In some ways, Capitol Reef National Park is the overlooked stepsister of Utah’s five national parks, overshadowed by Zion, Bryce, Arches and Canyonlands. That’s unfortunate, because Capitol Reef is a jewel. It takes its name from an immense uplifting of rock (that’s where the “reef” comes in) that occurred 65 million years ago. Over the millennia since then the layers of rock have eroded into multihued canyons, towering cliffs, and oddly shaped spires and monoliths. (The “Capitol” part comes from a prominent rock formation that looks like a capitol dome.)
On a trip to Capitol Reef, I had the good fortune to attend a park ranger talk about the native tribes that had once lived in this area. The ranger spoke in front of a sun-dappled red cliff on which petroglyphs had been chiseled hundreds of years ago. Midway through his presentation I realized that he was speaking of a sacred site—one whose meaning and origins are unclear, but a sacred site nevertheless.
The ranger told us that the prehistoric Fremont Culture existed between approximately AD 600 – 1300 in what is now Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Nevada. For many years anthropologists grouped this culture together with the Ancestral Puebloans, better known as the Anasazi. That designation has changed as archeological discoveries have proven that this group had its own distinct culture, one named “Fremont” after the river where their sites were discovered and first defined.
Rather than living in cliff dwellings, the Fremont Indians lived in pit houses that were dug into the ground and had a roof made of brush. While the Anasazi wore sandals made of plant fibers, the Fremont wore moccasins fashioned of animal hide. Their pottery was made in a different style as well. And most intriguing of all, the Fremont sites often contain small, human-shaped unfired clay figurines. The little figures have intricate details like ear bobs, necklaces, clothing, and hair and facial decorations. Their purpose is unknown, though it is speculated that they had ritual or religious significance, said the ranger. “And as you can see on this cliff face, these figures also appear in the petroglyphs created by the Fremont people,” he said.
Looking up, the resemblance was indeed obvious. The forms marched across the rock face, with trapezoidal shaped bodies and stick arms, legs and fingers, many with the same ear bobs, headdresses and clothing details as the small figures that the ranger had shown us. In between the human figures were drawings that looked like the bighorn sheep that still roam the region.
The ranger said that the Fremont culture began to decline around 1150 and had disappeared by 1300, for reasons that are unknown. Because they left no written language, the meaning of their petroglyphs is unknown.
“A year ago we invited some Ute elders from the region to observe these petroglyphs closely to see if they could give us some clues as to the significance of the markings,” said the ranger. “They spent a long time conferring in front of the markings, and finally they admitted that they didn’t have a clue what they meant.”
So there you go—these markings will almost certainly remain a mystery. Perhaps the figures commemorate a hunting trip or migration. They may have been created before a hunt to bring good fortune or afterwards to commemorate a fallen warrior. I was most struck by the figures that looked like they were wearing large headdresses with horns. They appeared to be half-human, half-animal, a common motif in many prehistoric cultures.
We can only guess at the meanings of such petroglyphs, but I do know this. On that sunny afternoon, the figures seemed to have a vibrancy that belied their immense age. To me there is no doubt they were created for some sort of spiritual reason, for that place had all the hallmarks of a holy place. Thanks to the Fremont River that flows nearby, the cliffs are in an oasis of green filled with trees and singing birds, a place of refuge in a harsh and forbidding landscape. It is still a place to be refreshed, to pause, and to pray.
You can view the Fremont petroglyphs on Highway 24 in the middle of Capitol Reef National Park, a short distance to the east of the Visitor Center. More petroglyphs are visible throughout the park (ask at the ranger station for directions).