Saturday, August 20, 2016


The Ancient Skier carving before it
was damaged. (Nordland County)

At this time of the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro we have a story on vandalized rock art with an Olympic connection. On 4 August, 2016, ran a column by Danny Lewis about the vandalism of a petroglyph of a figure on skis on the Norwegian island of Tro. This image, dated 5,000 B.P. is famous as the earliest portrayal of what we now classify as a winter sport, and inspired the symbol for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

""It's a tragedy, because it's one of the most famous Norwegian historical sites," Bård Anders Langø, the mayor of the nearby Alstahaug Municipality - "It is one of the most internationally known symbols of Norway."" (Lewis 2016)

""As the oldest-known image of a person on skis, the stone age symbol is often seen as an iconic part of Norwegian culture. In addition to an important glimpse into the lives of ancient humans, the carving inspired the logo for the 1994 Norway Winter Olympics in Lillehammer."" (Lewis 2016)

The Ancient Skier carving after
damage. (Nordland County)

Two boys, visiting the site, decided to touch it up to make the lines more visible. They also decided to improve a nearby petroglyph of a whale.

" The news of the damage - broke when a person staying in the area informed Tor-Kristian Storvik, the official archaeologist for Nordland County, that the petroglyph had been damaged. - Storvik investigated and found that in addition to the damage done to the famous carving, a nearby etched whale had also been harmed. The boys have come forward and publicly apologized for the incident. Officials are keeping their identities secret to protect the minors from potential abuse." (Lewis 2016)

Apparently Norwegian officials are considerably more lenient in cases of vandalized rock art than our current social sentiment demands. Cases of such vandalism in our country nowadays usually end up in trials and fines if the perpetrators are discovered. While I applaud such generosity and sympathetic treatment, I also see this as a teaching opportunity missed. In this case only two individuals have learned a lesson from this vandalism, not the whole society. We must find ways to get the word out and promote an understanding throughout the whole society that rock art is irreplaceable and must not be altered, defaced, or damaged.

You can read the whole story at


Lewis, Danny, 2016

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Fig. 28.11, Sunburst with nine points,
Sinmo Khadang, Tibet. Photograph
from John Vincent Bellezza. 

In our quest to locate the rock art at the highest elevation, Peter Jessen has again come through with another candidate, this time from Tibet. Pictographs at the site of Sinmo Khadang were found at 4,720 to 4,740 meters which is about 15,576 to 15,642 feet above sea level (that is high altitude in anybody's book).

Fig. 28.2. Interior of Sinmo
Khadang, Tibet. Photograph
from John Vincent Bellezza.

Jessen forwarded to me an article by John Vincent Bellezza from 2015 (please see references below) detailing a number of rock art sites in Tibet, and conveniently each site listed has its elevation above sea level given. The highest elevation listed for a site in this article is that of Sinmo Khadang (4,720 to 4,740 meters/15,576 to 15,624 feet above sea level).

Fig. 28.1. View from the south mouth
of Sinmo Khadang overlooking the
Spiti River valley, Tibet. Photograph
from John Vincent Bellezza. 

The rock art sites of Spiti.
Map by Brian Sebastian and
John Vincent Bellezza.

Sinmo Khadang is an 80 meter long large cave, situated just below a summit dividing the main Spiti river valley from the tributary valley of Kibbar. The name Sinmo Khadang translates as "Gaping Mouth of the Cannibalistic Fiend." Spiti is located in the Western fringe of the Tibetan Plateau (see the map above).(Bellezza 2015)

Fig. 28.8. Swastika, crescent moon,
and bell-shaped form. The swastika
and moon are one composition, the
bell-shaped form was painted
separately. Photograph from
                     John Vincent Bellezza.

Fig. 28.12. Swastika and anthropomorphs.
Sinmo Khadang, Tibet. Photograph from
John Vincent Bellezza.

"The repertoire of rock art at Sinmo Khadang is comparable with the other pictographic sites of Spiti. In addition to trees, suns, moons, swastikas and anthropomorphs, there are two paintings of ibexes and a raptor pictograph in the cave. The pictographs of Sinmo Khadang were made by many different people. They primarily date to the Protohistoric period but some may possibly have been made subsequently in the Early Historic period. There is also a more recent red ochre pictograph consisting of a clockwise swastika with four dots painted inside its arms, as well as an obscured inscription in the Uchen script." (Bellezza 2015)

Fig. 28.14. Tree and swastika on
east wall of Sinmo Khadang, Tibet.
Photograph from John Vincent Bellezza.

