The walls of the Parowan Gap, a short canyon that cuts through the stony Red Hills in southwestern Utah, are decorated with scores of curious prehistoric designs. Early Mormon explorers were told by American Indians almost 150 years ago that this was "God's own house."

Researchers now have an inkling how the passage earned such a description.The Gap appears to be a natural calendar, says Nal Morris, a Salt Lake archaeoastronomer who has returned from the site after observing a series of sunsets marking the approach of the autumn equinox there. It was revered, he says, "because there are so many naturally occurring phenomena at that point."

The cleft and certain of its petroglyphs and a series of precisely arranged stones represent "a map of travels," modern Paiutes say, remembering a phrase apparently centuries old. The "travels," Morris said, include the seasonal progress of the sun across the sky. Other petroglyphs pinpoint movements of the moon, including one that tracks a 19-year lunar cycle, noting the southernmost rise of the moon. An anthropomorphic rock profile, called Tobats after a Paiute deity, seems to swallow the sun.

Though not as currently renowned as southeastern Utah's Newspaper Rock or Fremont Indian State Park along I-70, the Gap's rock-art panels are notable - and they are getting more visitors all the time, said Anne Stanworth, a public affairs spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management's Cedar City office.

On our 1998 calendars, Tuesday, Sept. 22, is the autumn equinox, the midpoint between the summer and winter solstices when day and night are of equal length. During the past weekend, a dozen people dropped by to watch the setting sun descend the Gap's gunsight-like notch as aligned with one set of stones. About 400 people gathered last June to observe the summer solstice, Morris said.

The site, pinpointed on many maps, is accessible via the graded gravel Gap Road that connects the center of Parowan (and I-15), about 10 miles to the east, with U-130 to the west.

The jumbles of pecked and carved dots, zigzags, spirals and abstract shapes, arrayed high and low on boulders and rock surfaces on both sides of the canyon, are perplexing to the modern eye. All of the figures are petroglyphs (cut into a rock surface) as opposed to pictographs (drawings or paintings on a rock wall), Kenneth B. Castleton noted in his extensive two-volume survey, "Petroglyphs and Pictographs of Utah."

"The most imposing figure is a large `V' with a bulbous, nearly circular end where the two limbs join," he wrote.

That enigmatic V "we call the Zipper Glyph," Morris said. It appears to be a combination map and calendar, the shapes representing the Gap's narrow neck and the small valley to the east.

"Along the line of the glyph are numerous tick marks, and when these are counted, they come to about 180 in total," he said. These may represent the number of days in half of a year - and, with fair accuracy when compared to a topographical map, chart the traverse of the sun between the solstices.

Morris and fellow researchers also located a system of five cairns, or gatherings of stone (as well as five backup cairns) that seem to divide the solar year into eight segments. The Zipper Glyph and organized stones are keys to various dates, Morris has theorized, including the spring equinox, the summer solstice, the autumn equinox, the winter solstice and equally important cross-quarter dates between those better-known demarcations. Observers can witness the sun setting in alignment with the Gap and the sight-line stones, he said.

Today's visitors will also see glyphic suns, snakes, ladderlike shapes and dotted plaques that look something like dominoes. Other figures more obviously represent scorpions, sheep - and, believe it or not, one looks very much like an ancient Mickey Mouse.

Most of the shapes and symbols, explains an informational sign near one panel, were made approximately 1,000 years ago, "either by the ancestors of the present-day Southern Paiute or by people of the Sevier-Fremont culture. The designs do not signify exact words of any language, and thus are not hieroglyphs. Although several theories have been expressed, the exact meaning of the designs is still unknown."

In her book "The Rock Art of Utah," Polly Schaafsma comments upon the unusual features of these panels and notes that "The Fremont work at this site shows strong Anasazi influence." The Anasazi, of the Four Corners area, and the Fremont, who lived northwest of the Colorado River throughout much of Utah, were prehistoric cultures that occupied the region in the centuries before about 1250 A.D.

To protect the petroglyphs from invasive attention and vandals, major panels are fenced. That hasn't prevented some unfortunate desecration. And graffiti recent and not so recent (some examples have turn-of-the-century dates) is evident throughout the canyon.

"M.J." and "R.R." left their initials inside a nearly oval heart. "I.H.B." climbed high up one dark-brown varnished wall to leave block-shaped lettering above a particularly intricate carved tapestry.

Morris, a retired physicist and computer programmer, has been studying these petroglyphs since 1990 in cooperation with Iron County, Parowan and the Utah Department of Transportation, among others. The result is a new report from his company Solarnetics Inc. on the findings and theories, "The Parowan Gap Archaeoastronomy Report Volume 1: Space, Time, Light and Number." The Parowan site is not unique, either, he said. Other such calendars are found in Utah, including a notable example in Emery County.

The pre-Columbian creators of the Parowan Gap glyphs and cairns were bright, observant people, Morris said. They could count. They probably used such calendar devices to mark important dates and help plan their seasonal agriculture.

Morris is firm in his belief that the Gap, the petroglyphs and the cairns together comprise an insightful tool used by ancient Indians. The alignments and connections to the sun cannot be an accident.

"I mean, if this has occurred by some happenstance, it would have to be some miscarriage of probability," he said. "The simplest answer is this was done by intelligent design."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Equinox is tonight

As the crisp air throughout Utah seems to hint, today is the start of autumn.

The autumnal equinox - that is, the precise moment when fall begins - is at 11:37 p.m. tonight in the northern hemisphere, according to the Hansen Planetarium. The equinoxes are times when the days and nights are of equal length, marking the beginning of spring and fall. That means Wednesday is the first full day of fall.

The solstices, when the days are the longest and shortest of the year, mark the start of summer and winter.