Severed heads tell a violent mystery at Utah’s Dry Fork Canyon petroglyphs

Exploring Utah • Arguably the state’s finest rock art, the McConkie Ranch panels baffle and impress a modern gaze.

(Erin Alberty|The Salt Lake Tribune) Fremont petroglyphs show a character holding what appears to be a severed head at McConkie Ranch in Dry Fork Canyon near Vernal. Photo taken July 23, 2009.

For all the mysteries the Fremont people left behind, one thing is clear about their petroglyphs at Dry Fork Canyon: This is a drama for the ages.

Oh. My. God. It’s amazing. Horned guys carrying around human heads. Parades of intricately drawn characters wielding weapons and ornate shields. Streaks of blood-red pigment dripping from someone’s neck.

It is not your average rock art.

Sometime before A.D. 1200, there was a thriving arts scene in the Vernal area. You can see a large body of work just west of town at what is now McConkie Ranch, a stretch of private land with a marked trail open to the public under scores of petroglyphs along Dry Fork Canyon.

The east section shows the artists’ peaceful phase. There are pregnant women with smiling lips, little families standing together and, high on a cliff, two buddies holding hands.

Then, a half mile to the west, the Fremont artists of Vernal got their edge.

There is blood. There is gore. No detail was spared. If you’re going to spend hours and hours chiseling scenes of dismemberment and carnage, you’ve got to put some tears on your bodiless heads. One sad head is crying next to a pair of detached feet.

(Erin Alberty|The Salt Lake Tribune) Fremont petroglyphs show a character wielding what appears to be a bloody weapon at McConkie Ranch in Dry Fork Canyon near Vernal. Photo taken July 23, 2009.

What’s missing is any explanation of the pictures’ meaning or history. The state posted a sign that says the site “probably dates to the period A.D. 1 to 1200.” Helpful. The ranch has a welcome booth where you can buy a visitor’s guide with photos of certain petroglyphs you want to be sure to see — but no accounts of what they are about.

That’s because no one seems to know much about the Fremont people: how they died, who their friends were, who their enemies were, or who even counted as “Fremont.” And the significance of the pictures is all guesswork. Were these actual wars? Mythical wars? Wars at all? What did the sad heads do to deserve this? Was the art a metaphor or a prayer for something?

These are worthy questions for any of Utah’s rock art panels, but the Dry Fork site is on a whole different level, not just in the apparent artistic skill — these are magnificent carvings that give me chills every time I see them — but also in the relatable sense of story. These aren’t faceless silhouettes clustered with everyday animals and some unknown symbols. At Dry Fork, people appear as distinct characters, with elaborate attire and headwear. They are positioned in tidy order and obvious groups. And they are holding other people’s heads.

(Erin Alberty|The Salt Lake Tribune) Fremont petroglyphs show characters standing in a row at McConkie Ranch in Dry Fork Canyon near Vernal. Photo taken July 23, 2009.

Maybe these pictures appeal to Western eyes because they so clearly seem to be drawn as specific individuals. It feels like the way I would tell a story, with character development and conflict. It takes a different way of thinking to engage with a faceless guy next to sheep. To us, the faceless guy could be anyone. We modern Americans like our characters to be special.

It would be easy to project faulty assumptions from our culture and time onto the petroglyphs — and not just noticing silly coincidences, like how certain figures look like SpongeBob SquarePants or the Jack of Spades or Michael Jackson dangling a baby off a balcony. When it comes to ancient people and their art, we don't know what we don't know: what its purpose was, what activities went on where it was created, all the background knowledge that might affect how people saw it. Imagine how wildly misunderstood a crucifix might be if there were no written record of Christianity.

What if it turned out this rock art isn't blood and gore at all? What if death images actually were taboo for the Fremont people? What if those “severed heads” are actually sacred masks, and the long, weapon-looking things are some other kind of tools for worship or celebration? Sure, it’s far-fetched — but to another mind, the idea that anyone would reverently depict their god as a dead body might seem equally far-fetched.

Of course, sometimes the simplest explanation is the right one.

In a 2009 paper, photographer and historian Francois Gohier argues that the heads depict kill trophies, and points specifically to the one that has red pigment running off of it. Gohier says older records of the site indicate the bottom part of the picture, which broke off sometime during the 20th century, contained an important clue: a little pool of red pigment beneath the dripping head.

OK, that’s a pretty well-thought-out action scene.

But the larger arc is lost. In a way that’s different from Utah’s other rock art, these images make me crave the whole story and why the artists showed it in this way. It’s hard to find the headspace to linger on the part that gives me chills, to behold this gallery as it hangs in the moment, and not dash around taking inventory of all the unanswered questions. Maybe in the distant future, the people who find the ruins of our lives will have a totally different way of seeing this art, one that would consider my preoccupation with “the answers” to be kind of primitive and crude.

Now I imagine the Fremont artists of Vernal sitting around wherever death took them and watching me puzzle and theorize over their opus. I bet they’re kind of annoyed.

“How much more detail could we have scratched into a rock?”

“Just look at the picture, lady.”

“I can’t believe I drew all those tears.”

For what it’s worth, guys: You may still be ahead of your time.

For details about visiting the Dry Fork Canyon petroglyphs, see this Hike of the Week.