Calendars and Cosmographs at Fremont Indian State Park: A Preliminary Overview

 In F.S.I.P


In May of 2017 I was invited to represent the Utah Valley Astronomy Club (UVAC) at a star party hosted by Fremont Indian State Park (FISP) in south-central Utah. UVAC is a non-profit organization that helps the state and national parks of Utah run their astronomy programs. FISP is the location of the largest Fremont Indian village yet excavated in the archaeology of Utah. It is also the location of hundreds of Fremont Indian petroglyphs (images carved into rock) and pictographs (images painted onto rock).

While attending the festivities for the star party I hiked through the pathways of FISP noting the numerous petroglyphs carved across the large rock bluffs that formed the park. Quite by accident, I approached one petroglyphic panel just at the right time. A shadow was cast upon it by the rock protrusion above it, and I watched the shadow slowly move upwards as I observed the petroglyph. This phenomenon only occurs a few hours each day throughout the summer months. Further, this petroglyph caught my eye because it was very different than the others I had seen. Rather than an anthropomorphic or animal figure, this petroglyph was a very large geometric form anchored by a large “sun wheel” motif and composed of several different and interrelated geometric forms (see Figure 1).

Within minutes of observing the shadow, and noting the geometric design of the petroglyph, I hypothesized that the design was in some way a calendar. This hypothesis led me to create a petroglyph study at the park. This paper briefly discusses the sites at FISP currently under investigation with an emphasis on the Sun Wheel Petroglyph.

The Fremont Indians and FISP

The Fremont Indians were the indigenous Native Americans occupying the territory now known as Utah between 300 and 1350 C.E. The Fremont complex, as this culture is often termed, is identified by their pottery (a plain, gray-ware), their unique moccasins (made from the lower-leg hide of large game animals), their pit houses (circular domiciles with a round opening at the top), and their rock art (stylized figures with a unique trapezoidal torso). The Fremont fished and hunted local wildlife including rabbit, turkey, and deer, and they gathered wild berries and plants.  Most Fremont villages practiced agriculture and primarily grew corn. It appears farm products were available to all, however, through a network of trade (Janetski 11).

The origins of the Fremont are unclear. One leading theory suggests that the Fremont peoples came up from the pueblo complexes of the Southwest. By 1400 C.E. Fremont settlements had been abandoned and the Fremont culture disappeared. Leading theories suggest that a mixture of climate change, migrations, and perhaps warfare or other social pressures led to the migration of the Fremont peoples out of the territory of present-day Utah.

In 1984, road crews constructing Interstate 70 dug into a large hillside in Clear Creek Canyon in Sevier County, Utah. This hillside was named Five Finger Ridge. The road crews were using the dirt and gravel of the hill for the road base of the highway. While ploughing the hill, road crews discovered the remnants of a large Fremont village, and highway work stalled while archaeologists could survey and record the site. Previous archeological surveys had been done around the canyon, but the findings at Five Finger Ridge remain one of the most prolific in Fremont archaeology.

Unfortunately, in the 1980’s the rules for preserving sites were not as strict as today, and the hill eventually succumbed to the bulldozers building the Interstate Highway. Less than half of the hillside remains, while the rest is now road base. Fortunately, the unique nature of the find led to the establishment of a State Park (FISP), the construction of a museum and visitor center, and full-time maintenance by state and national park employees who help preserve the petroglyphs and remaining artifacts.

The Archeaoastronomy Project at FISP

By late 2017 I had formed a project team to look at two petroglyph panels and a third, highly unusual petroglyph site at FISP. I contacted Kevin Taylor, Park Manager from the Utah Department of Natural Resources, as well as Amy Ramsland, the museum curator at FISP. I proposed a multi-year study including a six-month recording period using full-time, time-lapse cameras at the two petroglyph panels initially under review (see below). I have yet to receive those permits, but the aid of Taylor and Ramsland have been invaluable in our studies.

In addition, I contacted John McHugh, a resident of Salt Lake City who has worked as a contract archeologist in Utah for several years, and as an archeologist aid with digs in Petra and Syria. McHugh specializes in the archeology of the Southwest, and while he is not a full-time archeologist, his expertise is invaluable. McHugh agreed to work with me on this study, and he and I are its project leaders. I have also contacted professional astrophotographers, sketch artists, and drone operators, as part of a team who will photograph, draw, and otherwise record the phenomena of interest in our study.

