The Great Gallery—MOMA of Prehistoric North American Art

Rock Art
The Holy Ghost, unique worldwide in prehistoric art for its head shown at a slant to create a three-dimensional represention

We saved the most spectacular hike for the last.

By accident.

While Horseshoe Canyon is an annex of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, it would have been easier to access it weeks earlier when we were up north in Hanksville. I’m glad our wayfaring skills went south. Ending our 58 hikes in the southwestern US with Horseshoe Canyon—home of the single greatest display of prehistoric art in North America—made this once-in-a-lifetime experience even more lastingly reverential.

First, let me quickly tell you a bit about this day hike to which I award five stars, Magellan gives 4.5 and Wanderlust rates the 12th best in the world.

Incredibly diverse, it’s 16.4 kilometres round-trip, steep and flat, on slickrock and sand, in the Cezanne green of canyon cottonwoods and the blistering sun of the high desert. Vestiges of entrepreneurial history linger: a network of paths built by ranchers in the early 1900s so their cows and sheep could feed at the canyon bottom, a water pumping operation, an old corral. The paths we walked on were widened by prospectors exploring for oil and minerals. That’s enough to make it a standout trail. But it’s for the art, the striking prehistoric art, that Horseshoe Canyon was added to Canyonlands NP as a stand-alone area in 1971, and the reason we chose this hike.

Unique in prehistoric rock art worldwide, it’s earned the name the Great Gallery. It is haunting. Elegant. Otherworldly. Its contemplation transforming. Einstein was right:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science.

The Great Gallery is walled on a canvas of rock about 60 metres long. My boots came to a dead stop at first glimpse.

The Great gallery walled on a canvas of rock about 60 metres long

For larger images and captions, click on any photo.

Seemingly hovering on the rock face is “The Holy Ghost Group,” about 20 life-sized phantom images, the largest more than two metres tall. In Europe, animals are what you see in prehistoric art. But in the Great Gallery, anthropomorphic images dominate in size and number. You see three kinds of figures: citizens, spirits and composites of the two—but almost all of the 80 works of art are spirit figures. A canvas symbolic of life, love and death. Altered visions of the Archaic.

Harvard University conducted the first recorded archeological investigation of the Great Gallery in 1929. At that time, Horseshoe Canyon was better known as Barrier Canyon, the name that’s still given to its style of art.

How long ago were these dozens of richly decorated anthropomorphs created?

Because the pigments in rock art often don’t have enough organic material for radiocarbon analysis, scientific dating is difficult.

Our hiking guidebook says they were painted 2,000 to 8,000 years ago by the nomadic Desert Archaic Indians, mostly cave dwellers who preceded the Ancestral Puebloans. Scholars disagree on the timing, as we discovered from the large PDF of articles, The Archeology of Horseshoe Canyon, emailed to us by Gary Cox from the NP Association. (A park ranger is onsite daily to answer questions and protect the art from vandals and thieves.)

Polly Schaafsma, the first person to recognize Barrier Canyon art as a distinct style, believes the Great Gallery was painted between 2500 and 1500 years ago during the Late Archaic Period (3000 BC to 1000 BC) pre agriculture and before the bow-and-arrow here.

Alan Watchman, a research fellow at Australian National University, says radiocarbon analysis dates some of them back to 7430 BC.

More recently, Joel Pederson used Optically Stimulated Luminescence (which determines when sand grains were last exposed to sunlight) to date a new time window between 0 AD and 1100 AD. It’s said the art history evidence leans towards the Archaic peoples painting them, but if Pederson’s study is correct, then the Great Gallery was painted when many cultures were encountering each other.

At any rate, scholars agree that the images were painted by different individuals over millennia—possibly more than 4,000 years passed between the painting of two of its many figures.

No matter what the dates of the paintings, how did they create alfresco art that’s lasted for tens of centuries?

The location the artists chose, an overhanging shelf facing north, their smoothing of the rock surface before painting and the arid climate helped preserve the art.

The artists used a wide range of techniques to achieve the varied painting (pictograph) and pecking (petroglyph) techniques and displayed a mastery of painting elaborate textural effects. They drew on the rock with red ochre and charcoal. They painted with their fingertips and hands, with brushes (made from the ends of chewed-up yucca leaves), fibre wands (made from corn husks) and by spraying or blowing paint from their mouths—a spatter technique that created an ethereal, ghostly effect. To create a richer texture, they imposed lines and dots of thicker paint on top of the first, thin coat. In several cases, they incised lines through the more heavily painted areas to create the feeling of a rich textile, like a buffalo robe.

For reds, the dominant colour, they used hematite—red iron oxide. Limonite was likely the source for yellow, orange probably a combination of the two. The colour green came from malachite; bright blue from azurite; and turquoise, no surprise, from grinding up turquoise itself. And all that white for these ghostly figures? White clay and possibly silica, gypsum, chalk or calcium carbonate. And charcoal for black paint. Scholar Watson Smith writes that, “Judging by what is known from ethnographic sources, the binding medium was probably any one of a number of organic substances. The Hopis, in painting ceremonial objects, use saliva generated by chewing a variety of seeds that contain a vegetable oil; sometimes, but not always, water is added.” Smith also reports that they used “a binding agent of yucca juice or syrup, water and white bean meal, pinon gum for preparing blue and green paints, and the whites of eagle eggs.”

