Hikers exploring Utah’s Black Dragon Canyon trail don’t just go for the stunning red canyon walls, they also want a peek at the ancient artwork decorating them. In particular, a strange figure that some think looks like a winged creature — a dragon perhaps or a pterodactyl — attracts the curious.
Now, researchers have painstakingly analyzed the faded pigments first laid down by the Fremont people, a culture that enjoyed its height from about 700 to 1250 A.D., and found what the "winged monster" really is, reports Laura Geggel for Livescience. Sadly, it's probably not a dragon.
"It is not a single figure. It is not a pterodactyl," researcher Paul Bahn, a freelance archaeologist, tells Livescience. "It's a beautiful set of images."
People have debated the depiction, an example of rock art in the Barrier Canyon style, since its discovery in 1928. In 1947, Geggel reports, a man named John Simonson used chalk to trace the outlines of what he saw in the faded image. Chalking over ancient rock art was once a common practice but is now illegal because it damages the art, and makes it harder to see what the original image really was. Fortunately, researchers have more advanced tools available today, to peer past the chalk.
Their tools revealed no winged monster, but a set of separate figures. The set shows one large central figure holding a snake-like element in its hand (an image they've found at other Barrer Canyon sites), a smaller human figure, two sheep- or dog-like figures, and a large figure that may be one of the many horned snakes found in paintings in the the area. The group published their findings in the journal Antiquity.
The ambiguity of the image up until now had allowed some people to see the winged creature, and creationist groups even used it as evidence that ancient Native Americans had coexisted with pterosaurs, flying reptiles that lived during the Cretaceous.
That interpretation is more understandable after you look at the footage in this Youtube video from Emery Country Travel. White lines originally set by Simonson and possibly touched up since reveal what looks like a long-necked, beaked creature with skinny legs and large fluttering wings.
Most researchers won’t be surprised by the conclusion in the new work — for years experts have suspected it was collection of figures, rather than one monster. But even a monster wouldn’t have been too surprising. "Since Native American art is of spiritual significance and holds significant religious content, images can also depict magical and mythical subject matter," Benjamin Smith, a rock-art expert at the University of Western Australia, who was not involved with the study, told Livescience. "Not all animals in Native American art therefore need to depict real-world creatures. Some will be supernatural, but none will be dinosaurs."