Initially there were three sites at FISP that caught my attention. The first was the Sun Wheel glyph (Fig. 1) already briefly discussed. The second was another petroglyph panel that shared some curious similarities with the Sun Wheel motif. I call this second panel the Walking Man Petroglyph (See Figure 2). It is these two panels that I have applied for time-lapse permissions. My current theory is that the Fremont used the sun and shadow that moved on these petroglyphs as part of their symbolic structure.


Figure 1. Sun Wheel Petroglyph. A large Fremont geometric design showing a wheel-like motif divided into 12 sections, 37 counting dots near the top, 7 wavy lines, and other images. Notice the shadow that moves across it. Photo by author.

Figure 2. Walking Man Petroglyph. Another unique Fremont panel with a quadrated field attached to a series of dots and wavy lines. On the far right a man walks on the dots. Photo by author.

The third site is a small cave enclosure labeled by survey archeologists as The Sheep Shelter. This site is perhaps the most interesting and enigmatic located in the park. The Sheep Shelter is one of only two spots that contain north facing petroglyphs along the bluff at FISP (the other being the Walking Man glyph). These petroglyphs are carved on the ceiling of the rock shelter, with another etched petroglyphic line pecked all the way around the ceiling. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3. Sheep Shelter. A small rock alcove against a northern bluff facing south. Inside the alcove are numerous petroglyph markings. This alcove shows the earliest habitation of the canyon, with fire ash dating back to 3500 B.C.E. Photo by author.

Finally, a fourth petroglyph panel has been added to our list of study that we call the Sheep Spiral Petroglyph (See Figure 4). While McHugh and I were doing our own survey of rock art along the western ridge trail, we again caught sight of, quite by accident, an unusual patch of petroglyphs that were perfectly framed by sun and shadow a few weeks before summer solstice. We returned to this site several days in a row and filmed how the sun and shadow fell across this panel and are now convinced that this site also uses natural features of light and shade as part of its symbolic design.

Figure 4. Sheep Spiral Panel. High up on the western ridge of FISP is a petroglyph panel filled with spirals and unique sheep figures. This image shows a shadow that falls from top to bottom before noon in the summer months. Photo by author.

The Sheep Shelter

The Sheep Shelter is a small rock alcove naturally formed along the bottom of a cliff face. It measures approximately twenty-five feet wide by four feet deep and five feet high. The opening has been sealed by iron bars to prevent vandalism to the interior. The opening also faces due south.

The Sheep Shelter shows the oldest layers of habitation in Clear Creek Canyon. Several remains of hearths (camp fires) were uncovered in more than six feet of deposits examined by archaeologists. The oldest hearth layers date to 3500 B.C.E. (Janetski 26). Curiously, the campfire remains extend numerous centuries until about 500 C. E., when the enclosure apparently stopped being used as a camp shelter. This is the time when the Fremont began inhabiting the canyon. This means that prior to Fremont usage this little rock alcove was being used as a shelter, but during the Fremont habitation it was being used for something else.

Quite remarkably, the Fremont inscribed a series of peculiar petroglyphic markings in the shelter that are unique to this location. There is a line pecked into the rock that circumscribes the ceiling of the enclosure (See Figure 5). On the very east end, two concentric circle motifs have been carved below the line, while along the line around the back of the shelter are a series of dome shaped images that look either like pit houses (the domiciles of the Fremont) or perhaps half-concentric circles. There is also a star shape pecked into the line. The real surprise are the beautifully displayed scorpion and sheep petroglyphs carved on the front ceiling of the alcove (See Figure 6). To see them, one must sit inside the cave and look outwards to the south. FISP personnel have installed a large mirror at the back of the cave so visitors can see the petroglyphs carved on the front ceiling in its reflection. Further, there are legs of sheep that remain towards the upper part of the ceiling; the ceiling itself has entirely flaked off over time. This means that the ceiling may have at one time been covered in petroglyphs.

