Saturday, November 5, 2016


I have written elsewhere about the fact that when I was an undergraduate the field of Art History also included studying architecture and design/decoration. I do not see so much of that these days but, as for me, both architecture and design/decoration are legitimate branches of Art History and thus are eligible for inclusion here in RockArtBlog. The following combines both in an example of an Ancestral Puebloan structure in Utah. 

Lintel over doorway, Ancestral Pueblo.
Photograph: Joshua Smith.

Humans are fascinated by fossils. This was as true for our early ancestors as it is for us. On October 6th, 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Joshua Smith, a contract paleontologist in Grand Junction, Colorado. We met at his favorite coffee shop and I had an excellent breakfast burrito and a cup of good coffee while we talked about Native American fossil knowledge.  Smith showed me photographs of one of his discoveries, an instance of incorporation of fossil dinosaur footprints into the architecture of an ancestral puebloan building in Utah.

View of the underside of the lintel,
Ancestral Pueblo. Photograph:
Joshua Smith.

Smith first noticed them in 2003. While the building had long been known to archaeologists, apparently no one had noticed the tracks on the underside of the lintel over the doorway until Smith came along (an good example of we see what we expect to see, and an excellent reason for cross-disciplinary studies in rock art).

Pointing out one track on
the lintel, Ancestral Pueblo.
Photograph: Joshua Smith.

Some of the structure is dated from Basketmaker II, AD 50 - 500 (Wikipedia), but most of the construction appears to date from the Pueblo III period, AD 1150 - 1350 (Wikipedia). While the structure is constructed of cream-colored sandstone from nearby, the pinkish-colored sandstone of the lintel stood out as coming from a different source, although also local. In examining it Smith found the two dinosaur tracks on the underside where they were exposed to view. This may be important as the stone could have just as well been placed with the tracks on the upper side hidden from view. This suggests that they were purposely left so they could be viewed, and that they had some significance to the builders and occupants of the structure (Smith 2016).

Pointing out one track on
the lintel, Ancestral Pueblo.
Photograph: Joshua Smith.

Dinosaur tracks are classified into separate ichnospecies from dinosaur remains because they often cannot be pinned down to the exact species that made them. These tracks fall into the category known as Grallator. "Grallator tracks are characteristically three-toed (tridactyl) and range from 5 to 15 centimeters (or 2 to 6 inches) long. While it is usually impossible to match these prints with the exact dinosaur species that left them, it is sometimes possible to narrow down potential trackmakers by comparing the proportions in individual Grallator ichnospecies with known dinosaurs of the same formation." (Wikipedia)

Outlined track on the lintel, Ancestral
Pueblo. Photograph: Joshua Smith.

Smith identified the tracks as belonging to a small theropod dinosaur, similar to a coelophysis, based upon his knowledge of the age of the rock formation and the species extant in that time. (Smith 2016)  Previously, I have written about Native American knowledge of fossil tracksites and cited a Navajo example identifying them as "giant lizard footprints". (Faris 2011) Whether the tracks had a spiritual value to the builder, or were just included for decorative purposes, this important discovery not only adds another example of Native American fossil knowledge, it provides evidence of another facet of their beliefs and material culture in which this knowledge could be expressed. Thank you Josh. 


Faris, Peter
2011 Dinosaur Footprints and the Giant Lizard Petroglyphs at Cub Creek, Dinosaur National Monument, Feb. 9, 2011,

Smith, Joshua, personal communication, 2016.


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