Located on the eastern edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau near Montrose, the Shavano Valley Rock Art Site is one of the most important concentrations of rock art in western Colorado. Used from at least 1000 BCE to 1900 CE by Archaic and Nuche (Ute) peoples, the site contains twenty-six panels of aboriginal rock art and several areas with unexcavated artifacts. All major rock art research in western Colorado since the early twentieth century has used the Shavano Valley site to define different rock art styles and traditions and to trace cultural continuity and change in the region.
The Shavano Valley site includes a prehistoric rock shelter and thirty-seven rock art panels. Twenty-six of the panels are aboriginal in origin. The other eleven panels consist of more recent inscriptions and graffiti, though some of them may have historic value because they could have been made by early white inhabitants of the area.
The larger and more complex panels at the site are along a sandstone cliff face near the valley rim, while many smaller panels were pecked into sandstone boulders lower down the valley slope. Among the most impressive panels on the cliff face is Panel 1, which measures 6.5 feet tall by 12 feet wide. It depicts three bears climbing trees (perhaps the Ute Bear Dance legend) and also includes another tree, a deer or elk with antlers, and a human figure. At the center of the panel is an abstract linear design with a plant-like element and a possible foot at the top. Animal tracks and abstract designs are scattered along the right edge of the panel.
Research and Interpretations
Photographs of some Shavano Valley petroglyphs were circulated in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1922 W. C. McKern made the first scientific study of the site and discovered most of the area’s rock art, only a small portion of which had been previously documented. He described the rock art in detail in a manuscript that included photographs of the site’s most important panels, tracings of 308 figures, and drawings of eight figures that were either too large or inaccessible for tracing.
McKern divided the art into two techniques, deep pecking and shallow pecking, as well as two classifications, old and new. The majority of the figures (212) were of the old type, which was characterized by deep pecking, clean lines, and a crude, heavy style, and featured representational images of deer, sheep, animal tracks, and anthropomorphic figures. He believed these were the work of a single cultural group. In contrast, the new type was more varied, with many differences in age, style, and workmanship, and included more curvilinear figures and characters. McKern’s manuscript was meant for the Smithsonian Institution, but it was lost before publication and did not come to light again until 1977.
In the meantime, William G. Buckles visited Shavano Valley in 1962–63 for the University of Colorado’s Ute Prehistory Project. The project’s goal was to survey prehistoric sites in the region to try to trace cultural continuity from historic Utes back to prehistoric times. Buckles’s research laid the foundations for his 1971 PhD dissertation, which defined a regional cultural tradition called the Uncompahgre complex with a developmental sequence of three styles of early rock art. Buckles also defined a later rock art style called the Historic Ute Indian style. This style could be divided into early (1600s–1830s) and late (1830s–1880s) periods based on how horses were depicted, with the 1830s break between the periods coming when interaction with whites increased substantially.
After investigating rock art in western Colorado and eastern Utah in the 1980s, Sally Cole used panels at Shavano Valley to offer a refinement and simplification of Buckles’s interpretation. Cole suggested that an abstract rock art tradition of nonrepresentational petroglyphs existed from roughly 1000 BCE to 1000 CE. She agreed with Buckles’s notion of early and late Historic Ute Indian styles and also referred to an Uncompahgre style that she associated with the Uncompahgre complex. Like Buckles, she argued for the possibility of cultural continuity from the Uncompahgre style through ancestral Ute art and perhaps historic Ute art.
In 2001 the Shavano Valley site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Recently Carol Patterson has worked with Ute tribal elders including Clifford Duncan to understand the Utes’ own interpretation of the rock art. The geometric motif may be a map of the area, oriented with the south at the top.