Figure 5. Back of Sheep Shelter. This panoramic image shows a line carved around the ceiling with a series of domes or half-circles inscribed upon it. The line actually circumscribes the cave and appears to be some sort of horizon line. Photo by author.

Figure 6. Panoramic image of front side of Sheep Shelter looking out. A series of sheep, a scorpion, and an anthropomorphic figure are carved into the front ceiling. Petroglyphs may have once covered the ceiling. Photo by author.

When first seeing this site, I realized that the real usage of it would require a person so sit in the cave shelter, with their back against the wall, looking out with the petroglyphs viewed above them. In so doing, one sees the opposing canyon ridge line to the south, and the cave ceiling prevents a full view of the sky. In fact, one can only see about thirty degrees of sky from the top of the opposing ridge to the bottom of the cave ceiling.

FISP granted me permission to stay overnight in this cave shelter for viewing. It just so happens that the sightline proffered by the shelter frames the ecliptic in the southern sky. This is an extraordinary coincidence of nature. What this means is that a person sitting in the shelter, positioned as it is on the canyon bluff, would watch the rise of stars, planets, sun, and moon in their south eastern position and follow those celestial bodies across the ecliptic framed by the top of the cave ceiling. One could literally watch the passage of the planets and zodiacal stars within the perfect solitude and framing of the cave. I propose that once this sight framing was discovered the cave shelter was used as a place to measure the sky, and the naming of the site should really be The Sheep Observatory. The line pecked around the ceiling is highly suggestive of a horizon line, and the dome motifs and sheep and scorpion glyphs probably interplay with unknown Fremont cosmology.

Finally, McHugh noted that the two concentric circles carved on the east side of the cave face the spot on the horizon where the winter solstice sun sets. Because of an outcropping of rock along the bluff just west of the shelter, it is probable that the last rays of sun at or near winter solstice will light up these concentric circles. McHugh and I will return to watch the phenomenon at the winter solstice this year.

The Sun Wheel Petroglyph

There are several elements involved with the Sun Wheel design. My interpretation of these elements has evolved and will continue to do so. The principle elements are a circular motif divided into twelve pie sections. One section has eleven lines inscribed in it. This section has adjoining pie sections that are inscribed with one line. There is a large hole or depression pecked into the circular motif. There are two additional large holes pecked near the bottom. There is a string of seven wavy lines that cut across the middle of the design, and a series of 37 dots that run across the top. It should be noted that there is an older layer of carving beneath the Sun Wheel design. It is not unheard of, but unusual for a petroglyph to be re-used. This tells me that the rock face itself was important to the designers of the glyphs.

My initial impression of these elements was calendric (see Figure 7). The principle calendar for most oral cultures is lunar. As an astronomer, I also understand that most lunar calendars follow the synodic lunar month. A synodic month follows the phases of the Moon. The Moon goes through four phases (new, waxing crescent, full, and waning crescent) with each phase taking slightly longer than seven days to complete (7.375 days to be accurate). A full synodic cycle takes 29.5 days to complete. The math is very simple: twelve lunar months of 29.5 days equals 354 days, a figure eleven days short of a full solar year. Twelve pie shapes with one holding eleven inscribed lines seems to indicate a lunar year calendar. The seven wavy lines may indicate a counting between phases of the Moon, though this is a temporary interpretation.

I was really interested in how the shadow worked on this panel. After several time-lapse video sessions, I got the most spectacular results in the month leading up to summer solstice. Indeed, it appears that in May, June, and July, a unique shadow/sun correspondence occurs on the face of this panel. About an hour before noon, when the sun is near its northern most position, a shadow is cast across the entire petroglyph. As the sun moves west the shadow recedes from the bottom of the glyph to the top, and because of a curve in the upper rock ledge, a triangular shaft of light rises from the ground up to the top of the glyph. This sun-dagger is quite remarkable to watch as it appears to be rising from the earth. The entire phenomenon takes about two and a half hours to occur. It is certain that this sun-dagger was used when composing the design of the glyph, for the tip of the sun-dagger touches the central hole or depression in the wheel motif about half-way through the phenomenon, and then continues to grow until it touches the last of a series of holes carved in the rock (See Figure 8).

