Dinosaurs and Rock Art


This particular figure is known as The Guardian. We found the image delightful because he reminded us of the totoro, from the Japanese animated film, “My Neighbor Totoro.” Totoro is fond of showing his huge teeth and roaring, and this character seems to be doing just that! The Guardian can be found along Colorado 139 between Grand Junction and Rangely, in the Canyon Pintado National Historic District. It is also part of the 512-mile Dinosaur Diamond National Scenic Byway, which takes the visitor through one of the richest paleontological areas in the world. Little did we know starting out that it is home to so much Native American rock art.

Canyon Pintado was occupied by prehistoric people as long ago as 11,000 years. Most of the rock art dates from the Freemont culture, dating from around 200 B.C to around 1200 A.D. At that time people were beginning to live in villages and cultivate crops, but still hunted and gathered as well. Scientists don’t agree on the meaning of the pictograph (painted) and petroglyph (pecked) images, but some Native American groups still claim a cultural connection. Since no one is sure what the images mean, it is fun to speculate. IMG_1828

The two images below are intriguing. The image on the right appears to represent the sun, moon and earth. Apparently at the Solstice a shadow is cast by an overhanging rock pointing at the earth image. Perhaps the ancient ones used this image to mark time. The image on the left also appears to have a sun image. Some think the artwork on the left side of the photo represents a necklace.

It is a good thing that so much of the artwork is so accessible. Most were a short hike from the car. So were the artists creating art because they had the time to do so, or do the artworks carry significant meaning and messages? The more you drive around Colorado and Utah, the more you discover that these works are everywhere. Everywhere, that is, that a surface was available and pigments could be made.

Somehow the works of art morph into dinosaur bones. The presence of the bones in a quarry captures the imagination as much as rock art. Imagine walking the land in 1909 and seeing 4 fossilized ribs sticking out of the ground. Imagine your excitement as you dig down to find hundreds more bones, then further and thousands more, many as complete skeletons, once assembled. Such is the history of the dinosaur quarry at Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah. Over years of digging, dozens of specimens were delivered to museums all across North America. Digging stopped in 1993, so that now one sees 1500 bones across a huge, enclosed cliff, representing 500 animals and 12 species.

Much like the rock art, I could contemplate all day on the existence of these fossilized relics.  Fortunately for us, scientists are pretty sure why there are so many bones in one place. The site was apparently a river bed. Some specimens are partially intact, others are like putting together a puzzle. There were a couple of assembled skeletons on display.

DSC_2807The heads of the creatures were most fascinating. Look at the size of those teeth! 90% of the bones in the quarry belonged to herbivores.DSC_2799

Scientists still work alongside the bones although the excavation is complete, trying to understand more about the environment at the time and the reasons a creature perished. For more about the exhibit, go to superstars of paleontology. There is even a virtual tour and a list of all the species of dinosaurs and the other animals that lived among them.


Mandy with a life size model

There is actually nice rock art within the boundaries of Dinosaur National Monument.

To give you a sense of scale, the large lizard in the center of the frame is actually 6 feet in length. Check out my 2015 blog entry for more discussion of rock art in Utah: September 21st, 2015: Of Pictographs and Waterfalls.

There were actually similar, alien-looking figures in southern Utah. Are the people representing themselves in ceremonial dress, or are they mythological beings? I’m sure there has been endless speculation by the experts. One thing I did notice – the people and animals in the depictions appear alone or in small groups. Down in Texas along the lower Pecos River, at the White Shaman site, the pictographs make more of a huge mural, such that it seems to be a single story or, some speculate, what the participant(s) saw during a vision quest.

In Utah, it appears that there are more singular beings or single messages on stone. Dinosaur National Monument is vast, occupying a huge swath of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado. We camped along the swiftly flowing Green River, the same river that eventually runs into the Colorado in Canyonlands National Park.