The Utah wilderness holds many secrets and glimpses into the past. Ancient tribes, such as the Pueblo and the Freemont, left behind evidence that they were there, including petroglyphs, which are scenes or pictures that have been carved directly into a rock surface. Different from pictographs, which are pictures that have been painted on rocks, these ancient artisans used a hammer and chisel to remove the outer layer of the rock to expose the lighter stone underneath. This then allowed them to create pictures that chronicled their everyday lives and stories. Many of them had ritual or cultural meanings that were closely tied to the location where they were carved.
A Picture to the Past
Petroglyphs can be found throughout the Western United States, with many of them in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Some of these petroglyphs are as old as 2,000 B.C., though many of them were created from 1300 A.D. to 1700 A.D. In Utah, one of the main creators of petroglyphs is the Fremont tribe. They lived in the area from approximately 800 A.D. to 1500 A.D., though some petroglyphs in the region are even older.
Tens of thousands of these petroglyphs still exist but are in danger of being destroyed, either accidentally or through acts of vandalism. There are many who want to preserve these priceless artifacts of past civilizations, and among them is Kevin Wellard, who runs an an aerial video and photography business using hi-tech drones. He is a professional photographer using these drones as tools to reach places and get perspectives that would not otherwise be possible.
Since 2011, Wellard has been using his considerable knowledge and experience to document petroglyphs, most of which are found far off the beaten path. His drones allow him access to these remote locations, and his high-resolution camera equipment creates amazing renditions of these artistic treasures. By using his drones, Wellard is not only able to create detailed photographs and videos, but he can also render three-dimensional models of each site that can be examined from every angle. To his knowledge, he is the only one currently using this technology in this way.
Wellard’s interest in petroglyphs extends far back into his childhood. When asked about his inspiration for undertaking this project, Wellard says, “I saw a cliff dwelling and the rock art panel called ‘All-American Man’ as a very young child. I was fixated on it for a long time. Then I moved to Utah and started to realize that I could visit and document these myself.”
Later in life, he attended Idaho State University and became involved with a group of rock art enthusiasts. During this time, he took a trip to Nine-Mile Canyon and noticed some rock art 150 feet up a cliff face. He thought to himself then, “What I really need is a flying camera.” Back then, the technology wasn’t quite there, but today, he’s living his dream as drone abilities have caught up.
Technology that Soars
One barrier to documenting this kind of art still remains: federal antiquities laws. These laws state that climbers scaling a cliff to look at ancient artifacts or ruins cannot use anything that would disturb the natural setting. If climbers want to free climb—using only their hands and feet—that’s perfectly fine. However, they are not allowed to use a rope, a ladder, or any other kind of climbing tools. The use of these tools has led to many well-meaning climbers accidentally defacing an irreplaceable part of history. But climbing without tools can also lead to dangerous situations that drones can avoid. Those who break these laws can be subject to federal penalties, including jail time and hefty fines.
That’s where drones come in. After college, Wellard worked with a parks and recreation department, who hired him for his expertise in photography. He eventually trained himself to use drones and obtained a license from the FAA, which is required for anyone who uses drones commercially.
“It wasn’t an easy course,” he admits. “I was studying for weeks, but when I passed, things really took off.”
Wellard was conducting scouting expeditions into the Utah wilderness to look for rock art well before he ever used drones. Though he moved away from Utah for a while, the call of adventure drew him back to the state.
“A lot of the thrill is the hunt, but sometimes it can be frustrating,” Wellard says. “Some of it is luck—just being in the right place at the right time in the right lighting and at the right angle.”
For example, he went on an expedition to Nine-Mile Canyon near Helper, Utah, and discovered a petroglyph that he was sure no one else had seen in the last hundred years. He found it completely by accident as he was driving through the canyon and had gotten out to stretch his legs. While walking around, he saw a red shape high up on the cliff side and got out his binoculars to investigate further. Sure enough, it was an anthropomorphic petroglyph that he had only been able to see because he had been there with exactly the right lighting conditions.
One of the most interesting petroglyphs he has found is called “The Juggler.” It is an anthropomorphic depiction, which means that it shows a human form, and appears to be juggling round objects of various sizes.
A Delicate Balance
Whenever he finds a petroglyph like “The Juggler,” Wellard saves the coordinates so that it can be shared with trusted third parties within the scientific community, although he has decided against publishing the coordinates publicly online to discourage vandals from disturbing his discoveries. His drones are equipped with high-tech sensors that prevent the drone from getting closer than four feet to the petroglyphs so that the art remains untouched.
“The Internet is a bit of a double-edged sword,” Wellard says. “You are able to find petroglyphs more easily, but people are also damaging them. About 80 percent of the damage occurring is people simply not being careful, and once in a while, you’ll have the group that comes along who does something maliciously.”
According to Wellard, there is a great division among those who search for petroglyphs. On one extreme, you have the “gatekeepers” who want as few people as possible to see the petroglyphs they find. Some of these people will go so far as to take measures to prevent other people from physically accessing the sites where petroglyphs are found. On the other extreme, there are those who want to put up information about the location of petroglyphs to make them accessible to absolutely everyone. Wellard finds himself somewhere in the middle, as he realizes the need to strike a careful balance between access and security.
“Some people get mad at me because I’m drawing too much attention to these, and others are thrilled,” Wellard says. “I try to stay as even-keeled as I possibly can.”
Being a Good Steward
His efforts also help the the Utah State Historic Preservation Office (USHPO), which is tasked with monitoring and repairing ancient petroglyphs and ruins. In addition to those who go out and restore damaged petroglyphs, a group of volunteers, called stewards, help keep an eye on sites with historical value. Wellard is one of these stewards and has a particular petroglyph site in Nine-Mile Canyon that he visits four times a year. While there, he takes pictures and fills out a report to give to USHPO. The steward program also protects other historical sites such as cemeteries and mining cities, and only the stewards are given the coordinates. These coordinates are kept confidential so that these sites remain undisturbed.
“There are over 100,000 such known sites in Utah,” Wellard explains. “And there are probably a million more that we’re not aware of yet. They are always looking for more people to help by becoming stewards themselves.”
You can help support his endeavors by purchasing a petroglyph print from his website at kevinwellard.com. You can also help him by contacting him with the coordinates of petroglyphs you come across that may not have been reported yet so that he can document them. By working together, people can help preserve these remarkable artifacts of the past so they will still be around for future generations to enjoy.