You approach the petroglyphs at Parowan Gap along an ancient trail. In prehistoric times the gap was used by peoples living in the Parowan Valley as a convenient passage through the Red Hills. Yearly migrations passed here on their way west to harvest desert resources. Thus from its earliest time the Gap became a seasonal passage that eventually evolved into a calendar itself.
In 1849 the Parley Pratt expedition explored this area for new settlements. When they got to where Parowan is today they made camp for the winter and while exploring the surrounding territory discovered the petroglyphs at Parowan Gap. Recorded in a pioneer journal of this expedition are several recognizable drawings of petroglyphs that can be seen today.
The pioneer explorers believed that this was the place that Chief Walder told them was “God’s Own House”. Even today to walk through the narrows gives the visitor the feeling of reverential awe. The huge pillars on the north and south jut upward into the vast expanse of the sky bringing the blue of the heavens down into the bowels of the earth while the pillars connect the earth to the limitless.
What was the meaning of these inscriptions and why are there so many at this location? Some believe that these glyphs are meaningless doodling. But a little observation tells us that this must be far beyond graffiti. As one Indian told the author, “a person doesn’t work for hours and days deeply inscribing figures in solid rock just to doodle.” Many glyphs here are deeply incised in the rock face, planned with geometric precision, and inscribed with great skill.
Counts are frequently contained within a glyph by repeated elements. This is probably the most prevalent characteristic of the inscriptions at the Parowan Gap. At other glyphic sites most figures have human or animal forms. However the typical glyph here is a geometric form with some repetitive element incorporated. In some glyphs there is no real figure at all, only the repetition of dots or lines. These indicate number where one mark on the rock represents one of something else: a day, a month, or a year. When these marks are counted they tell of a very observant and insightful people.
Who were these people and why did they create these inscriptions? Archaeological research in the Parowan Valley and surrounding areas has defined a local variant of the Fremont Peoples now called the Parowan Fremont. These people lived in numerous settlement villages up and down Parowan Valley. Their habitations were of many small villages scattered over a fertile valley between the high mountains on the east and the low lying Red Hills on the west. Just to the south and west of the Red Hills was a large marshy area and lake now mostly dry. From the valley land they planted and harvested Indian corn. In the marsh they hunted small animals and water fowl, in the high mountains to the east, they hunted mule deer. And from the desert to the west they harvested pine nuts. Not a bad existence all in all and from this their subsistence was plentiful enough that they found time to contemplate their universe, practice religious ritual and discover the counts that make up celestial cycles. Oh, how they were fascinated with numbers and dates very much like the meso-american civilizations to the south.
Some Glyph Analysis
There are many glyphs at Parowan Gap, some of which we understand. There are others that I’m sure will reveal their meaning as more research is done and still others that will always remain a lost mystery understood only by those who created them. In this small space we can only give the visitor a brief explanation of the large calendar sometimes called the “zipper glyph”. It is located on the east end of the narrows on the north side of the crevasse. It faces the large basin to the east. This device is not just a glyph.
It is a composite map, glyph, numerical calendar, and system of outer cairns. The glyph itself consists of a large “V” shaped line with a narrow neck and a lobe at the vertex. Along with the line are numerous tick marks thus giving it a zipper line appearance. Counting the tick marks on both sides of the line indicates that there are or very close to 180 marks. This is the number of days that it takes the sun to traverse the horizon between the solstices. If we then let the extended arms of the “V” represent the extremes of the sun’s traverse, this figure makes perfect sense as an observational calendar. It combines the angle of solar traverse with the number of days it takes to make that traverse.
A photographic projection of the zipper glyph on to the local topographic map (click on map for larger version 157k) reveals that the creator of the glyph either by actual angular measurement or by a very good approximation quite closely reproduced the angle of the sun’s traverse in the glyph. What then is the narrow neck and curious lobe at the bottom of the “V”? A local Indian told a life long resident of this area that this glyph was a “map and calendar of travels”.
