Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Obelisk in Purgatoire Canyon,
southeastern Colorado,
Photo: Peter Faris.

In a tributary of the Purgatoire (Picketwire) river in southeastern Colorado there is a vertical stone column with petroglyphs carved into its face. It was erected in a crude circle of large boulders. My photographs make it look like it is leaning on the rock behind it but, in fact, it is free-standing and not touching that rock with an unknown length of the column buried in the ground. The obelisk now stands approximately four feet tall but the top has been obviously broken off so it once stood taller, and probably sported more petroglyphs as well. About 20 years ago a chunk of the broken-off portion could be found lying at the base of the remaining column but whether it is still there or has been taken I cannot say. When that portion was added to the standing column the broken faces did not match suggesting that there was once still more column that is no longer in place. Back then we estimated that if the missing portions were replaced it would have stood around six feet tall, but that was largely guesswork.

Close-up, Obelisk in Purgatoire
river canyon, southeastern
Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris.

This obelisk was erected inside a crude circle of large boulders suggestive of a shrine or sanctuary. Whether this circle was created, or naturally existed before the obelisk was added is unknown and no archaeological investigation has yet been attempted to my knowledge. The petroglyphs are abstract, and by the depth of the pecking and their repatination they appear to be archaic in age. That is apparent in the comparison of the color of the pecked lines to the coloration of the broken face at the top of the column. This is the only such example that I personally know of in North America. In the almost total absence of factual information it is tempting to see this as some sort of shrine or monument. In any event, it was purposely created and its very existence implies a great significance to its makers.

A book with a great deal of material on the rock art of southeastern Colorado and the Purgatory canyon is The Petroglyphs of Southeast Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle by Bill McGlone, Ted Barker, and Phil Leonard.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Kneeling stick-figure Flute Player,
McElmo Canyon, Colorado.
Photo: Peter Faris
In one section of McElmo canyon south of Cortez, Colorado, an apparently unique form of Kokopelli (the hump-backed flute player) figure can be found. In a number of instances the figure consists of a simple humanoid portrayal with a strange backward bend to the legs, playing a flute that they hold with both hands.

These unique images are found in the vicinity of The Kelley Place, in McElmo Canyon, Montezuma County, Colorado. This area was populated in Pueblo III times by individual farm and small farming settlements. The rock art imagery is relatively crude, showing no signs of the kind of technical skill that is acquired by specialists through long practice. This suggests that they images were made by non-artists, basically regular people, the residential population, instead of more practiced and sophisticated specialists.

Kneeling Flute Player, solidly
pecked. McElmo Canyon,
Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris.

The importance of the flute player to Ancestral Pueblo peoples is attested to by its presence throughout the area they inhabited in the rock art they left, as well as the omnipresence of flute players in the mythology of their descendants. The most commonly known flute player today (at least among tourists and Anglo enthusiasts) is Kokopelli, the hump-backed flute player. Thought to represent a figure with a pack slung on his back, Kokopelli is variously interpreted as a fertility figure or an agricultural deity. In his agricultural role the pack on his back is thought to be full of seeds that he can spread throughout the land to provide the plant resources that the people and animals depend upon.

The kneeling flute players of McElmo Canyon might represent a local religious cult or belief. It only makes sense that the religion of the ancestral Pueblo people was not a monolithic belief, identical throughout the region. Indeed, what we know about the religions of most Native American peoples suggests that they were individual and based upon revelation. I would expect a certain amount of similarity in religious beliefs throughout the region (as is the case with today’s pueblos), but also local variants, much like the historic proliferation of sects within the Christian church.
It is tempting to believe that these kneeling flute players represent evidence of a local cult, and may have been the local response to a spiritual revelation. And in our world torn by religious conflict and all the suffering we see as a result, what a wonderful image, a religion inspired by music.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Red painted symbols on the roof of a rock shelter
near Douglas, Wyoming. Photo: Peter Faris.

On a ranch near Douglas, Wyoming, a rock art panel on the ceiling of a modest sized rock shelter is composed of a number of symbols that seem to be sabers with a normal hand grip on one end and a flintlock mechanism on the other. I photographed and sketched this panel in May of 2001 at the invitation of the landowner. The images on the panel include three red painted sabers, linear symbols with what appears to be the handle and hand guard of the saber at one end. There is also one simple flintlock with one long line and two short crossing lines representing the trigger and hammer with a surrounding trigger guard. There are also three combination symbols consisting of a line with the saber handle on one end and the flintlock mechanism on the other end.

Field sketch of symbols on the roof of
the rockshelter near Douglas, Wyoming.
Drawn by Peter Faris. (the sketch is
accurate, the difference in appearance from
the photo is caused by camera angle).

These symbols, and a few others that accompany them, are painted with a strong red paint on the ceiling of a small rock shelter overlooking a small valley. The small size of the shelter and its placement suggest that it may have served as a vision quest site.
I know of no artifact that would have served as a model for these symbols. I have showed pictures of these symbols to Jim Keyser who is perhaps the foremost expert on the portrayals of weapons in rock art, and he had also never seen this particular symbol anywhere else, but he also confirmed that they appeared to combine the traits of a cavalry saber with the lock and trigger mechanism of a flintlock firearm.
What we have in these symbols appears so far to be a mystery. I will appreciate any suggestions as to what they might represent. Further, if you know of any artifacts that might have served as a model for these symbols I will be happy to entertain your suggestion. In the end, we are all in this together.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