Figure 7. Twelve pie sections within the Sun Wheel motif, with one section holding eleven lines, is highly indicative of a lunar count. The wavy lines may also relate to the lunar phases, but this is a temporary hypothesis. Image by author.

Figure 8. Sun-dagger on the Sun Wheel Petroglyph. A shaft of light grows from the ground up and bisects the wheel motif. The tip of the dagger touches the primary holes carved into the wheel. Image by author.

We now know that at least part of the design of the Sun Wheel figure was planned based off the shadow and light formation on the rock during the summer months. The holes were lined up specifically to the sun-dagger phenomenon. A preliminary interpretation of this phenomenon is here set forth. The Fremont counted lunar months and knew that there were twelve months in a year and knew that this left eleven days short of a full solar year. To reconcile their lunar year with the solar one, they watched the sun-dagger phenomenon during the three months of the summer marked by the three pie shapes that are inscribed with lines. The eleven-day difference between solar and lunar counts is only needed if they were keeping a solar day count as well, and it is probable that there was an eleven-day ritual associated with the summer solstice season.

In oral societies, calendars are ritualized. Reconstructing a calendar from an oral society can be incredibly difficult, because what is being counted isn’t necessarily precise day counts (though that happens) but rather, precise ritual cycles. These cycles are wed to the timetables of Moon and Sun, and sometimes with certain stars or environmental phenomena. The 37 dots at the top of the Sun Wheel glyph probably refer to a 37-day ritual cycle related to their agricultural growing season and anchored through the summer months. This interpretation has literal footing because of a humanoid figure who is seen walking on the dots with an erect phallus (See Figure 9). To help magnify the faded background carvings I took a photo of the petroglyph in infrared and heightened the contrast. In this image not only do we see a man walking on the dots (highlighted in blue), but we also see a quadrated form next to an upside down “corn tassel” and this is significant (see below).

Figure 9 A Man walks on the counting dots in the Sun Wheel Panel. The man has an erect phallus, indicative of a fertility ritual. The 37 dots probably reference a fertility ritual cycle occurring through the summer solstice. Image by author.

Another unique feature of the Sun Wheel petroglyph is its bottom perimeter. The entire perimeter of the glyph is marked by a straight or curved line, but at the bottom we see what looks like two “hills” with a furrow between, with a deeply pecked depression to the right (see the orange circle in Figure 9). To the left the line ascends into another hill-like shape. I found this arrangement odd, until I was standing on top of Five Finger Ridge, or the large hill where the major settlement was located. Once standing on the top and looking east towards sunrise I saw two hill shapes. I realized that the sun would rise in the center of where the two hills meet near equinox. To check this theory, I stood at the top of Five Finger Ridge a few days past spring equinox at four in the morning with my camera. Because I was a few days past equinox and because the sun moves about a half degree per day on the horizon near the equinoxes, I knew the sun would rise slightly to the north of its actual equinox position. To my surprise, the sun rose slightly to the left of the center of the cleft of the two hills (see Figure 10). My initial thought for the bottom of the Sun Wheel glyph was that it was a mnemonic key representing the eastern horizon marking solar positions (see Figures 11 and 12).

Figure 10. The spring equinox sun rises in a cleft of two hills. This horizon sighting line would allow the Fremont to track solar cycles and specifically days of equinox. Photo by author.

Figure 11. Eastern Horizon where the sun rises and marked by approximate locations of sunrise through its solar cycle. Note two hill shapes formed by the forward bluff and a background mountain. The equinox sunrise occurs in the notch of this horizon feature. Image by author.

Figure 12. Glyph overlay with sunrise at equinox. Is it possible that the two pecked dots at the bottom mark sunrise positions? This is currently a temporary hypothesis. Image by author.

By now there are several associated motifs in the Sun Wheel Petroglyph, but none that do not require some form of interpretation. I realized that technically speaking, the Sun Wheel Petroglyph was not a calendar, for modern people associate calendars with exact day counts and precision measurements. While the Fremont were counting solar and lunar days, it appears that everything within the glyph is associated with mnemonic motifs associated with a much broader environment and culture. Because oral cultures ritualize their calendar cycles, their time counts are often tracking mythological time (that which is done by the gods and reproduced on earth) and reenacted in ritual activities.