Let the “V” represent the angular traverse of the sunsets as observed form the narrows. Let the narrow neck of the glyph represent the narrows of the gap. And let the lobe at the bottom of the narrow neck represent the valley or basin east of the gap narrows. Now notice the mountain inscribed low between the arms of the “V”. Above this mountain is a small circle. If we let this represent the place of summer solstice precisely as depicted in the glyph? Moving back in the basin so as to see the mountain in the Mud Springs Hills through the “V” shaped crevasse of the narrows, we see the mountain just as drawn on the glyph right were the summer solstice sun sets. At this point we find a set of two cairns, or gatherings of stones, one to place the summer solstice sunset in the center of the narrows and one to place it to the south corner of the narrows. the second cairn is to give a better index point to detect very slight horizontal solar motion for a few days just before and after the summer solstice.
With the discovery of the summer solstice cairns, other cairns of solar alignments were searched for and found. Now we know that there is a whole system of outer cairns. Each is a sighting point from which to observe back through the narrows a sunrise or sunset of seasonal transition. We are now able to understand how these people divided their year into seasons.
Each season was defined by the space occupied by the sun during that season. Each year was divided into four seasons as in our calendar but each season was divided into two solar months of 45 days. And the seasons did not start on the equinoxes and solstices but on the mid points between. The point midway between a solstice and the preceding or following equinox is called the cross quarter date. In other words Nov, 5th was the start of winter while Feb. 5th was the start of spring. And likewise May 8th was the start of summer while Aug. 8th was the start of fall. These transitions were determined by the position and motion of the sun. When the sun moved through a point of transition the season changed because the sun had moved into a different span of the horizon. This figure is the local topographic map circled by the horizon as seen by an observer standing at the Parowan Gap Narrows. the narrows is placed at the center of the figure.
To the west is the distant Indian Peak Range, to the southwest the Bull Valley Mountains and to the west northwest is a small low lying mountain range called the Mud Spring Hills.The sunset on summer solstice sets on these hills. These appear higher to the observer because they are nearer. Overlaid on the topographic map is the large zipper glyph. This demonstrates the correspondences between the local topography and the glyph as explained above. The two appendages extending down from the lob also relate to ground features. The appendage on the right extends down and makes a curious pointed spiral. This designates the position of the May-August cross quarter cairn. From this cairn on a grassy knoll at the east end of the basin. the May 7th sunset can be observed. At which time there are 44 tick marks on the right hand side to the zipper glyph. The other line extends down from the lobe indicates the location of the summer solstice cairns. All other sections of the zipper glyph have significant counts that correlate with dates of seasonal transition when the sunset or sunrise has an alignment from an observation point designated by an outer cairn.
The authors of this remarkable system and calendar created are presentation of space and time simultaneously. Just as the aged Native American told Alva Matheson, “It was a map(space) and calendar (time)…” This scheme of space and time is represented in a glyph at the site. It was created with a great awareness of the natural phenomena, creativity and yet ingenuous simplicity. Here is a drawing of this calendar and map of world directions annotated with directions and date events. I will demonstrate how it most likely played into the calendrical scheme which we now know existed. There is a properly oriented north south line. On the north side of center line is a spiral representing the rotation of the stars around Polaris which in effect indicates north. On the east are five lines which represent the five places on the eastern horizon where the sunrises occur on the dates of seasonal transition. Likewise on the west side are the five sunsets that indicate the five places of sunset on the same dates. There are two lines to the south which may be because the rock surface becomes to rough to complete the proper line. This one device indicates all the important directions and dates of seasonal transition simultaneously. But it even does more. If one counts the spaces between lines there are six on the east side and six on the west side which gives us the number of lunar months in a year. Maybe that’s the real reason why there are two lines to the south. There are not just twelve lunations in a year but there are twelve and about a third. The additional line creates a smaller space representing that fractional lunation.