Thursday, April 23, 2009


3-Kings Panel, McConkey Ranch, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1989.

Central figure of 3-Kings
panel, McConkie Ranch, Utah.

Considering this question we have to define a portrait. To recognize what I call portraits in rock art I am looking for uniquely recognizable individual details in the portrayal that would have been recognized by that individual's friends and tribe or band members. In a world in which everything you own was hand made, one at a time, you would recognize a particular headdress, piece of jewelry, or shield, and you would know who that picture represented. This is not an attempted photographic likeness as we think of in portraiture, it is rather a picture of a figure that includes recognizable personal details as clues to the subject of the picture. The best example I have seen is the central figure in the 3-Kings panel, at McConkie Ranch in the Dry Fork Valley outside of Vernal, Utah. It represents the apex of artistic realism of the Fremont people of central and northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado. It is located high on a pinnacle of rock overlooking Dry Fork valley.

This marvelous figure has a number of these identifiable details. The most obvious is his shield, the design of which has been carefully delineated and would have been instantly recognizable to anyone who knew the subject. In fact, a Fremont shield was found in a cave in Utah with a very similar design to the one on this figure. The actual shield and its two companions are known as the Pectol shields after the name of their discoverer. The second individual detail
that would have been recognizable to his friends is the flicker feather headdress he wears on his head. An actual example of one of these headdresses was recovered archaeologically in nearby Dinosaur National Monument.

Other individually identifiable traits of this figure include the details of his clothing and jewelry which, like the aspects mentioned above, would have been individually hand made and unlike anyone else's.

Many cases of portraiture are known of course in Plains Indian ledger book art. These images, created by warriors to record their deeds and those of their companions often use name glyphs to identify a particular individual. One possible example of this in rock art is a spotted cat petroglyph found in conjunction with an equestrian warrior on a cliff in southeastern Colorado (my comments on this panel will be a future post).

Other interesting elements are the anatomical details portrayed in his legs such as the patella and identifiable muscle masses. Putting all of this together I cannot think of this figure other than as an intentional portrait of someone known very well to the artist.

This figure also displays another interesting detail. When seen from the ground below the figure appears in normal proportion. When observed from a vantage point near its height the figure is seen to be vertically elongated out of proportion (as seen in the photo above). This suggests that the hand that produced the work was guided by instructions from someone down below at ground level. I enjoy imagining a Fremont Indian artist and his young apprentice creating the portrait of an important man of the band or tribe. The young apprentice forced to climb the rocky crag with his tools and materials where he took direction from the master who stayed down on the ground below shouting to him to "make that line higher, no, a little down from there." The result appears in realistic proportion from below on the ground, but is elongated vertically when viewed from a raised viewpoint.

The key to the importance of the subject portrayed can be seen, not only in the high quality of the portrait, but in the fact that it is both petroglyph and pictograph. It was pecked into the rock and then painted as well and remaining traces of the paint can still be seen in the image, especially on his shield.


  1. Petroglyphs are so exciting. I used to live near a mountain with ancient petroglpyhs growing up...

  2. Being that rock art is notoriously difficult to date accurately--if at all--I wonder just how old this specific example is. The details and quality seem more "modern" than any other pictograph or petroglyph I've seen before; the character seems to possess an almost "super-hero" dynamic about it....