Marvin Moore and Katy Gray photograph rock art Monday in Moffat County. The pair are members of the Vermillion Chapter of the Colorado Archeologist Society, which is surveying art in the area.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Marvin Moore and Katy Gray photograph rock art Monday in Moffat County. The pair are members of the Vermillion Chapter of the Colorado Archeologist Society, which is surveying art in the area.

Local group surveys Native American art

The weekend cold front had all but vanished by early Monday afternoon.

It was hot, bright and dusty, and parts of the mountainside were steep, going on vertical.

But, even on a day like this, what else is a 63-year-old retired attorney to do but work his way through the cacti and shrubs that cover the local landscape and look for Native American petroglyphs?

Or, as the laymen call it, "rock art" - carvings and paintings on natural stone surfaces.

"We just kinda think it's fun," said Bill Lawrence, the aforementioned retired attorney and president of the Colorado Archeological Society Vermillion Chapter.

Lawrence rested easily on a commercial walking stick underneath a sheer cliff face about 30 feet high. A faint picture of an animal, thought to be between 500 and 1,400 years old, stood out from the rock above his shoulder.

"We've lived in Craig for a long time," he said about his colleagues in the Archeological Society. "We're always looking for something fun to do."

History made on stones

This particular trip, out to a Moffat County location that must by federal regulation remain a secret, was more than a sightseeing tour.

The Archeological Society Vermillion Chapter and the Bureau of Land Management Little Snake Field Office in Craig received an $8,000 grant from the Colorado State Historic Fund to survey rock art and document what they find.

A professional archeologist and Northern Ute tribal representatives were hired to guide the work of 11 Vermillion Chapter volunteers.

During four days, the group found a couple of examples of art that had no official record before now, as well as other unusual traces of a civilization that no longer exists in this area, said Robyn Morris, BLM field office archeologist.

Dancer figures greet travelers at the base of the mountain, which Morris said is not common.

One large boulder, a bland, red surface at ground level, has hundreds of small-sized scoops cut out of its top side, a design and cut not seen anywhere else in Moffat County.

There is a shelter area covered with figure drawings that has, in one spot, several vertical lines carved into the rock face. A popular theory Monday was that the lines might correspond to the sun's position with each solstice.

With every case of something unusual, amateur and professional archeologists alike can only guess their meaning.

It's those unusual traces that make this particular site important, Morris said, and further necessitate secrecy about the location.

There are places in Moffat County open to tourists and visitors who want to see Native American culture on display, such as Irish Canyon in Browns Park, but the site where Lawrence stood beside a cliff face Monday afternoon is not one of them.

It's too important to risk looters and vandals, Morris said, however regrettable it is to not let the public see history with their own eyes.

"It's not that we don't want people out there," she said. "It's that we want people to be stewards when they go out there. It's not 90 percent of people we're worried about; it's the looters."

Finding the unknown

Archeology is about finding the past, and people can destroy history just as the natural course of weather and erosion eventually will erase every example of ancient rock art from the landscape.

Morris couldn't pinpoint what compels her to explore a history that has little direct impact on life today and most likely not will survive the test of time, no matter how protective the federal regulations become.

"I think people have always asked, 'Why record archeological sites?' To know who these people are," Morris said, "I just feel very passionate about knowing the past. I think it's neat to be in a place that I thought no one had ever been before, and then discover something that shows people have been here for a long time before me. It's a connection to humanity, but that's kind of cheesy."

Katy Gray, Vermillion Chapter secretary and treasurer, said she has been looking at Native American artifacts for 24 years.

To her, it's a matter of exercising a healthy curiosity and seizing the opportunity to see.

"If you're up here, you need to see this stuff," Gray said. "I'm fascinated by Native Americans, their culture and way of looking at the earth and dealing with family."

It doesn't matter that, for now, she has no way of knowing what the exact meaning of the pictures, diagrams and other designs may be, she added.

"The more you see, the more you can kind of put patterns together," Gray said.

"No, I like mystery."

For more information about the Archeological Society Vermillion Chapter or to join the group, contact Gray at mkjjgray@live.com.

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