The bigger question is what were the artists trying to convey?

Marchel Duchamp said that art is created “partly by its maker and partly by its audience.” Here, it’s believed the shamans, responsible for maintaining the health and economic viability of their tribes and effecting a balance with the cosmos, are communicating their extraordinary experiences and hopes for the future through art. Evidence suggests the Desert Archaic people journeyed to here (and to other special caves) for ritualistic activity.

The ghostly figures are elongated and usually armless and legless. The eyes are missing or oversized, empty sockets. Antennae or lines float over the heads, which sometimes have ears or horns. The images’ torsos are incised with life-giving symbols of vertical, wavy and zigzag lines by combining painting and pecking techniques. The citizen figures however, are tiny and their arms and legs are in active postures.

To the shamans, animals were spirit helpers, messengers between the natural and supernatural worlds. Birds, for example, may symbolize the shamanic power of flight or the soul transforming into a bird. Snakes with human features suggest transmogrification. The tiny animals and birds may represent ancestral souls of the dead, or, more likely scholars say, shamans experiencing symbolic death and transforming into a supernatural animal form. Also, the Desert Archaic people were facing dwindling food resources so perhaps the abundance of animal figures was an attempt to magically increase their population.

The Great Gallery has the largest number of canine motifs at a single site, anywhere, and much has been postulated about what that means.

The biggest animal depicted here, the dogs are mostly of a natural size with upturned tails, their heads oriented toward the anthropomorph. Often arc-like dots connect the canine and anthropomorph. Dogs that have fingers and feet instead of paws and that are large in body size compared to the anthropomorphs they stand beside suggest shamanic transcendence into animal forms. But there’s also a dog closer to a group of bighorn sheep looking away from the anthropomorph, suggesting a more naturalist world. Scholar Jim Blazik says “…whether used simply as a metaphor for fidelity or more complexly in visual symbolism as guide to the upper or lower realms of supernaturalistic existence in the tripartite universe of the shaman, the canine was clearly held in high ceremonial regard.”

The rare example of a dog not facing the anthropomorph

Something else that’s interesting. Each major element in the Great Gallery was incised or darted after the painting was completed. Again, I’m quoting Jim Blazik. “Considering the precise placement of the pecking, it may well have been that some special significance was given to the head (especially in the area of the eyes) and feet of the dog, as well as in the human figures. The near obliteration of these areas poses several problems: did early people ‘remove’ these areas in order to somehow alter, perhaps to make greater or conversely decrease the power inherent in the figures, the ‘magic’? Or did they save the bits they removed as momentos, as reminders, or as holy relics to be shared with others, and to be revered away from the site?”

What I haven’t told you about yet is the other alcoves you see on the way in before you reach The Great Gallery.

The Alcove Gallery: what do you think the story is here?

“I don’t have a guidebook so I’m going to follow you,” said Jason from Indiana. “I’ve wanted to see this ever since I saw Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi.”

 “What’s that?” we asked. In the Hopi language, koyaanisqatsi means chaotic or unbalanced life. The film Koyaanisqatsi opens with an image of the Great Gallery. After the film was made, Philip Glass created a soundtrack for it and later an album titled Koyaanisqatsi that’s become so popular his ensemble has toured the world playing the music in front of a movie screen—with that same opening image of The Great Gallery.

In my diary, I wrote, “The Great gallery is the MOMA of the prehistoric world.” So you can imagine my surprise when I was reading The Archeology of Horseshoe Canyon and discovered that a mural of The Great Gallery was created and first displayed in 1941, at, you guessed it, the Museum of Modern Art.

And how will we end our story of this experience of great art?

With a quote from Alain de Botton.

Feeling one has had enough luck, more than one deserves, is perhaps the most unfamiliar and uncharted of all emotions.


“The Curve-Tailed Canine,” by Jim Blazik (1999), the quote from Watson Smith (1952), Joel Pederson’s OSL dating science and other detailed information about The Great Gallery came from The Archeology of Horseshoe Canyon, produced by the National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior on Canyonlands National Park. If you’re interested, we can email you a copy.

Copeland, Kathy & Craig. Hiking From Here to Wow: Utah Canyon Country. Birmingham, Alabama: Wilderness Press, 2008. The hiking bible for Utah. Thou shalt not take a step in the state’s wilderness without it.

Since 2008, the larger section of the mural of The Great Gallery has been on display in the Hall of Anthropology at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Here are the dozen day hikes Wanderlust rates as the world’s best.

6 Responses

  1. Fascinating.

    It seems to me the most of the images seem to convey and /or explore spiritual and /or dream experience.

    Not much everyday life and human experience conveyed here compared to Cave painting in France, for instance…

    There seems to be an optimism about it all, although it’s a bit spooky too…

    1. Yes, in the PDF we received from Canyonlands NP, scholars say the Great Gallery is unique because of the shamanistic figures—you don’t find them anywhere else in the world in this period. That’s true for the three sites we’ve seen in Spain—it’s all animals there. We found this to be so fascinating.

  2. Interesting place for sure.
    My first thought when viewing the excellent pictures was, hmmmm look at that, early day tagging, as in graffiti.
    Always a story to tell and what better way to convey your message but with pictures.
    New meaning, or perhaps understanding of “ a picture is worth a thousand words”
    Very, very awesome.

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