Uchen is an upright, block style of the Tibetan alphabet. The name means "with a head" and it is the style of writing used for printing and formal manuscripts. Uchen is used to write both the Tibetan language and Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan. (Wikipedia)

Fig. 28.10. West wall of Sinmo Khadang,
Tibet. A large sunburst in middle, above
it a pair of anthropomorphs flanked by
swastikas forming a single composition.
Photograph from John Vincent Bellezza.

It is hard to imagine any rock art at sites higher than this, but people certainly at higher elevations in Tibet, and it is likely that there may still be rock art sites that have not been recorded. It is going to be hard to beat 15,642 feet but let's all keep looking, and let me know of your candidate for Highest Elevation Rock Art.

NOTE: For further information about rock art of Tibet please refer to Tibet Archaeology and All Things Tibetan, (see below).


Bellezza, John Vincent
2015   Flight of the Khyung (Part 3), in Tibet Archaeology and All Things Tibetan,


Saturday, August 6, 2016


Symbols consisting of variations on
the cross, Mesa Prieta, New Mexico.
Photograph Peter Faris.

In the portions of the New World that were settled by the Spanish a symbol commonly found in historic rock art is the Christogram. "A Christogram (from Greek Khristos, Christ + -gramma, letter or piece of writing is a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ, traditionally used as a Christian symbol. Different types of Chrostograms are associated with the various traditions of Christianity, e.g. the IHS (also JHS, IHC, or IHΣ) monogram representing the Holy Name of Jesus or ICXC representing "Jesus Christ". Since early Christianit, the related term Chrismon (from Greek Khristos, Christ + -mon, one or single, from Late Latin monogramma, monogram) has traditionally referred to any symbol or figure reminiscent of the name of Christ, by contrast with the basic Christogram consisting of plain letters typically implying the presence of some kind of calligraphic ornamentation." (Wikipedia)

Chi-Rho Christogram,
public domain.

"One of the oldest Christograms is the Chi-Rho or Labarum. It consists of the superimposed Greek letters chi (X) and rhoh (P), which are the first two letters of Christ in Greek." (Wikipedia)

The most commonly encountered Christogram in English-speaking countries in modern times is the letter X (or more accurately, the Greek letter chi), representing the first letter of the word Christ, in such abbreviations as Xmas (for "Christmas) and Xian or Xtian (for "Christian")." (Wikipedia)

Monogram for the name of Jesus based
on the Cross, Public Domain.

Many of the known Christograms include representations of the Cross, symbolizing the crucifix and the crucifixion of Christ. This leads to the distinct possibility that elaborated crosses found in historic rock art of the American southwest were intended as Christograms. Even if the person who produced the image did not know the concept of Christograms their intention to produce a reference to the church of Jesus Christ allows us to classify these as probable Christograms.

Purgatoire Canyon, Bent County, CO.
Photograph Peter Faris, June 1991.

A concentration of these symbols is found in the northern New Mexico, southern Colorado area historically inhabited by the Penitente Brotherhood, and are assumed to have probably been their creations. Others can perhaps  be credited to sheepherders or Hispanic cowboys. In some instances they demonstrably mark a shrine, while in other instances they are just found on a rock surface with no other cultural remains to be seen. In any case they represent a message of someone's strong devotion to their Christian religion and should be viewed with the respect due a sacred symbol.


Blaine, Dean
2015    Mysteries of the Brotherhood, Archaeology, May/June 2015, Vol. 68, No. 3, p. 42-7.

Faris, Peter
2015     Penitente Rock Art,


Saturday, July 30, 2016


Entrance to Sandia Cave (the
spiral staircase just left of center).
Photograph Peter Faris, 1990.

Sandia Cave (previously known as Sandia Man Cave) in New Mexico is an iconic site in the study of prehistory of North America. Frank Cummings Hibben conducted excavations in the cave from 1936 - 1941, searching for evidence of pre-Folsom occupation. "Because his excavations were conducted prior to acceptance of radiocarbon dating in the 1950s, his interpretation was based upon the stratigraphy of the cave. Hibben purported that below a Folsom Age stratigraphic layer that contained several fluted projectile points was a layer where the Pleistocene fauna were found in association with a distinct type of projectile points." (Arazi-Coambs and Rich 2016:12)

Sandia type projectile points.
Photograph Public Domain.

This distinct type of projectile point resembled European Solutrean projectile points dating from 22,000 - 17,000 BP, having a single shoulder on one side. The lack of hard dates, however, and the state of the deposits in Sandia Cave, have made Hibben's claims somewhat controversial and the archaeological world has still not reached any solid consensus on them, although the site itself is important because of its place in history, and its record of use from the Paleoindian period to the present. (Arazi-Coambs and Rich 2016:11)

Sandia Cave, New Mexico.
Photograph Peter Faris, 1990.

