Discover the writings of an ancient people and fossilized dinosaur tracks preserved in stone. With over 90 panels and 1,500 figures, Parowan Gap is believed to be one of the most concentrated collections of petroglyphs in the West – and one of the most accessible.
Wind, water and sand carved out this natural passageway that was once used as a major road way by ancient people. The different cultures are evident by the hundreds of petroglyphs carved into the Gap including geometric designs, snakes, mountain sheep, bear claws and human figures.
Parowan Gap has two distinct connotations, one natural, one man-made. The three-mile long pass near Parowan, is a classic example of a wind gap – an unusual geological landform marking where an ancient river has cut a 600-foot deep notch through the Red Hills. Parowan Gap is nationally recognized due to the quality of its petroglyphs and heralded as a kind of “gallery” of exquisite and well-preserved American Indian rock carvings.
The steeply dipping rock forming the Gap is the Navajo Sandstone, evidencing a period 200 million years ago when most of Utah was blanketed by a wind deposited sand, similar to a Saharan Desert environment. Since the Navajo’s deposition and transformation into stone, this area has been covered by thousands of feet of other sediment and volcanic rock. These rock units have been tipped and faulted by regional compression and extension events in the earth’s crust. At the Gap, erosion has removed these overlying rock units. Due to its erosion resistance, the Navajo Sandstone ridge is a prominent exposed feature of the Gap area.
The many years of archaeological and geological research verifies human occupation for at least 12,000 years or more in Utah. Transient hunters who tracked the large, now extinct animals of the late Pleistocene era (mammoth, giant bison, etc.) arrived first on the scene. As the area became warmer and dryer the “Archaic” lifestyle developed. These people practiced a more diversified economy through seasonal migration of following the resources as they became available.
By at least 1 A.D. the practice of agriculture had moved from the Valley of Mexico into the American Southwest. By 500 A.D. the farming people known as the “Fremont” occupied the Parowan Valley. Though the Fremont lived in permanent pit house villages, they continued to hunt and gather to supplement or replace their crops in bad years. Closely related culturally to the Hopi and other Southwestern tribes; the Fremont are thought to have made figures in the Gap sandstone.
By approximately 1300 A.D. the Fremont had migrated from the valleys of Central and Southern Utah, as did many other agricultural groups from seemingly favorable areas of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. The Fremont were replaced by groups of people who followed the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Locally, the Paiute filled this niche and were in residence when the Mormon Pioneers began to colonize the area in the mid-1800’s. The Paiute people today still reside in the area.
The Glyphs of Parowan Gap
A petroglyph is an image carved or etched into rock. Essentially, a petroglyph is made by scratching away the uppermost surface of a rock to reveal rock of a different color underneath. The petroglyph is among the earliest known forms of art and record-keeping, and prehistoric petroglyphs exist around the globe, some dating back as far as 10,000 years.
During the 1960’s, LaVan Martineau extensively studied petroglyphs at Parowan Gap using crypto analytical methods. He concluded that the rock writing was based on a sign language that was essentially universal. Martineau believed that petroglyphs are historical accounts of actual events and that even the surface of the sandstone petroglyph has special significance to the story being told.
In 1990, archaeoastronomy researcher Nowell L. “Nal” Morris, and archeologist Garth Norman, began a ten-year study of the Parowan Gap petroglyphs. Their findings concluded that some of the Gap petroglyphs are solar and lunar calendars. While the theories of Morris and Norman are very compelling, they are still under review by the scientific and the American Indian communities. It is important to remember that there is no one right translation. The petroglyphs are interpreted differently depending on the culture, time, and background of the interpreter.
The Archaeoastronomy Perspective
Archeological research recognizes that a principal of survival for early civilizations was the creation of sundials and calendars, much like the Meso-American civilizations in Central America. The ability of these groups to observe and chart the cyclical and seasonal movement of the sun, the moon and the stars assisted them in knowing when to plant and harvest crops, and to prepare for winter.
Researchers Morris and Norman believe that when American Indians came to the Gap, they discovered that Mother Nature had provided them with a natural solar and lunar calendar system. Morris & Norman theorize that the only human hand involved in the Gap was a Shaman who inscribed upon the stone panels instructions on how to use the outcroppings, shadow markers and geography of the mountains to tell time and seasons.
When you explore Parowan Gap, you will notice that the typical glyph is a geometric form with some repetitive dots or lines. Morris and Norman believe that the repetitive tick marks represent something else; like a day, or month or even a year. Morris and Norman believe that the main glyph or “Zipper Glyph” possibly served as a solar calendar. Early in their research, the scientists placed an outline of the zipper glyph on a topographical map. They found that the outline conformed to the contours of the Gap and its surrounding mountain features. Using solar engineering technology, the team then discovered a series of cairns (rock monuments) along the valley and foothills on both sides of the Gap opening. The tick marks, which make the glyph look like a zipper, could be interpreted as being individual day markers. Like a map, you can follow the count down from summer to harvest time.
Parowan Gap is located about 20 miles north of Cedar City; take Highway 130 to Gap Road, continue east through the Gap. Parking will be on the right side. From Parowan, travel west on 400 North for 10.5 miles, parking will be on the right. Learn more.