You can observe a lot by just watching. -Yogi Berra
I post a good amount of photos that feature rock art, archaeological sites, potsherds, or other items from generations past. A typical question I receive is often along the lines, “How did you find these sites?”
But I see a fair amount of these sites and artifacts on my own. Something is rewarding about finding something not listed.
One of my favorite backcountry moments ended up finding a two-floor Pueblo located above the canyon bottom. On a January day, the sun-filled alcove looked inviting. On a hunch, I scrambled up to the ledge and saw a site not listed on the map. And a site that I have not seen any photos of previously — a great moment on a trip that filled with many such moments.
I am not a historian, an archaeologist, or any kind of professional “ologist.” But from many years of experience in the backcountry, I did pick up some ideas and tips that might help you find these special places on your own.
With that in mind, here are some tips that work for my travels along the ancient paths.
- Look for south-facing walls that are “panely” for rock art. “Panely” is not a real word, but it works for me. 🙂 Meaning, a flat panel-looking place on a canyon wall. Here in Southeast Utah, that often means the Wingate Sandstone with the desert patina (oxidized iron and manganese).
Why south facing? Because those areas receive the most sunlight. Be it for artistry, news, or spiritual purposes; this art is meant to be seen. And the artists put their art where people would see it in addition to having the most light to create while painting or carving their works.
- Likewise, look for south-facing alcoves when hiking along. Again, in the pre-Industrial times, more sunlight for warmth and light would be a driving factor. Having a basic compass on you, even for a stroll next to a road becomes very useful.
Note: The sites are almost always south-facing; the art not necessarily so. But almost always on a “panely” slab of a canyon wall.
- Look around at the junction or entrance/exit of a canyon or a prominent spot such as a high point or pass. Much like our rest stop kiosks at highway intersections, the ancient sites tend to be situated where most people pass through. In lieu of fast-food restaurants and gas stations, you might find pottery sherds, old dwellings, rock art, or all of these items at essential points of travel. If you can read a map and understand how people might travel through the land, you will find many of these hidden delights.
- Look around when on the old travel paths. When hiking in New Mexico, I followed the Camino Real for a bit, a colonial Spanish trading route that piggybacked on an even older Puebloan trading route. And I then followed some abandoned USFS roads nearby that, no doubt, followed ancients paths as well. And what I did see at random? An old potsherd.
The paths through the land that we follow on foot, and many times our paved roads, don’t change that much in many ways. The contours of the land often dictate the best path of travel. Be it in 2019, 1519, or 1219.
And that’s how I find some of these sites and artifacts. Oh, you can get even more details by looking over topos, performing more rigorous academic research, and using more professional techniques that are beyond my skill set. But if you find yourself in the backcountry, even following these simple ideas can let you explore, find, and savor some sites, art, and objects on your own.
- Look for south-facing areas
- Sheer rock walls, esp with desert varnish, along with these south-facing areas, stand a good chance of having art.
- Pay attention at junctions or prominent points
- Think of how ancient people might travel through the landscape; a good chance you’ll find something along the way.
Happy historic trails!