Minding the ‘Gap’: Ancient etchings in Iron County

By Dawn Aerts

Iron County Today

If you happen to travel North on State Route 130, beyond Cedar City and Enoch, you will find open plains and fields, and an ancient place referred to by the earliest church pioneers and to the Southern Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah as “The Gap” or “God’s own house.”

Here, visitors will find curious etchings in Navajo sandstone, and a collection of stories that surface through the eyes of modern day archeologists, geologists and astronomy experts next to those of Hopi, Paiute and Native American narratives.  “So, it is also the story of migration, a journey and a place of sacred worship,” said Nancy Dalton of the site that has intrigued visitors for decades.

Dalton, who serves as an interpretive volunteer and guide for the Parowan Heritage Foundation, is one of many who has studied the “Overseer” – an out-cropping of rock that appears to swallow the sun at the correct point of astronomical change, but thankfully spits it out again.  She is also familiar with the overseer who is known as a protector of Native American people and the writing symbols that remain.

Over the years Dalton has hosted a series of archeo-astronomy events that invite visitors to walk and study a gallery of petroglyphs that reveal 90 panels and roughly 1,500 figures from lizards, birds, and snakes to bear claws and geo-metric designs. “The etchings can tell us countless stories of the past,” said Dalton, “But the events we focus on are the calendar system, and the mysterious alignment of lunar and solar patterns against the topography and science.”

In November, “The sun sits in the mouth, and then ‘gulps’ as the Overseer seems to swallow the sun,” said Dalton.  “It implies that the summer sun has gone into its winter home, telling the people that if they haven’t fully prepared for winter, they had better move quickly south as the snow will arrive.”  It is also about cyclical motion and scientific perspectives.

According to observers, this cryptic event occurs in late Fall, but before, or after that date, the sun will merely pass through the mouth.  For tourists who come with backpacks and walking shoes, it’s the ancient landscapes, the petroglyph gallery and the turn-of-the astronomical “switch” that seems to fascinate those who appreciate the precise, and timely twist of season.

“We encourage visitors to dress warm in Fall as the strong winds and winter temps make it icy and bitter,” said Dalton of her experience in Southern Utah for 38 years.

Her home is in Paragonah, just south of the Indian Mounds where she has been part of the Parowan Gap research group since 1996.  She explains that in-depth interest began with a Federal Highway Transportation and archeologic grant meant to link the historic I-15 route of the past to modern-day transportation corridors.

According to Dalton, the mouth of Little Creek was an original transport route around Parowan known as the Spanish Trail.  “They say the Native Americans used the Gap to communicate with others at the mouth of the creek,” said Dalton. “Today you can hear the neighbor go by in their noisy trucks.”

Her husband’s family heard and shared many stories of the early pioneers:  They talked about the native people who lived here and traveled the Navajo Trail system that runs between Kanab (the back side of Little Creek), to Hurricane and on to the Navajo reservation.  “I worked with my Mother-in-Law in the garden and we would come across pieces from pot shards to arrow-heads, to the remains of a pit-house. So we gathered what we could.”

In 1989, an archeologist and an engineer arrived to study the geographical and cultural history of the mysterious Gap.  “From that research, the Parowan Heritage Foundation and others, compiled the information into narratives,” said Dalton of the Bureau of Land Management, the Paiute Tribe of Utah, the Hopi Tribe, and the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau.

Since then, dozens of volunteers assist with events and programs at the Gap.

But it is the solar and lunar calendar that illuminates some of that story. “The Foundation and others wanted to carry the story and history forward,” said Dalton, of local events held first, and then inviting the public to workshops, walking tours and other events.  In Spring and Fall, volunteers host interpretive tours that highlight the ancient way with focus on the calendar.

“So visitors can come see the ‘spitting out’ of the sun in Spring — which portends a fair season ahead. Our main goal is to share the experience and awareness of what is here, with some very awe-inspiring observational events,” said Dalton. In June, Dalton will host summer camp students on a field day trip from Cedar North Elementary School.

Here, people strive to protect the story of the Gap, the natural environment and the timeless cultural story it represents of an ancient land and people.  “We look to the curious alignments, the odd ‘Zipper-glyph’ and the nature of a unique history,” said Dalton. “So how does the ancient calendar system work alongside the story of migration or journey?”

Visitors want to understand those stories.

Photo Caption:  Nancy Dalton, who serves as an interpretive volunteer and guide of the Parowan Heritage Foundation settled here 38 years ago, with husband Tony, where they’ve managed a family-operated beef and ranch business established in 1918.  For further information on the Parowan Gap Observation Series, interpretive programs, or events scheduled see Parowan Heritage Foundation or Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau.



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