It would be better to call the Sun Wheel Petroglyph a Cosmograph. This term I have coined to describe an oral calendar. The demands of oral culture require that all significant time cycles be analogized with cosmological and cultic scenarios. For example, when an oral culture prepares to plant their crops, they must go through a series of technical skills learned over long years of agricultural activity. They must germinate their seeds and create saplings, clear and prepare the ground, prepare water irrigation channels or make sure they have enough pots or gourds to transport water to necessary locales, plant, protect seedlings from animals that will eat them, nurture, and finally harvest the planting. All this must be done at the right time. Plant too early or too late and problems arise. Certain seed types require special care, as do certain soils with certain seeds. Not only does the timing have to be right, but so does the location of planting. Even migratory patterns of birds and animals must be noted, in case they wish to take up residence in the garden patch. Rain, in many places, is an absolute requirement and outside the immediate control of the gardener.

While all this makes sense to modern sensibilities, we have forgotten that all of this must be done using generally primitive tools, such as sticks, bones, and rudimentary pottery or gourds, all of which may also require preparations. Most importantly, all this knowledge of when to germinate and plant, how to do it, what to watch for, and how one might get the rain they need, must all be passed down, generation to generation, without writing. While master to apprentice training is done, the oral mind creates categories of memory through a network of observable analogy that links every needful thing within the knowledge base of a tribe or culture. So it is, that germinating and planting will reflect cosmogonic activities rooted in the cosmology, mythology, and the ontology of the culture. All technical skills in oral societies are passed down with an entourage of related religious and cosmic concerns.

An oral society will watch for a certain star (or aspect of the sun or moon) to rise on the horizon that will announce the correct time for the beginning of the agricultural process. However, in oral societies, celestial luminaries always have divine relationships. The star, sun, or moon is related to a deity or group of divine beings. These, in turn, bestow beneficial powers to earth through rituals which reenact their divine mandate. The ritual might be a reenactment of a creation narrative, or a reproduction of a tale when the first seed was planted. So, the right timing that is announced by observable astronomy is supplemented by a wide field of cultic relationships where myth and ritual are acted out in concordance with celestial archetypes. An oral calendar is not just day counts, it is, in some way, a representation of the entire cosmic scheme revealed in the cult of the culture.

The Sun Wheel Petroglyph shows promising technical uses with sunlight and shadow and precise counting dots and lines. The man with the phallus reminds us that this glyph, however, is not like a modern calendar, but is a mnemonic device that in the minds of its creators related certain aspects of the sun and moon (and perhaps some stars as well) with cultic scenarios that had to be reproduced on earth through ritual, festival, the telling of myth, all in accordance with sacred time. In other words, a cosmograph is an oral calendar that may not only count actual time, but mythological time as well, and will, therefore, be associated with a broad range of concerns that modern observers will miss.

There are several other motifs within this panel. Some I have explored, and others remain enigmatic. Further study is required. At this point I can say that the glyph uses a sun-dagger during the month before and after summer solstice; these three summer months appear to be annotated on the wheel motif and with the additional eleven lines the Fremont appear to be reconciling their lunar and solar counts. The 37 dots with phallic man also appear to be part of a summer solstice ritual cycle dealing with fertility and therefore most likely related to their agriculture. The bottom curved lines appear to mimic the horizons where sunrise was monitored during the solar cycle. The use of the sun-dagger integrates the entire complex of images with the power and fertility of the sun itself and it was probably believed that the glyph held sacred powers that not only maintained a ritual calendar but was archetypal to the rituals. There are several other elements of the glyph that suggest this but are outside the scope of this paper.

The Walking Man Petroglyph

The Walking Man Petroglyph (Fig. 2) caught my attention for three reasons. One, the motif also holds 37 counting dots on the top line extending from the quadrated motif. Two, the rock upon which it is carved stands at the far east end of the rock bluff holding hundreds of petroglyphs. The Sun Wheel Petroglyph is on the extreme west end of the same rock bluff (see Figure 13). In short, both petroglyphic panels stand as bookends to the parade of petroglyphs on the rock bluff that oppose Five Finger Ridge. And three, the rock upon which the petroglyph is carved holds north facing petroglyphs. There is not other example of north facing petroglyphs along this bluff except for the Sheep Shelter which holds north facing glyphs on its ceiling.

