An Ancient Canvas
In the shelter of Upper Pictograph Cave is a window to the past. Painted on the wall of the cave are pictographs, a type of rock art, resembling people, animals, and abstract images. What is this art? Who painted these pictures and what do they mean?
The pictographs at Upper Pictograph Cave are believed to have been painted by the Fremont Indians, a farming and hunting group that lived in the Snake Valley from about 1000 to 1300 A.D. The Fremont built several villages, including one near present-day Baker, Nevada, called Baker Village. What little is known about this culture has been deduced from artifacts and rock art found in their villages and throughout the region.
The Fremont created rock art images by cutting into rock surfaces (petroglyphs), and by painting images, usually onto rock (pictographs). Rock was probably chosen as a medium because of its durability, and because of the protection rock shelters provide from the weather. The paint the Fremont used had to be durable. Like paint made today, it had three main ingredients that made it long-lasting.
First, a pigment, usually inorganic, gave the paint color. One common pigment was the mineral hematite which creates a red color. Next, a binder was added to hold the pigment particles together and to hold the paint onto the rock surface. Some examples of binder ingredients include blood, egg, seed oils, plants resins and juices, milk and honey. The third ingredient of the paint was a medium, or a fluid, that made the paint liquid and suitable for application. Examples include plant juices, water, animal oils, and urine.
Some of the shapes and patterns that are represented on these cliff faces have been named by people who study rock art. Figures resembling human form are called anthropomorphs. More specifically, those that are trapezoidal in shape are called Fremont-style anthropomorphs. Those resembling animal forms are called zoomorphs.
While many of the pictographs clearly represent living things, some of the art is more abstract - dots and lines drawn on the rock surface with paint or charcoal.
But what do these pictographs mean? No one can say absolutely what the painter had in mind while creating these images. To attach meaning would be to possibly make wrong inferences or conclusions about the images and about the people who made them. We are left, then, to guess for ourselves. Therefore, realize that any meaning we give these paintings is merely speculation, and what they actually represent, if they do, in fact, represent anything, may never be known.
More Than Pictures
Besides the rock art, artifacts have been found in this cave. During the 1930's, E.P. Harrington recovered stone artifacts, animal bones, ashes, charcoal, and fire-cracked rocks buried in the floor sediment. These artifacts indicate that the cave was used for more than just a place to paint figures.
Upper Pictograph Cave has been used by animals as well as people. Pack rats used this shelter to build their nests or middens, and Townsend's big-eared bats have been known to use this cave from time to time. These bats are very sensitive to the slightest disruption, so it is essential to not go inside. Instead, enjoy this cave and its special features from the outside, and leave with a better understanding and appreciation of this natural and cultural resource.
Threats to the Cave
Over the years vandals have written over and destroyed some of the art in Pictograph Cave. It is important to understand that the images painted on the rock wall are delicate and care must be taken to protect them. These images are one of the few links we have to the people who came here before us. Please do not touch any of the pictographs, or engage in any activity that might damage them.
Be advised that damaging archeological sites is a federal criminal offense that will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
From the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, drive .25 miles then turn right on Baker Creek Road. Travel 2 miles up the road, then turn left at the Grey Cliffs sign. Here there is a fork in the road - follow the left fork. The cave is on the left side of the road. If you continue down this road, you will come to the Pole Canyon picnic area and trailhead.