From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Bridge to the Past
Rocks of Ages

Steven Simms PhD, Utah State University CHaSS professor of archeology, and Joel Pederson, PhD, USU professor of geology, are two of the authors of a paper detailing the work they completed using optically stimulated luminescence. The project found some well-known rock art to be far younger than previously believed.

Rocks of Ages

It has long been more than a question of when. It has also been a question of whom. But for Steven Simms, Utah State University College of Humanities and Social Sciences professor of archeology, the answer to the former could also be the answer to the latter.

The mystical and mysterious ancient rock art that hugs and haunts the soft sandstone cliffs of the Great Gallery panel in Canyonlands National Park, southeastern Utah was long thought to have been created sometime in the late Archaic period — from 2 to 4,000 years ago; although some rock art experts have argued for an even earlier dating of the anthropomorphic and animal figures — perhaps as early as 7,500 years ago.

All of that speculative dating is being radically rethought following publication of a paper co-authored by Simms. USU Professor of Geology Joel Pederson was lead author and catalyst behind the project detailed in a paper published in the Sept. 9, 2014, edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The project used a dating technique that has been around for decades, but has only fairly recently advanced to a point where scientists like Simms and Pederson have attempted to apply it to their research.

Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) was the method used by the USU research team to narrow down the date when the Barrier Canyon style rock art at the Great Gallery Panel likely was created. The newly proposed timeline has caused rock art experts, anthropologists, and archeologists to reconsider previous hypotheses about who created the drawings and the historical context in which those artists were living.

Pederson and his team used three different strategies to narrow the probable creation period to an increasingly smaller window of time. The OSL dating technique was used in each of the three strategies.

Holy Ghost Group

One of the best known Barrier Canyon-style rock art is the “Holy Ghost Group” which is part of the “Great Gallery” located in Horseshoe Canyon of southern Utah's Canyonlands National Park.


The science behind OSL has dominated most of the discussion following publication of the USU-led paper. However, as with much research conducted by College of Humanities and Social Sciences professors, Simms is less focused on the admittedly fascinating and complex technology behind the OSL dating technique, and more interested in placing the complex artwork in a broader historical context.

“Our dating doesn’t change much of what’s been said about Barrier Canyon rock art in terms of interpretation,” Simms explained. “What it’s saying is there is cultural persistence that expands into more recent times that could have been adopted by people like the Fremont.

The rock art of the Great Gallery is but a small example of the Barrier Canyon Style (BCS) found within the Colorado Plateau of the western United States stretching from north central Arizona, through a portion of eastern Utah, and into western Colorado.

The mummy-like figures are at times life-sized, often silently faceless, but sometimes seemingly ceremonially masked. In some places, animal figures accompany the anthropomorphs and detail appears in three-dimensional form. Clearly the work of skilled artists, the BCS rock art was created, according to the Pederson/Simms paper, “by a meticulous combination of rock pecking and application of multiple pigments.”

In fact, the artwork has such stylistic and technical consistencies that some had suggested the BCS panels were created by a lone illustrator. However, as study of the BCS art has grown since it was first documented in the 1920s, many stylistic variants have been noted. While the ‘single artist’ idea may apply in some instances, for overall style, the theory has been widely discredited.

To an archeologist like Simms, dating the BCS rock art about the nature of their society and the times they were living in,” Simms said. “But, at the same time, the 1,000 or more years closer to our own time than previously thought places the drawings in a very different cultural context and whether people were farmers or foragers tells us about the rock art.”

Melissa Jackson Chapot

Utah State University graduate Melissa Jackson Chapot worked extensively on the OLS dating done on the Barrier Canyon-style rock art studied by Pederson and Simms.


While USU students are abroad, they work with a host coordinator who is available to answer questions and help with everything from housing to homesickness. Likewise, international students who attend Utah State receive help from Forsyth’s study abroad office.

Although most international students are proficient at the English language, many others need help with fluency before they can actually take regular classes on campus. For them, CHaSS’s Intensive English Language Institute (IELI) helps provide the fluency needed to attend classes taught in English.

Begun in 1972, IELI is accredited by the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation and is a member of English USA (AAIEP) and UCIEP (University and College Intensive English Programs), a consortium of university and college intensive English programs. Students who complete the IELI course do not need a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score, the usual measurement for college-level language proficiency, to begin taking regular classes at USU.