Figure 13. The two major calendric petroglyph panels under study stand as bookends on the rock bluff opposing Five Finger Ridge. I believe they were used for lunar calculations between the solstices. Image by author.

The fact that both panels stand at opposite ends of the bluff would suggest that they are anchor sites used to circumnavigate the ritual year of their users. In addition, both panels both have a series of 37 counting dots, and this highly suggests that the panels are related. In fact, I took infrared pictures of each panel and compared them and discovered that they are near copies of each other (See Figure 14). In the background of the Sun Wheel petroglyph is found the same motifs on the Walking Man glyph. Each have 37 counting dots with a man walking on them. Each have a quadrated area. And each have a corn tassel. I believe both use the sunlight as part of calendric purposes. The two petroglyphs are therefore intimately related, and their locations suggest that one is being used as part of one aspect of the Fremont calendar while the other is being used for homologous but perhaps significantly different reasons.

Of further interest is a small set of north facing petroglyphs on the rock of the Walking Man site. My initial theory was that the sunlight of sunrise of summer solstice would light these glyphs up. But confirmed viewing proved otherwise. The sunlight at solstice never touched the north facing glyphs at sunrise. Fortunately, my partner John McHugh left the time-lapse camera rolling on the site at summer solstice and it turns out that at 3:00 pm that afternoon, as the sun began its descent in the west, sunlight spilled onto the north face of the rock hitting the north facing petroglyphs first! The effect, however, was very subtle. I believe this panel does utilize the sun and is one of the panels under review for full-time time-lapse photography.

The Sheep Spiral Petroglyph

One last petroglyph panel is being reviewed in our study. This panel is a bit difficult to get to and requires a pair of good hiking boots and at times a tenuous climb upon a rock ridge west of Five Finger Ridge. McHugh and I were surveying the petroglyphs on this rock ridge when we encountered this set of glyphs at the exact time that a horizontal shadow fell upon the panel dissecting several key elements of the panel design (See Figures 15 and 16). It became obvious to us that the petroglyphs carved on the rock face were placed in their positions based on the shadow line cast upon it in the weeks leading up to summer solstice. The panel contains very interesting elements, including two large concentric circle motifs (each with twelve circles) and unusual sheep designs. The main element appears to be a large sheep with a square body attached to a spiral.

There are numerous sheep petroglyphs throughout the canyon. It has also become apparent that these sheep do not represent simple sheep but hold mythological and cosmological meanings. With the other petroglyph panels, the Sheep Spiral panel is under further review.


We estimate a three-year study of the rock art at FISP. We are certain that sun and shadow are employed on several of the petroglyphs as part of their intrinsic design. Interpreting exactly how these glyphs were used may take some leaps of faith, as they are not only employing day counts but also mythological and cultic scenarios. However, we can say with certainty, that the Fremont petroglyphs are a form of sacred rock art using sunlight as an integral part of their function, and that several of the panel s intimate deep calendric uses.

Figure 14. The Sun Wheel and Walking Man Petroglyphs Compared. Note that both contain the same counting dots, each have the same quadrated area, a walking man, corn tassel, the same seven wavy lines, and each contains deeply pecked dots or holes. It has become clear that these two panels are related. Image by author.

Figure 15. Sheep Spiral Petroglyph. A large square sheep with a spiral on its back sits atop a concentric circle motif. An hour before noon a shadow bisects the circle motif and separates the parent sheep from its younger offspring. The shadow also bisects a unique circle figure in the upper right of the image. The panel is covered by modern graffiti and bullet holes. Photo by author.

Figure 16. Before the shadow bisects the large circle motif, it caresses its perimeter while bisecting the feather headdress of a figure to its right and the spiral on the sheep’s back to its left. We have come to understand that many placements of the petroglyphs on the rock surfaces correspond to how shadow and sunlight fall upon the rock. Photo by author.


Works Cited

Dark Sky Parks. Live Elevated Utah. 2018.

International Dark Sky Association. 2018.

Janetski, Joel C. Archaeology, Clear Creek Canyon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young UP, 1998.

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