5BN7, Hicklin Springs, Bent County,
It sometimes seems as if the greatest enemy to rock art consists of the people who are fascinated with it. Rubbings (and even tracings) can damage fragile surfaces, the latex peels so common up to perhaps the 1990s, can pull the surface right off the rock face, chalking or otherwise touching up the images for photography is now known to cause irreparable damage to the rock art, even just gently touching it by tourists or interested students can deposit skin oils and perspiration that change chemical compositions in negative ways. In many instances we are literally loving it to death (I will deal with vandalism of rock art with future posts).
Most experienced rock art students have gotten to the point by now of insisting that the rock art be left totally inviolate, that no one touch in, and that even recording methods must be non-contact.
A number of years ago during a search for some of the rock art on Albuquerque’s West Mesa I turned up a small box canyon and found myself surrounded by dumped trash, waste, old appliances, and bed springs. I did locate some great rock art behind the piles of garbage, but I came away from the experience with very negative feelings overall. After a period of reflection, however, I developed the germ of an idea, entertaining in its irreverence, but socially beneficial as it solves two problems at once – two birds with one stone.
With the need for protection of rock art sites in my subconscious, a mention of toxic waste in a news story led to a “eureka” moment for me. The answer to both came to me in a blinding flash. If we establish our toxic waste dumps at rock art sites we can kill two birds (or more – literally) with one stone. A toxic waste dump could be an effective deterrent to vandalism of rock art. And if toxic waste might protect it, would not radioactive waste be even more effective? And if the waste is radioactive enough we might not need flashlights to see the rock art at night!

Archaic panel, 5BN7, Hicklin Springs, Bent County, CO.

A few years later, while I was leading a rock art recording project for the Denver Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society, we undertook to record the pictographs and petroglyphs at a huge site in southeastern Colorado – the Hicklin Springs site. What we found there put the whole question of protecting rock art into a new perspective. Hicklin Springs has been a popular destination for people of the area for over a century. People used to have excursions and picnics there, students go there to build fires and drink beer, and people have even dug for Spanish treasure at Hicklin Springs. As one might expect in such a popular site the most accessible rock art is pretty badly vandalized. A lot of the rock art at Hicklin Springs is, however, untouched and un-vandalized. Large areas are almost totally protected from access and vandalism – by poison ivy (Rhus toxicodendron).

5BN7 Hicklin Springs, Bent County, CO.
Luxurious growths of wild plum and
poison ivy plants.

And this is not just the common poison ivy, the low-lying, bright green plant with three leaves that we learn to avoid in brushy and woody areas. With perennial water seeps (the Springs of Hicklin Springs) some of this stuff has grown to sizes varying from large bushes to small trees. Two of our enthusiastic recorders who swore they were completely immune to poison ivy began (against my horrified protests) to pull it out and clear it by hand, wearing shorts. It was too big, too strongly rooted, and too thick, but before they gave up they had streams of white sap running down their legs. A day or two later they were also both hospitalized from the reactions. Parts of Hicklin Springs still have to be the best protected rock art sites I know.
So there you have it, my contribution to the literature of how to protect rock art. All we have to do is plant poison ivy in front of every accessible panel. The answer is really so simple, as is the advice to visitors. “Don’t touch the poison ivy, or the rock art.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


"Don't Deface" - the bear, pictograph
Picketwire Canyon, Las Animas
County, Colorado.

At the time of his death Charles Darwin had in his correspondence files a letter that had accompanied a photograph of a Colorado pictograph. According to the on-line database of the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge, England, they were sent on May 24, 1874, by Lieut. George J. Anderson, of Fort Lyon, Colorado, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/darwinletters/calendar/entry-9466.html. The database entry refers to the letter, which describes the image as a “photograph of a ‘natural curiosity’, a bear apparently ‘painted’ with red iron on the face of a soft rock”. The letter itself forms part of the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library, but the photograph has not been found.

I had found mention of this a number of years ago and was interested enough to pursue a search in an attempt to identify which bear image from southern Colorado this might be. During a subsequent conversation with Larry Loendorf we agreed that it might be the large Picketwire bear. This figure was prominent, had been discovered and publicized early on - its photograph had been printed in newspapers. Loendorf also pointed out that it was originally known as the “cinnamon bear” because rain runoff from the canyon rim had dyed it red with the red dust of the soil. This seems to match the description of it being “apparently ‘painted’ with red iron on the face of a soft rock”.

On May 13, 2009, I received from the Darwin Correspondence Project a transcription of the letter, which described the picture and its location. “The image is painted – as it were – on a perpendicular face of a very soft grey sandstone rock, about 40 feet from its base & 38 feet from its top, but may be easily reached – to the level of the bottom of the picture – by climbing over the dèbris at the foot of the bluff. . . . The coloring matter appears to be iron (probably Fe3O4) and penetrates the rock to a depth of more than ½ inch. . . . The image is in length, from nose to tail, about 8½ feet”. (This preliminary transcription has yet to be published in the Correspondence of Charles Darwin.)

Anderson’s description of the image size seems to fit that of the large Picketwire Bear and I know of no other bear pictograph in southeastern Colorado of that size, but its location is nothing like that described in the letter. The location of the large Picketwire Bear is basically just a little above the present ground surface on a slight slope. Unless we can be assured by a geomorphologist that the canyon bottom has been raised by nearly 40 feet (unlikely since the canyon bottom can be demonstrated to have been eroding deeper) since the creation of the pictograph, then I see no way to reconcile the present location of this bear with the described location. If we are lucky the original picture may some day be located in the Darwin archives: meanwhile the identity of the southeast Colorado bear pictograph sent to Charles Darwin remains a mystery.

I wish to extend an extra thank you to Rosemary Clarkson of the Darwin Correspondence Project for her generous assistance with my inquiry.