The Art of Time III: Symbolism on the Solstice

i-d3170f24848329808325058925150182-spiral.jpgToday, the sun is rising to its highest point over the northern hemisphere. It is the longest day of the year--the summer solstice. But do we notice? Outside of a glance at the calendar, marking the official start of summer, it's just another day. Did the residents of Rochester Creek notice the solstice 2000 years ago?

When they carved these elaborate images into the face of the rock, were they considering the passage of time and the rotation of seasons? Were they librarians, recording useful information, such as astronomical or biological details?


Or were they shamans, performing religious rituals, conjuring demons, in order to illicit the passions and loyalties of the tribe? Perhaps the carvings are a record of a warrior's quest into the spirit world, or the illustrations for an epic tale. i-e53f3337c33c4122d526d26048cef95b-shamansm.jpgCould these images merely be the figments of someone's imagination, monsters in a bedtime story?

Given the time and detail needed to create these carvings, they probably had an important function.


Rather than being fantastical elements of a story, could the strange images be symbols for landmarks? Could the Rochester Creek panel be some sort of map? Carvings of snakes are found scattered about, both on the Rochester Creek panel and along the roads approaching--could the snake symbolize direction, and the bends along its body represent distance? On the main panel, one of the snake figures is connected to a foot, suggesting some sort of association. Perhaps the panel gives directions to a sacred place or hunting ground.

Perhaps artists were trying to explain the world around them. When they saw the dinosaur footprints a few miles away, perhaps they surmised (correctly) that a giant lizard once strolled across the land:


Of course, not all the petroglyphs here depict obscure symbols or mythical creatures. Some parts of the panel describe an ordinary life:


This arch, over four feet high, is the most prominent feature of the Rochester Creek panel. Most people refer to it as a rainbow, and some suggest that it represents the dome of the heavens. (The figures along the outside are supposed to represent constellations.) However, I believe the images of daily life within the arch suggest a different interpretation--this is a picture of their house.

Whether this represents a pithouse or a mud hut, I see a home. Note the major figures in the "house" from left to right: First, at the bottom left, there is some sort of animal skin, providing a rug or a bed for the round object on top (a baby, perhaps?) A bird appears to hang above the rug... perhaps this was next week's dinner. Tonight's dinner is to the right of the rug. Here, an antelope is roasted over a burning juniper tree. (This figure originally seemed out of place, until I realized the squiggly lines rising from the tree indicated smoke.) Next to the fire (perhaps tending it) a masculine figure sits atop another rug (the outline of the rug is faint, but distinct.)

A female figure stands nearby, while another, above her, is in the process of giving birth. Smaller figures (midwives?) surround the birthing woman. One seems to have noticeably bare breasts--perhaps she is the nursemaid. Impressions of bird feet are scattered about the home, suggesting the family had some associations with a bird. Perhaps the owl, shown throughout the panel, was their protective spirit. Outside of the home, to the right, a spiral shape with meandering lines suggest the home was built near the water--perhaps on Muddy Creek, below.

While we've been looking around the house, the sun has continued to shine upon the Rochester Creek panel. We still haven't decided if the artists took notice of the solstice. To the left of the main panel, a less prominent panel suggests they were counting something:


The circles here could represent suns or moons, perhaps counting from an important event. (I wonder if it involved the death of the falling figure on the left. The tall figure in the center, armed with a bow and arrow, seems to be wearing a headdress; perhaps a chief delivered the essential shot.)

i-8da7e3bfcd3f4bc4768b0927694a6cf1-gnomon.jpgIf the artists were counting months, they weren't here very long. Otherwise the panel would have been filled with circles, rather than a neat line. So, they could have been counting years... but how? While it is easy to note the fullness of the moon, measuring the passage of the sun throughout the year is a bit more complex. We just check the calendar. Did the artists of Rochester Creek have some sort of calendar, too?

Jesse Warner* of the Utah Rock Art Association believes so. When a post (called a gnomon in this context) is placed in front of the panel, a shadow will move across the figures along the top of the panel. At each solstice, equinox, and equal intervals between, the shadow will touch a different image:


At the summer solstice, the shadow aligns with the rope-like image on the left. Notice that the lizard figure seems to be centered in-between the sections. Perhaps the patterns on the lizard were counting further intervals of time. With the other corresponding images missing, it's difficult to say.

The summer solstice line divides the panel. To the right of the line, underneath the solar calendar, the images tend to represent typical activities, i.e., the pithouse, hunting, and so on. To the left of the line, the images are considerably more bizarre. Perhaps the solstice line is a demarcation between real time and that which exists outside of time, as in the beholder's imagination.

Perhaps the Rochester Creek panel was left as a guide for others. "This is our life, our home, our mythology," they seem to be telling us. "We watch the passage of the sun. Our women are fertile and the hunt is good. Follow in our footsteps, and you will find success as well."

Perhaps those who passed by Rochester Creek over the past few thousand years took note of these carvings. Perhaps they carried the knowledge of the calendar and the styles of art to other corners of the southwest, inspiring cultures like those at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Perhaps they even carried the ideas to the Aztecs, further south, or passed them on to future generations, to show up as elements in Native American art today. In any case, the art of time endures.

Notes: (*) Last year, Warner produced a DVD on the subject, which I plan to pick up one of these days.

For more information on petroglyphs and pictographs in this area, including more pictures of the Rochester Creek Panel, please visit the lovely Southwestern United States Rock Art Gallery.

For more on solar calendars in the Southwest, see this factsheet at

Gnomon image via Nal's Parowan Gap webpage, which discusses both the calendar at Rochester Creek and a similar calendar at Parowan Gap to the southwest.

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Fascinating stuff!
I've always been interested in the possible meanings of ancient art and mythology. They're a great way of combining storytelling, which is easy to understand and remember for socially living humans, and practical information (geographic, biological, social,...) about the world they live in.
Kinda like fairytales do. (Allthough they tend to focus on the social information.)
And kinda like "Dragon" does...
Just read it and liked it. (Only thing I didn't like was the "moral of the story bit" at the end. It was a clear metaphor, so some readers of some ages might find it over the top.)

Well, actually, just like all stories do.

I am a musician living in the UK. I have recently completed a 20-minute work for large orchestra entitled "Rochester Creek". I visited the petroglyph site at Rochester Creek some years ago. It was then that I had the idea of writing an orchestral piece based on the imagery of the panel. The composition is divided into a connected series of ten tableaux representing the setting and the main individual petroglyphs. It took some time to formulate my ideas and transfer them to an orchestral tapestry but, after much revision and re-writing, the work was eventually completed in May 2009.

By David Eccott (not verified) on 07 Jul 2009 #permalink

those images look simply stunning, always been found of symbolism in many different cultures, especially shamanism, paganism and other ancient religions.

I dont think its a home.. Maybe not even a rainbow.
If we continue to think on how primitive life was, we might come to the conclusion that this is a time-line. Not of months, days and years but a time-line in history.. If you look in the right hand corner, there are dinosaur-like pictures and after the division where it might be an entity on the top of the dividing line there is a picture of a "woman" that almost seems like she is speaking to this "entity" and there are "dogs" running from on side to the "Pr-historic" animals, almost insinuating that we have evolved and animals have not change or did not under go intelligent evolution, lending themselves to the more instinctual qualities and not the intelligent....IDK..thats just my theory !!

By Angel Nunez` (not verified) on 29 Feb 2012 #permalink