up over 25 years ago to begin to inventory this rare Archaic rock-art style.

Standing just a few feet from the panels, we could study the masterful brush strokes, the lyrical zoomorphs, or animal-like creatures, and the red paint’s perfect preservation. The artist had added a few white dots and faint white streaks. Seated on a sandstone ledge, looking south across a vast canyon landscape, rare pictographs just behind my shoulder, the 21st century melted away. Time ceased. I thought if we waited, with luck the artist might return. Instead, there was only wind.

The most famous Barrier Canyon panel is the Great Gallery in a remote section of Canyonlands National Park named Horseshoe Canyon. But we wanted to hike in wilderness study areas to see ancient art generally not visited. In the vastness of the Swell, we could do that. On the fifth day, we came across a finger-painted panel of four figures that looked as fresh as if it had been painted that week.

A detail of spirit figure in the Thompson Canyon cluster at the Northern Study Area.

Barrier Canyon paint is only one of the mysteries. Probably mixed from vegetable and mineral compounds, the paint is 10 percent blood, but whether human or animal is uncertain. The sophistication of the art, which seems to represent a vibrant and complex spirit world, is made more mystifying by the fact that the artists were Archaic Period (8500 to 2000 B.C.) mobile hunters and gatherers who did not plant corn and who lived a precarious subsistence lifestyle. They hunted with spears, and yet when we returned to the famous Buckhorn Wash panel to study it in afternoon shade using binoculars and long camera lenses, I felt I was in the presence of sacred art as powerful as anything on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The under-funded BLM has few staff to enforce regulations on backcountry travel, and rock art vandalism is an ongoing problem. Far too many panels have been shot at or scratched over. One site we visited was beneath a small cliff face at Molen Seep. For many yards, the base of the cliff was covered in cow poop. The site needs to be fenced and protected.

I’d like to forget the negligence we saw that afternoon, but I can’t. Just as I can’t forget the rare feeling of hiking into remote canyons to discover 9,000-year-old paintings. How much longer will they be safe?

A shorter version of this essay appeared in the summer 2018 issue of Humanities Magazine. Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.