The trail to the Rochester Creek panel winds through a timeless oasis. After traveling through miles of dry canyons and salt washes, it is easy to see why ancient artists were drawn to the spot. As the trail follows the path of least resistance, it drops into a small, lush valley, filled with shrubs and herbs. It is easy to imagine people here, thousands of years before, dropping juniper berries and rice grass seeds into hand-woven baskets, while others chipped away at the rock wall above.
While the residents of Rochester Creek may have been in contact with others who grew squash and maize, they didn't need to farm here. K. Renee Barlow argues that while many cultures in the region may have had access to agricultural technology, gathering in areas such as this would have provided a much higher yield. (American Antiquity, vol. 67, no. 1, Jan 2002, pp. 65-88.) (Either way, their diet probably left them anemic.)
The panel itself, actually compromising several walls of sandstone, sits atop a bluff overlooking the convergence of Rochester Creek and Muddy Creek (shown below.) The views are spectacular:
...but the main section of the panel soon captures the attention:
The wall here is covered with a variety of symbols and anthropomorphic images, reaching well above arm's reach. The center line extends to the top of the wall, over 10 feet above the floor. A section of this panel is missing, likely removed decades ago by some overzealous pothunter. (There are probably some essential pieces of the panel sitting in someone's attic, or on display in some ultra-private museum.) The stark contrast of the exposed rock is a telltale sign of recent activity. Initials, carved within the last century, are scattered across the panel as well. (Look in the upper right of the image above, or in the image below.)
The images in these carvings range from the fantastical to the ordinary, representing the life and mythology of a people who lived long ago... but how long? Betsy L. Tipps of the National Park Service describes the dating techniques used to pinpoint a date at Rochester Creek:
This predominantly petroglyph site has one red, Barrier Canyon anthropomorph that was exposed by pothunters digging along the cliff wall sometime after 1979. The pothunters also exposed a hearth.... In 1984, Loendorf (1985) profiled the pothole, sampled the hearth, and collected a small assemblage of artifacts--including a mano with a faint layer of red pigment adhering to it--from the soil the pothunters removed. The hearth provided a radiocarbon date of 1990 +/- 70 B.P. which has a tree-ring corrected age range of 170 B.C.- A.D. 200 at two sigma (Stuiver and Pearson 1993). Based on this radiocarbon date from a feature in soil that covered the pictograph and the ochre-stained mane that may have been used to prepare the paint for its production, Loendorf (1985:8) concludes that the red figure was painted around "the time of Christ."
Some scholars have attributed the Rochester Creek Panel to the Barrier Canyon Culture, while others believe it was carved by the Fremont. Indeed, elements of style from both of these cultures can be found in the panel, but at 2000 years of age, the panel pre-dates the Fremont by several hundred years. Kevin L. Callahan of the Upper Midwest Rock Art Research Association (through the anthropology department at the University of Minnesota) argues that the panel represents a unique, transitional style all by itself. Here is his definition of "Rochester Creek Style", which he believes predates both the Fremont and Barrier Canyon styles, but follows the curvilinear Archaic style:
Time Period: Before 2000 years ago. 3000 B.C. to 0 B.C.
A style with bodies with fluid movements and distinctive forms of bodies for animals and people. Realistic. Hairstyles. "Rainbow" parallel arcs. A transitional style. Relatively fewer sites.
I'm inclined to agree with this interpretation. The Rochester Creek panel could have been a strong influence on other, later cultures. The figure holding a ladder in the panel above is quite Fremont-like, while the antelopes seen above and the dancing image shown to the right are reminiscent of later Navajo figures, like the Kokopelli. Perhaps the artists of Rochester Creek left a message for future civilizations, from the Fremont, to the ancestral Puebloans, to some of the tribes still in existence today.