Description of the Grand Canyon Polychrome Style

Though closely related to the Barrier Canyon Style rock art of southeastern Utah, and to the Pecos River rock art of Texas, the Grand Canyon Polychrome pictographs have a unique combination of characteristics, and more subjectively, a unique look. The similarities between these three styles may be attributed to the "Pan-Archaic" tradition which seems to encompass most of the western United States. When sorting out the traits exhibited in the Grand Canyon Polychrome Style, it almost appears to be a synthesis of Great Mural, Barrier Canyon, and Pecos River rock art.

Noteworthy traits of Grand Canyon Polychrome include anthropomorphs with life-like details such as eyelashes, toes, and pupils; phallic males are occasionally seen. Sometimes figures are portrayed in a whimsical fashion, with smiling expressions. Anthropomorphs whose arms are slender and outstretched, and often originate below the neck/shoulder level. Many figures have narrow shoulders and elongated torsos, though a few have trapezoidal shaped bodies. Arms, legs, and feet, as well as torsos, are commonly decorated with stripes, dots, or rectangles, giving some figures a "jailbird look". Another recurring attribute is a head with cat-like ears or with "horns". Frequently no distinction is made between the head and body, i.e. figures are "neckless"with large decorated trapezoids or elongated rectangles forming the anthropomorph's silhouette.

In addition to anthropomorphs, Grand Canyon Polychrome artwork displays spread-winged birds, bighorn sheep, deer, pelt-like objects, and abstract symbols. Birds are occasionally positioned near the head of an anthropomorph like "spirit guides". The quadrupeds, like the anthropomorphs, are frequently painted with outlined bodies, subdivided inside into geometric shapes. A small shrimp-like, crescent-shaped creature appears occasionally, positioned near one or more anthropomorphs. Round decorated "shields" are quite common, as are rayed disks resembling sunflowers.

Comparing Barrier Canyon rock art with Grand Canyon Polychrome

Unlike Barrier Canyon sites which typically have figures spaced out across a panel in a parade-like manner, the composition of Grand Canyon Polychrome work is more crowded. There seem to be instances of contemporary superimposition (i.e. Grand Canyon Polychrome on top of Grand Canyon Polychrome). However, these Grand Canyon sites were utilized over a long period of time; the crowded appearance and superimposition is partially due to additions of later pictographs on top of older Grand Canyon Polychrome figures. Sorting out older versus younger elements on these complex panels can be a difficult task.

The range of pigments in the Grand Canyon Polychrome panels includes at least nine distinct shades: dark brownish red, light terra cotta red, cream, white, black, lime green, forest green, yellow ochre, and light yellow. Dark red and cream are the most commonly used colors.

Like the Barrier Canyon Style, the Grand Canyon Polychrome Style focuses on anthropomorphic characters, though the mummy-like body shape common in many Barrier Canyon panels is rarely seen in Grand Canyon. However, both traditions share the "x-ray" body style showing what appears to be skeletal structure (i.e. ribs).

The Grand Canyon figures are usually carefully rendered. They often have elongated rectangular or trapezoidal-shaped bodies, and round, bulbous, or trapezoidal- shaped heads. Some have one or two horns on top of their heads. There are a number of double-headed anthropomorphs. A few figures are depicted with "snakes" or wavy lines near them. One key trait that does link the Barrier Canyon and Grand Canyon pictographs is the occasional presence of tiny quadrupeds (and in one case tiny anthropomorphs) flanking larger anthropomorphs.

Another similarity between Grand Canyon Polychrome and Barrier Canyon Styles is the absence of weapons. There are no depictions of atlatls or bow and arrows as are often seen in later rock art. This, and other factors, would point to an early date, probably Archaic, for these styles. However, it is possible this exclusion of weapons may be attributed to the artwork's function. Perhaps the panel's purpose was to illustrate a shaman's vision or a tribal myth, rather than perform hunting magic. This idea conforms with the larger-than-life supernatural aspect of many Grand Canyon Polychrome panels.


Comparing Grand Canyon Polychrome and Pecos River rock art

Oddly enough, many of the traits distinguishing Barrier Canyon from Grand Canyon Polychrome pictographs are the same traits linking Grand Canyon Polychrome with Pecos River rock art. These characteristics include the "hodgepodge" layout of the panels, the occasional superimposition of figures, double-headed anthropomorphs, birds or other figures (spirit guardians?) perched on an anthropomorphs shoulder, and a body form with no neck or shoulders,

Other similarities between Pecos River rock art and Grand Canyon Polychrome can be found. One of these is the "skeleton" shaman of Shamans' Gallery. This Grand Canyon Polychrome anthropomorph shares "x-ray" characteristics with a Pecos counterpart. Solveig Turpin theorized this body form showing ribs, backbone, or skeletal outlines symbolizes the symbolic death and rebirth of the shaman during his trance or shamanic journey.

Another interesting similarity with Pecos rock art can be found in the "Panther Shaman," a cat-eared figure done in dark red pigment . In the Grand Canyon, three sites have two figures resembling a "Panther Shaman" They share the outstretched arms and the lack of a neck found in Pecos figures, with cat-like ears and almond-shaped eyes.


Relationship to Glen Canyon Style 5 Petroglyphs

Some of the quadrupeds - deer, bighorn sheep - found at GC Polychrome sites display the outlined and subdivided bodies typical of Glen Canyon Style 5 petroglyphs. This depiction is uncannily similar to split-twig figurines, Archaic artifacts found in Grand Canyon caves.

Dating Grand Canyon Polychrome

Dating these pictographs at this point in time involves speculation more than fact. The Grand Canyon Polychrome Style has been designated Archaic/Early Basketmaker, based on the following criteria:

1-Superimposition of many elements on top of these paintings; the superimposing pictographs may be dated to the Anasazi Pueblo I-II period.

2-The appearance of these panels - generally large, supernatural-looking, painted anthropomorphs - is similar to other rock art styles usually associated with Archaic remains, especially the rock art of the Pecos River in Texas; and the Barrier Canyon Style found in Utah.

3- One group of anthropomorphs (at Battion Shelter) display a hairstyle similar to that found on Basketmaker mummies.


Association with Ruins and Artifacts

No surface structures are found with any Grand Canyon Polychrome panels. However, several shelters containing rock art were temporary campsites, as witnessed by smoke- blackened ceilings . Some have midden deposits containing pottery shards and lithic scatters. Roasting pits are found near a few of the sites. Two locations, Spirit Shelter and Cottonwood South, have large boulders marked with so-called "arrowsharpening" grooves and pits. Most sites appear to have been used through Pueblo II times, and some show possible signs of Paiute visitation.


The study area environment

Most sites are located in the Supai sandstone, located mid-way between rim and river in the canyon. Average elevation is 4,200'. The vegetation, though sparse, includes blackbrush, pinyon pine, juniper, yucca, agave, prickly pear, mortonia, and nolina. Springs are not abundant, and most are heavily-ladden with gypsum. However, after a heavy rain when natural waterpockets in the sandstone are full, water is easily found. Perhaps this was an attraction for the early Canyon inhabitants, along with the bighorn sheep, wild plant foods, and abundant natural shelter in the form of overhangs.

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