I made a visit to the cave in October, 1990, to see the site where these important, although somewhat controversial, discoveries were made. Hiking up the trail and climbing the metal stairway, I was horrified to find that the cave had been used as a toilet facility for some time, supposedly by nearby campers, and proved an absolutely disgusting place to be. Watching my step, and snapping a few quick photographs, I beat a hasty retreat without a detailed examination of the cave. I wrote this off as pretty much a total loss and let it go at that.

First chamber, pre-restoration,
From Arraz-Coambs and Rich, 2016,
Sandia Cave Restoration: National
Historic Landmark, p. 14.

I have now recently learned, however, that the situation at Sandia Cave has changed. An article by Sandra Arazi-Combs and Carrin Rich in the April 2016 issue of the National Speleological Society News outlines a comprehensive restoration project for Sandia Cave. "In fall 2013 the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands paired with Sandia Grotto to address the possibility of restoring Sandia Cave to a more natural-looking state." (Arazi-Coambs and Rich 2016:12)

A coalition of interested parties from the National Park Service, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, affiliated Pueblo tribal representatives, and representatives of the National Speleological Society (NSS), and the NSS Southwestern Region met, and over the course of two years developed a proposal for mitigation and restoration of Sandia Cave.

First chamber, post-restoration.
From Arraz-Coambs and Rich,
2016, Sandia Cave Restoration:
National Historic Landmark, p. 14.

"In January 2015 UNM Public Archaeology Graduate student Katherine Shaum collaborated with Sandia Grotto and the USFS to submit a grant to New Mexico Historic Preservation Division to fund the restoration." (Arazi-Coambs and Rich 2016:12)

Enhanced handprint pictograph,
Sandia Cave, From Arraz-Coambs
and Rich, 2016, Sandia Cave
Restoration: National Historic
Landmark, p. 13.

Red ochre lines on cave wall, Sandia
Cave. From Arraz-Coambs and Rich,
2016, Sandia Cave Restoration:
National Historic Landmark, p. 12.

Under the hands-on supervision of Stratum Unlimited LLC, the restoration work was conducted by volunteers from the involved parties and the general public, and their wonderful results can be seen from the accompanying photos. Additionally, two ochre markings, one of which is a handprint, are illustrated which were discovered in the cave. All-in-all this seems like complete success and I congratulate all parties involved. Perhaps I will someday try to visit it again.


Arazi-Coambs, Sandra (USFS), and Carrin Rich (Sandia Grotto),
2016   Sandia Cave Restoration: National Historic Landmark, p. 11-14, National Speleological Society News, National Speleological Society, Huntsville, AL.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Fig. 4.1 and 4.2, p. 11,
Kak Nyingba, Nepal, Dr.
Perdita Pohle, 2003.

On June 18, 2016, I posted a column titled The Low-Down On Highest Altitude Rock Art Claims. In this I reported on an article titles Highest-Altitude Prehistoric Rock Art Revealed, written by Stephanie Pappas and published online by LiveScience. In her article Pappas outlined claims that a painted rock shelter named Abri Faravel in the southern French Alps has the highest elevation rock art discovered so far. The paintings of Abri Faravel were discovered in 2010 and are at an elevation of 2,133 meters (approximately 7,000 feet).

Fig. 5.1 and 5.2, p. 12,
Kak Nyingba, Nepal, Dr.
Perdita Pohle, 2003.

I then presented two pictograph sites in Colorado that I believe are from higher elevation than 7,000 feet, and I ended with the invitation for readers to inform me of sites that they know of that are at higher elevations. Then, on 19 June, 2016, Peter Jessen forwarded an article to me about a petroglyph site in Nepal at an elevation of about 9,000 feet. The site, Kak Nyingba, consists of petroglyphs carved onto the "flat sandstone banks abutting the Kali Gandaki river." (Pohle 2003:2)

Fig. 6.1 and 6.2, p. 13,
Kak Nyingba, Nepal, Dr.
Perdita Pohle, 2003.

At the time of the writing 1,189 petroglyphs had been identified, not counting cupules that are also found there. (Pohle 2003:2) While no precise dates are given internet references date habitation in that area to a few thousand years.

Fig. 7.1 and 7.2, p. 14,
Kak Nyingba, Nepal, Dr.
Perdita Pohle, 2003.

So, now, thanks to Peter Jessen we have moved the bar up considerably, from 7,000+ feet elevation to approximately 9,000 feet elevation. Who can give us a higher rock art site? Do you know of one? If so, send it to me at

NOTE:  For complete information on the Kak Nyingba petroglyph site refer to the original 2003 article "Petroglyphs and Abandoned Sites in Mustang, A Unique Source For Research in Cultural History and Historical Geography" by Dr. Perdita Pohle below.


