Thursday, April 23, 2009


You cannot attend a rock art symposium, or take a tour with a group of people to visit a rock art site without hearing a whole load of strange interpretations about what they mean. I have already written about my skepticism toward the presence of ogam in North America, and my strong conviction that there are no maps in rock art panels. Under this category I will discuss a number of other popular interpretations that I have varying stages of skepticism about.
1. Frontal figures with their arms extended horizontally are all shaman figures: I was absolutely astounded to learn this when, viewing a rock art panel which included such a figure, one member of our party passed this learned statement on to the rest of the group. This is a prime example of the kind of gullibility that I am concerned with. On an earlier occasion someone had told this lady that gem of wisdom, and she, a true rock art enthusiast, believed it wholeheartedly. I have no doubt that some frontal figures with extended arms could be shaman figures, perhaps even the one she saw when she was originally told this, but all? Since rock art as we see it today was created by various unrelated peoples in different parts of the continent over many hundreds or even thousands of years, to believe that all images of one certain thing (standing frontal figures with arms extended, for example) all have inherently the same meaning, strikes me as preposterous.
2. LeVan Martineau could read rock art panel's meanings because he had deciphered the code: I find this one to be silly, although I must admit that a number of researchers whom I respect seem to treat the idea with varying degrees of belief. As I read his explanation of this ability which he possessed he had learned to read the imagery and symbolism of rock art panels during his training in codes and cryptography in the United States Army Intelligence Corps. Well, I too was in the United States Army Intelligence Corps and I can attest that they had no training that would have any bearing at all on rock art panels. Not only was most cryptography the province of the CIA and the National Security Agency, it was a generally mathematic process that dealt with letters and numbers, and had nothing to do with meanings of pictures.
3. Maps in Rock Art: As I mentioned above I do not believe in these so I will not go further into this one here, see my previous post of April 18, 2009, for my comments on this one.
One of my favorite stories about gullibility in respect to the meaning of rock art came from M. Jane Young in her book Signs from the Ancestors, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1988. Ms. Young overheard a guided tour for anglo tourists at a rock art site near Zuni and the Zuni guide gave the tourists his standard discussion for that particular site. One of the tourists told the guide that he had heard that all spiral petroglyphs represented the super-nova explosion of 1054 AD that created the Crab Nebula. Young then relates that she was back at that location the next year and heard the same guide explain to a group of tourists that the panel represented the supernova of 1054 AD that created the crab nebula. So who is this a commentary on, the Zuni guide or the tourists?
In approaching the question of rock art interpretation I recommend that a person adopt the attitude which I first heard explained by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway reportedly stated that an artist "needs to have a built-in crap detector." I recommend that for rock art researchers as well, although it would probably be more politically correct today to call it a healthy dose of skepticism.

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