Stories in sandstone: Potash Road petroglyphs

Rock in water

About five miles SW of Moab on the Potash Road (aka Scenic Byway 279), travelers may be surprised to find several extensive panels of petroglyphs from the Formative period (Anasazi and Fremont cultures).

The glyphs are not hard to find — in fact, there are road signs marking the spots, two of them within 100 yards of each other.

The two-lane is bordered on the east by the broad brown sweep of the Colorado River, with slickrock mounds and domes rising above the tree-lined river border on the other side. Above the road on the west loom steep sandstone walls, making this stretch of highway a popular spot for rock climbers.

Desert varnish

The rock walls are coated sporadically with desert varnish, into which some of the more prominent glyphs have been carved and chiseled. In many areas, slabs of varnished rock have flaked away, leading one to wonder what storytelling elements might have been lost to time.

The bear hunt

The ones that remain tell fascinating and curious tales. Hunting narratives abound, as do what seem to be accounts of ceremonies and dances involving elaborate horned headdresses and figures whose origins can only be guessed at.

The bear hunt (detail)

What I discovered during and after photographing these glimpses of past cultures and lifestyles is that things show up in the development stage (if we can refer to digital post-processing as development, borrowing convenient film terminology) that we had no idea were there as we were snapping the shutter.

The iron-washed rock surfaces upon which the pictures were rendered proved just as fascinating to me as the glyphs themselves, framing them evocatively.

One strange rendering kept catching my eye from across the road — it had the appearance of one of those delicate images painted onto the walls of ice age caves in France: a flowing, graceful line drawing of what seemed to be some kind of antelope.

Accidental art

Upon closer inspection, the image proved to be merely a dished-out fracture in the rock wall; my imagination and expectation had turned it into something more meaningful.

Was this fractured feature there when the ancient artists created their images in stone? If so, did they bestow the same meaning on it that I did, a thousand years later? Just one of the many questions one ponders over while viewing these marvelous relics from the past.

Art at an angle

Fractured canvas

(NOTE that many of these images are best viewed by clicking on them to bring up the native resolution version.)

Dividing line

The hand

Fissure

Underscore

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11 thoughts on “Stories in sandstone: Potash Road petroglyphs

    • Yeah hunting, I like the hand also. Looks like the only spiral I captured in these images is at the very bottom of the last photo (Underscore). I think those that look like they might be spirals in Art at an Angle are actually shields. (But maybe they’re shields with spirals on them?)

    • Jim, I’m estimating about 5-6 miles in from the hwy. junction. All of that drive is beautiful, situated as it is along the banks of the Colorado River.

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