Pappas, Stephanie,

Pohle, Perdita, Dr.,

2003      Petroglyphs and Abandoned Sites in Mustang, A Unique Source For Research in Cultural History and Historical Geography, p. 1-14, Ancient Nepal, No. 153, June 2003, Published by His Majesty's Government Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Department of Archaeology, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Saturday, July 16, 2016


I recently received a mailing from the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project (MPPP), the Wells Petroglyph Preserve (WPP), Velarde, New Mexico. I was charmed by the stationery that was used which is decorated with drawings of petroglyphs from the WPP done by children in the program. 

Child's illustration, Mesa Prieta, 
NM. Picture courtesy of the Mesa
Prieta Petroglyph Project.

Mesa Prieta, Rio Arriba County, 
NM. Photograph Peter Faris, 
Sept. 4, 2011.

Even better, they printed it in color instead of opting for cheaper black and white. The thing is, many of these drawings by children are better than some of the drawings done by participants in rock art recording projects I have conducted.

Child's illustration, Mesa Prieta,
NM. Picture courtesy of the Mesa
Prieta Petroglyph Project.

Mesa Prieta, Rio Arriba County,
NM. Photograph Peter Faris,
Sept. 4, 2011.

The Discovering Mesa Prieta curriculum is used in 17 schools in the and they estimate that over 2,000 children have benefited from their program.


Child's illustration, Mesa Prieta,
NM. Picture courtesy of the Mesa
Prieta Petroglyph Project.

Mesa Prieta, Rio Arriba County,
NM. Photograph Peter Faris,
Sept. 4, 2011.

Trained teams have recorded over 55,000 petroglyphs so far and they now estimate that Mesa Prieta may contain 100,000 images from the Archaic, Ancestral Puebloan, and historic periods.

Child's illustration, Mesa Prieta,
NM. Picture courtesy of the Mesa
Prieta Petroglyph Project.

Child's illustration, Mesa Prieta,
NM. Picture courtesy of the Mesa
Prieta Petroglyph Project.

Child's illustration, Mesa Prieta,
NM. Picture courtesy of the Mesa
Prieta Petroglyph Project.

If you care to get involved supporting this good work they will be happy to accept your donations. The MPPP is a 501(C)3 organization so your contributions will be tax deductible.

Contact them at, or write Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project, PO Box 407, Velarde, NM, 87582.

Friday, July 8, 2016



I do not know if reading this title surprises you as much as writing it surprises me, but this seems to be the only conclusion we can make about findings from Bruniquel cave in France. An article by Ewen Callaway from Nature Magazine, on May 25, 2016, and reprinted by Scientific American online, describes arrangements of broken off pieces of stalagmites that I can only understand in terms of intentional structures.

"The six structures are made of about 400 large, broken-off stalagmites, arranged in semi-circles up to 6.7 metres wide. The researchers think that the pieces were once stacked up to form rudimentary walls. All have signs of burning, suggesting that fires were made within the walls. By analysing calcite accreted on the stalagmites and stumps since they were broken off, the team determined that the structures were made 174,400 to 178,600 years ago." (


There are two of the stone circles, and four piles of pieces of stalagmite accompanying them. All of this is found 1,000 feet from the entrance of the cave with at least one stretch that requires crawling to pass through.

"Now Jaubert et al. have published he results of their analysis of a remarkable set of structures discovered some 336 meters deep inside Bruniquel Cave in France. Made from the broken-off spears of roughly 400 stalagmites, these circular patterns and seemingly careful piles span between 2 and 7 meters in diameter, and strongly suggest the deliberate actions of someone, or something.

The astonishing aspect is the age that Jaubert et al. find for the formation. The broken pieces of the stalagmites have continued to grow layers since they were snapped off in the wet cave environment, and so the researchers were able to identify where the original calcite surfaces were in their core samples. They then used uranium-series radioisotope dating to come up with a time for the event of around 176,500 years ago (give or take about 2,100 years)." (Scharf, Caleb, 2016,


To me this description can only be describing intentional construction from ca. 176,000 years ago, and at that period in time Neandertals were the only hominin in western Europe. 

“The big question is why they made it,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin, a palaeoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany who was not involved in the study, which is published online in Nature on May 25. “Some people will come up with interpretations of ritual or religion or symbolism. Why not? But how to prove it?”" (

Now, back when I was an art history student, architecture was classified as an art form and included in the textbooks, so I am presenting this as rock art, of a sort. It also provides context for an appraisal of Neandertal creative cognitive ability, and we now know that they could, and did, create rock art. 
Get the full story from the Scientific American article cited below, or read the original in Nature Magazine.


Callaway, Ewen, 2016

Scharf, Caleb, 2016