The area of Capitol Reef has been a homeland to people for thousands of years. Archaic hunters and gatherers migrated through the valley and canyons. Later, the Fremont Culture began farming corn, beans, and squash. Petroglyphs etched on boulders or rock walls and painted pictographs are reminders of the ancient Indian People.
Fremont Petroglyphs Along Highway 24, Capitol Reef. Source: NPS
The Fremont Culture
Fremont and ancestral Puebloan people began to incorporate farming into their hunter and gatherer lifestyles approximately 2,000 years ago. Petroglyph panels throughout the park depict ancient art and stories of these people who lived in the area from approximately 600-1300 common era (CE). Named for the Fremont River that flows through the park, evidence now shows that these people lived throughout Utah and adjacent areas of Idaho, Colorado and Nevada.
The Fremont lived in pit houses (dug into the ground and covered with a brush roof) and natural rock shelters. Their social structure was likely composed of small, loosely organized bands consisting of several families. They were closely tied to nature and flexible, making frequent modifications in their life ways as social or environmental changes occurred.
Anthropologists suggest that the Fremont were hunter-gatherers who supplemented their diet by farming, growing corn, beans and squash along the river bottoms. Edible native plants included pinyon nuts, rice grass and a variety of berries, nuts, bulbs, and tubers. Corn was ground into meal on a stone surface (metate) using a hand-held grinding stone (mano). Deer, bighorn sheep, rabbits, birds, fish and rodents were hunted using snares, nets, fishhooks, the Atlatl (spear-throwing stick) and the bow and arrow.
Several artifacts are distinctive to the Fremont. A unique singular style of basketry, called one-rod-and-bundle, incorporated willow, yucca, milkweed and other native fibers. Pottery, mostly graywares, had smooth, polished surfaces or corrugated designs pinched into the clay. The Fremont made moccasins from the lower-leg hide of large animals, such as deer, bighorn sheep or bison. Dew claws were left on the soles, possibly to act as hobnails, providing extra traction on slippery surfaces.
Fremont People Marking on a Boulder. Source: NPS
Pictographs (painted on rock surfaces) and petroglyphs (carved or pecked into the rock surface) depict people, animals and other shapes and forms on rock surfaces. Anthropomorphic (human-like) figures usually have trapezoidal shaped bodies with arms, legs and fingers. The figures are often elaborately decorated with headdresses, ear bobs, necklaces, clothing items and facial expressions. A wide variety of zoomorphic (animal-like) figures include bighorn sheep, deer, dogs, birds, snakes and lizards. Abstract designs, geometric shapes and handprints are also common. Designs may have recorded religious or mythological events, migrations, hunting trips, resource locations, travel routes, celestial information and other important knowledge.
The Wandering Boulder Markings
In the report of his 1928 expedition, amateur archaeologist Noell Morss says of the boulder: "On the eastern face was a large and well made spiral, from which an unbroken line went through complicated evolutions on the southern and western faces, finally running up over the top."
Markings on the Wandering Boulder of Capitol Reef. Source: [TO BE REVEALED]
Fremont Maps in Stone
The meaning of the markings is uncertain. The large spiral may indicate "coming up" or the beginning of a journey. If the wavy lines are taken as rivers, rather than snakes (since no heads or tails are apparent), the markings could represent the Colorado, Big Muddy and Fremont Rivers. The downward pointing arrow on the left side may be similar to the "you are here" arrows on today's maps. Taken as a whole, the markings may tell the story of how ancient peoples journeyed from the Monument Valley area, crossed the Colorado River and travelled to the Fremont River Valley. If so, the Wandering Boulder may have had great significance to the Fremont People in telling the story of how they came to be.
This would not be the only map made by the Fremont People. Along Highway 24 is a rock writing mural that depicts with great accuracy the Fremont River and its tributaries, along with the ridges of the "reef" or monocline that the river passes through.
Portion of Another Fremont Map in Capitol Reef. Source: Ronald Bodtcher
Another interesting marking on the boulder that Morss (and professional archaeologists that followed him) overlooked is a second spiral, small but well-made, on the top of the boulder, directly opposite its eastern face. In its original position and location, the top of the boulder was flat and large enough to support the body of a full-size man or woman with the back of the head placed over the small spiral and the feet pointing toward the large spiral on the eastern face of the boulder. This small spiral has the size and appearance of a type of primative engraven hypocephalus, though obviously not Egyptian, as concentric circles (rather than a spiral) are the norm for the three dozen Egyptian hypocephali that I have examined.
Previously Undocumented Spiral on the Wandering Boulder of Capitol Reef. Source: Ronald Bodtcher
Its meaning is unknown, although it is interesting to note that ancient Egyptians believed such a marking magically protected the deceased, causing the head and body to be enveloped in light and warmth, and making the deceased divine. To the Fremont People, the spiral may have indicated an "emerging," or "coming up" or the beginning of a journey, perhaps in an afterlife. Whether the Wandering Boulder was actually part of a burial ritual has yet to be determined.