“We’re really the first connection for [international] students who come here,” said Associate Professor and Director of IELI Jim Rodgers. “We have small classes and we really get to know the students. So we form pretty tight bonds.”

Those bonds extend not only from students to IELI faculty, but also from student to student. Just as with USU students who choose to study abroad, the friendships that are forged between international students, from a variety of countries, experiencing Utah State together can last a lifetime.

That long-term bond probably isn’t surprising given the culture shock that may accompany a first visit to the United States and the many emotions that go along with experiencing virtually everything as new and different.

Knowing the many difficulties their international students face, especially those beyond the English language itself, IELI educators often go over and above their regular teaching duties, working with students in the classroom and through various department activities to help them assimilate.

“It’s not only the language we’re teaching, it really is the culture,” Rogers said. “It’s how to present themselves and how to interpret how Americans act. We’re not only providing a linguistic bridge, but a cultural bridge of how to ‘be’ in this culture. We just try to be there for them, for whatever they need.”

Fall 2014 saw nearly 100 IELI students furthering their English language skills and bridging those cultural gaps. The students represented more than 20 countries including China, Iraq, Slovenia, Columbia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and more.

Although the majority of IELI learners are undergraduates, a small percentage are graduate students.

The success of IELI is evident as a vast majority of students — more than 80 percent from fall 2011 through summer 2012 — complete the IELI program. Of those 2011-12 students about 72 percent were able to complete three semesters at USU and were continuing to study in their respective majors. These students had an average GPA of 3.0.

“We only see a portion of international students who come to USU — those who do not have the required TOEFL scores — but we are really helping the students we do see to succeed,” Rogers said.

Joel Pederson

Dr. Joel Pederson, USU professor of geology, stands looking at the anthropomorphic figures that are part of the rock on the great Gallery panel of Canyonlands National Park’s Horseshoe Canyon, Utah. Pederson and Dr. Steven Simms, CHaSS professor of archeology, worked together to more accurately date creation of the artwork.


Simms contends that it is nearly impossible to interpret the meaning of rock art without knowing about the society of the people who created it. The ability to date the BCS rock art in relation to cultures — Puebloan transitioning to Fremont — that are already well-researched, well-understood, and accompanied by a wide range of artifacts (everything from tools and clothing to ceramics, jewelry and ceremonial implements) could begin to unravel the mystery that has shrouded the preterhuman illustrations since their modern-era documentation.

Rather than providing clear answers about the creators of the BCS rock art, Simms believes the new dating will instead help modern people understand that the history of the society contemporary researchers have dubbed “The Fremont” is not the story of a static or homogenous group.

“Ancient peoples are a complex people. It was a multicultural, cosmopolitan pre-Columbian America. People were multi-lingual and they often intermarried,” Simms explained. “There were thousands and thousands of pueblos and villages. It’s a time of immigrants and farming, a life-changing era. These are times when many new things are created. But when life begins to change, people also really want to hold on to old traditions. That might be what’s happening with the Barrier Canyon rock art style.”

The publication of their paper in a prestigious journal is really only the beginning of the research Simms and Pederson hope to accomplish using OSL to date other BCS rock art in the tri-state area where it exists.

The Great Gallery dating study was done on something of a shoestring budget with help from the Technical University of Denmark, where scientists were anxious to refine their OSL technology. The team also was helped greatly by USU geology graduate Melissa Chapot who is now a post-doctoral research fellow and PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University in Wales, U.K. Other authors on the paper included USU associate professor and director of the university’s Luminescence Lab, Dr. Tammy Rittenour; Reza Sohbati and Andrew Murray of Aarhus University and the Technical University of Denmark; and Gary Cox of Canyonlands National Park.

In all, coordinating with the National Park Service, gathering funds, conducting explorations and excavations, completing research, and writing up findings took more than eight years. Yet, it was eight years of inter-departmental coordination very well spent according to both the geologist and the archeologist.

Now, Pederson and Simms hope to secure funds not only to continue research on the Great Gallery panel, but also to use OSL to date some of the hundreds of other examples of BCS rock art. Further research will allow Simms to understand more about how BCS rock art may or may not have changed in response to the many societal upheavals of the millennium between A.D. 1 and the decline of the Fremont era.

“We are trying to use whatever tools we have to portray ancient Native Americans as real people with real lives that were just as complicated, interconnected, and messy as our lives are today,” Simms said. “The past is not so much a distant time that we can manufacture and stereotype. It’s really a distant mirror.”