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Visit to Procession Panel in Bears Ears National Monument

Updated: May 31, 2021

A hike to Procession Panel provides context for interpreting the petroglyphs it contains—even if it's not the correct one.

Procession Panel, looking southeast. The panel extends further northwest, Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Procession Panel refers to a wall of petroglyphs on a sandstone cliff face near the crest of Comb Ridge in Bears Ears National Monument. Like many hikes on Comb Ridge, it is reached from the road east of Butler Wash. After crossing the deep, sandy, and usually dry wash, the route climbs the steep sandstone ramp of the Comb Ridge monocline to the top.

Although the trail is not marked, once the correct Comb Ridge drainage is found, it is simply a matter of walking up the steep grade to the top. About half way up, the canyon constricts considerably for a short distance, then opens up again. Close to the crest of the ridge, the sandstone cliff face bordering the route on the right bends further right (north) and nearly disappears from view. It is a steep scramble to that wall, and the area has a lot of fallen boulders, but hugging that wall as it veers northwest near the ridge crest will lead to the panel.

Comb Ridge, looking south, about halfway up to its crest. In the central portion of the horizon is a sandstone promontory with a cliff facing the viewer. Behind the photographer is a similar promontory with a vertical cliff face upon which is the Procession Panel. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The panel is full of petroglyphs of differing styles implying they were made by different individuals. Some are overlapping, indicating they were done at different times—the most superficial being the most recent.

The striking feature of the panel is the lines of pecked figures that appear to be marching towards a central circle. One line of figures is coming from the southeast, another is coming from the northwest, and a third is coming from below.

Detail, Procession Panel. The panel continues a bit further to the left. The procession of people from three directions can easily be seen, but there are also many other themes represented by the pecked glyphs. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The figures themselves clearly represent people. There is an unusual amount of detail for pecked figures, including headdresses, staffs, and backpacks. Many appear to be carrying torches.

The central circle is thought to represent a gathering place—perhaps a great kiva, or perhaps this very spot, which may have been a shrine.

Large animals, including deer and bighorn sheep are also represented on the panel. Some of them may have later been ritually "killed" as evidenced by the lighter, probably more recent, pecking over the area of the heart. Some animals appear to have been killed by atlatls, as evidenced by the dart embedded in the animal.

Atlatls preceded and were replaced by the bow and arrow which arrived in the region somewhere about 200-400 AD. This would give a minimum age to parts of the panel at 1600 years before present.

Other symbols coexist, including anthropomorphs outside the procession, and a vertical line of animal prints. The black and white image does a good job of emphasizing the petroglyphs and an enlarged image or drawing is required to really study the contents of the panel.

In the next blog, I'll write a bit about the panel's position along an east-west route across Comb Ridge and its possible significance.


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