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USU Scientists Shed New Light on Age of Barrier Canyon-style Rock Art

Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014

USU professor and geologist Joel Pederson

USU geologist Joel Pederson gazes at the 'Holy Ghost' grouping of figures on a rock face of the Great Gallery in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Pederson is lead author on an Aug. 25 PNAS paper suggesting the rock art is younger than expected.

USU alum Melissa Jackson Chapot collecting samples at research site

USU alum Melissa Jackson Chapot, 2010 Science Valedictorian and a National Science Foundation Grad Research Fellow at Wales' Aberyswyth University, collects samples at the Great Gallery research site for optically stimulated luminescence dating.

These are sinister and supernatural figures, gods from the underworld, perhaps, who hover in space…” wrote famed author Edward Abbey of Horseshoe Canyon’s Barrier Canyon-style rock art personages.

Crafted on sunset-washed rock faces in a remote section of southern Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, the enigmatic images have sparked endless questions about who made them, when they made them and why. Utah State University scientists say the ancient paintings are younger than previously thought.

In a new paper, the researchers report findings from studies using cutting-edge luminescence dating techniques that narrow the time frame for the paintings in the Great Gallery. These results disprove proposed hypotheses of the age of the prehistoric drawings, thought by some to be among the oldest artifacts of the American Southwest.

“Our findings reveal these paintings were likely made between 1,000 to 2,000 years ago,” says lead author Joel Pederson, professor in USU’s Department of Geology. “The most accepted hypotheses pointed to the age of these paintings as 2,000 to 4,000 years old or perhaps even 7,000 to 8,000 years old. We show it is younger than expected.”

Pederson and USU alum Melissa Jackson Chapot ‘10, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Wales’ Aberystwyth University, along with USU colleagues Steven Simms, professor in the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Anthropology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Tammy Rittenour, associate professor in Geology and director of the USU Luminescence Lab, as well as Reza Sohbati and Andrew Murray of Aarhus University and  the Technical University of Denmark, and Gary Cox of Canyonlands National Park, published findings in the Aug. 25, 2014, online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The USU-led team’s findings strike a key point about the art’s creators: They may have co-existed with the Fremont people, who are credited with carving distinctly different pictographs found in the same region.

“Previous ideas suggested a people different from the Fremont created the paintings because the medium and images are different,” Pederson says. “This raises a lot of archaeological questions.”

The possibility that the artists who created the Barrier Canyon-style art lived sometime between A.D. ~1 and 1100 means a lot to archeologist Simms. The change in date places the artwork within the time period of the rise of the Fremont culture.

“This time period (between A.D ~1 and 1100) is a very interesting and vibrant time,” Simms says. “Our dating the Great Gallery to this time period means it was probably created in a time of great multicultural upheaval.”

Simms explains that the new later dating of the BCS rock art means it likely was created during a period when farming populations were moving into areas traditionally inhabited by hunter-gatherer cultures.

The changes agriculture brought to indigenous peoples were all encompassing; including everything from lifestyle to economics. Simms compared the mingling of cultures, traditions, languages and religions to 19th century western expansion in the United States.

“It’s a time when you’re getting a lot of cultural interaction between different heritages,” Simms says. “That’s when new artistic traditions are created. That’s when new religions are created.”

Simms is quick to point out that the new dating technique was used on only one site; one example BCS rock art in one location. Simms says the team hopes to complete similar research on other examples of BCS rock art that, “differ from the Great Gallery to see where they fall [chronologically].”

Such insights might yield information about the length of time the Barrier Canyon-style persisted and its evolution over time. Simms said the group is already beginning to plot its next research steps. 

For his part, Pederson is focused on the geology that shed light on the timing of the artwork’s creation.

“First, we examined two approaches that enabled us to ‘draw a box’ around a probable window of time,” he says.

One approach involved analysis of stream deposits that pegged the paintings’ age as younger than surrounding sediment. The other utilized the fact the paintings were older than a rock fall that occurred at the site.

“Luminescence dating allowed us to document the timing of these geologic events,” Pederson says. “A third, new approach allowed us to narrow the window even more.”

With assistance from colleagues at Denmark’s Nordic Laboratory for Luminescence Dating, the Aggies estimated the exposure time of rock surfaces at the site that provided the study’s final results.

“By synthesizing these three approaches, we’ve gained more chronological information than ever before,” Pederson says. “This opens the door to new insights into past cultures and landscapes.”

Related links:

Contact: Joel Pederson, 435-797-7097,

Contact: Steven Simms 435-797-1277,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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