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The Rock Art of the Shavano Valley
“This is a world class site. It should be a world heritage site.”
That is what Jean Clottes, a famous French prehistorian and world authority on rock art, said when he saw the Shavano Valley for the first time. He had flown in to see the site and meet with Dr. Carol Patterson, who worked for years with Ute historian Clifford Duncan to record and decipher the meaning of the Shavano petroglyphs within Ute contexts.
The Shavano Valley is a gorge in the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado, about five and a half miles west of Montrose in the ancestral homeland of the Uncompahgre Ute. The valley itself is about seven miles long and to its extreme southwest there is a gentle trail that winds up from the valley floor to the rim. And there, on the cliff face and on detached boulders scattered around, hundreds of years of rock art can be found.
The inhabitants of the valley carved rock art at this site for centuries. The oldest petroglyphs may be over a thousand years old or more, because they depict an atlatl—a spear-throwing weapon that predates the invention of the bow and arrow. The youngest petroglyphs, in contrast, are only three hundred years old at the most.
The art depicts a wide variety of subjects, at more than twenty-six distinct locations. Some are recognizable even to the untrained eye—human figures carrying bundles or tools, bears leaning against trees, even maps of the Uncompahgre Plateau including hunting or traveling trails marked with dotted lines.
Other signs are much more esoteric, and even impossible for an outsider to understand without assistance. But the Shavano Valley is almost unique among rock art sites for the simple reason that the meaning of its petroglyphs is still accessible. Unlike so many similar sites around the world, the meaning is not lost.
Where researchers have to rely on guesswork and limited modern interpretation to understand the meaning of petroglyphs at other sites, that is not the case with Shavano.
“When we talk about the Ute rock art up there, we have information from Ute elders and their history,” explained Dr. Patterson. “Much of it is not too old, and we know from the Ute how they used picture writing. It’s a living culture.”
Carol Patterson is an anthropologist and archaeologist who’s taught at multiple universities. She’s published several books, and for more than eight years she worked closely with Ute elder Clifford Duncan to interpret Ute rock art in Colorado and Utah.
Duncan is an artist, retired historian, former museum director, and currently the cultural resource advisor to the Northern Ute Tribe. He was raised in a traditional family, and has since traveled the world to lecture at various conferences and universities.
Duncan and Dr. Patterson have worked diligently to record, interpret, and understand these ancient markings, from both a modern Ute perspective and those of their prehistoric ancestors. Many of the petroglyphs are understood to be sacred in nature. To Duncan and Dr. Patterson, respect for the site and those who created it is just as important, if not more so, than any attempts to understand it.
The Shavano Valley has long held an interest with people of the region, and not just researchers. Many locals, whether they’re Indigenous, Anglo, or Hispano, are well aware of the valley and its fascinating history. Even before the work of Duncan and Dr. Patterson was accessible to the public, the curiosity and desire to understand that history led to many people visiting the site.
“People would just go and look at it,” explained Dr. Patterson. “And then word got around that you have to go with Carol, because she knows the most about it. So I started taking groups.”
Not long after that, Dr. Patterson designed an interpretive trail guide as part of her work with the Bureau of Land Management. What was meant to be a short and informative work quickly grew, as more and more of the history of the site had to be included.
“It started at four to eight pages,” said Dr. Patterson. “And then it blew out to sixteen pages, and then I added thirteen more with information about Ute history and Chief Shavano. Then I added information about the plants that were there, and then the archaeology. And then along came the geologist, and she mentions ‘Oh, did you know you’re walking right by dinosaur tracks?’”
In the end, the trail guide was over thirty pages long, and there was enough information in it to fill a documentary.
“So we made a movie about Shavano,” said Dr. Patterson. “They give it away free at the Ute Indian Museum.”
Today, History Colorado’s Ute Indian Museum in Montrose is the best place to start for anyone interested in the history of the Shavano Valley. It’s possible to watch the documentary there, purchase the 33-page guidebook, and then travel with a tour group and trained guide to the valley. Interpretive signage, created using the research of Duncan and Dr. Patterson, marks every collection of petroglyphs on the trail, detailing their estimated age, place in history, meaning, and interpretation.
Patterson, Carol B. “Concepts of Spirit in Prehistoric Art According to Clifford Duncan, Ute Spiritual Elder” in Rock Art and Sacred Landscape, ed. Gillette, Donna L.; Greer, Mavis; Hayard, Michele Helene; and Murray, William Breen; pages 139-162. One World Archaeology. New York: Springer, 2014.