Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Back about 30 years or so rock art recording was much less sophisticated and technical than it has become since. It was also less effective and often caused serious damage to the rock surface. Rubbings required pressure on the rock face and often bled chemicals through to the rock surface. Photographic recording was often done with materials applied to the petroglyph to enhance the contrast in the photo. The most egregious example of that I know of is in the canyon of the Purgatoire River in southeastern Colorado where a line of petroglyph characters was carefully painted in with aluminum paint to show up well in photos. One very popular technique was the creation of a silicon latex or rubber peel, or mold taken by painting the liquid latex on the surface. This was peeled off the rock after curing and then used as a mold to make casts of the petroglyph with plaster. One problem with this technique is that it all too often pulled portions of the rock surface away too, irreparably damaging the petroglyph. As somewhat of an aside, I have seen one site where some moron tried to make a plaster cast of a petroglyph, and didn’t even know enough to use a release agent on the rock surface. The plaster stuck, of course, and was then obviously chipped off by hand with results you can imagine.

Fig. 1 - Scan of shield figure petroglyph,
input on computer screen.
Photo: Tim Urbaniak.

I received some truly exciting information and pictures from Tim Urbaniak at Montana State University in Billings, Montana, about a new technique of three dimensional recording of petroglyphs that does not require any touching of the rock surface, let alone adding material to it. Tim is a doctoral student, and has spent the last decade exploring applications of technology to archaeology and historic studies as the director of the MSU Billings Archaeology Field Team.
The recording was done with a Polhemus FastSCAN Scorpion unit. Tim has found it to be accurate to about 1/3 millimeter. A handheld unit contains two cameras and a laser unit which sweeps the rock face when the trigger is pulled while the cameras record the resulting sweep from two different angles. The resulting signals are analyzed with software which provides a detailed record of the distance to any point on the rock surface. Figure 1 shows the resulting scan pattern on the computer monitor screen. The data can then be used to generate a three dimensional image of the surface in the computer as shown in Figure 2.

Fig. 2 - Scan data result processed, shown
on computer screen. Photo: Tim Urbaniak.
The best part comes with the final option offered by this digital technique. The computer can also use this data to recreate a three dimensional facsimile of the surface using rapid prototyping techniques. Figure 3 shows a resulting reproduction in ¼-scale in (I presume) Tim’s hand. This rapid prototyping might be done using a milling machine to carve the shape into a block of material, or with other techniques which build the shape up with layers of cut paper or by selective hardening of liquid plastic cast in thin layers. Many other methods can be imagined as well, the point being that once the original scan has been done and the digital recording is made, it can be used in many different ways and preserved digitally for future developments.
Fig. 3 - Shield figure petroglyph reproduced
with rapid prototyping. Photo: Tim Urbaniak.
Think of it, a virtually perfect, permanent, three dimensional record, made with no touching of the rock face, digitally preserved for future possibilities. Thank you Tim!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Setting sun with sun dog (parhelion) on the left,
Denver. Photo: Peter Faris, 1998.
Sun dogs (parhelia) are a particular type of ice halo which produces a colored patch to the left and right of the sun, 22 degrees or more distant and at the same distance above the horizon as the sun itself. Best seen and most conspicuous when the sun is low, they are not rainbows. The Blackfeet knew them as “when the sun paints his cheeks”. According to The Old North Trail, Life, Legends and Religion of the Blackfeet Indians,by Walter McClintock, the Blackfeet believed that “when the sun paints both his cheeks” it is a warning that severe cold is coming, and that “when the sun paints his face on the forehead, chin and both cheeks (four Sun Dogs), it is a warning that a chief will soon die.”
Setting sun with 22 degree halo and sun dog,
Denver (the sun is behind the tree
on the left). Photo: Peter Faris, 1995.

Although they are fairly common, especially in northern latitudes, they are often overlooked because people just don’t look for them and they are not noticed unless extremely bright.

Three Rivers, New Mexico.

Photo: Peter Faris, 1998.
Parhelia would be expected to be portrayed in rock art as a sun sign with two or more spots added outside the perimeter of the sun sign. This example, which can be found at the Three Rivers petroglyph site in New Mexico, consists of the normal southwestern concentric circle sun symbol surrounded by a ring of 16 dots which may represent multiple parhelia (with a little exaggeration thrown in). In his book Rare Halos, Mirages, and Anomalous Rainbows and Related Electromagnetic Phenomena, William Corliss presents examples of multiple sun dogs with examples of up to eight cited. I would expect that a rock artist who had observed such an example of multiple parhelia could be motivated to reproduce it as the sun symbol surrounded by many dots as in this example. It certainly should be considered a possibility.

Another excellent book on atmospheric phenomena is Robert Greenler's, Rainbows, Halos, and Glories, 1980, Cambridge University Press, London, New York.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


The descriptive term of “sport” in the natural world is used to define an animal that is somehow different or non-typical for its species. According to Webster it is an “animal or plant that shows an unusual or singular deviation from the normal or parent type; mutation”. I have discussed elsewhere my opinion that in a culture that endows all of nature with spirit power, the sighting of a unique animal - a sport - would be interpreted as a spiritual occurrence by the witness.

Carrizo Creek, Baca County, CO.

Along Carrizo Creek in southeastern Colorado there is a remarkable petroglyph panel that includes three very strange animals. On the right side is a deer with a head of antlers that has 27 or 28 points depending on how you count it – definitely a sport. The topmost animal of the three appears to be a desert bighorn sheep with partially curled set of horns, and another set of horns growing out of the first set, and another set growing out of that set, etc., etc., etc. These stacked sets of horns climb up the rock face and disappear over the top. Between those two animals is the third which can be interpreted as a Push-me-pull-you, a quadruped with an antlered head at each end. This animal has a fairly normal head on the left side, and what appears to be another head with large, looping horns at the other end. There are a couple of other quadrupeds on this panel but they seem essentially normal.
Carrizo Creek (close up), Baca County, CO.
I had wondered for many years at the possible meanings of the animal with the 28-point antlers. Not unrealistic enough to be dismissed as a whole fantasy, but certainly not totally accurate and realistic it seemed. Then one day, while in the waiting room at my dentist’s office, I was browsing through an outdoor magazine and ran across an article about deer hunting which told about a deer hunt that had bagged a non-typical buck. This article mentioned that the Boone and Crockett Club, which maintains the list of records for animals taken by hunters has a category for non-typical (or sport) deer. Indeed, visiting the page for non-typical Mule or Blacktail deer on their website, you will find a picture of a set of deer antlers with 28 points, just like the deer on Carrizo Creek. Linea Sundstrom has mentioned the possibility that such an image might be a record of an unusual animal. Could the petroglyph actually be a picture of a real deer seen, or even bagged, by a Native American hunter – could this panel be a prehistoric Boone and Crocket register? And even if that explains the deer with the 28-point antlers, it does not address the other two figures.

In his book Thunder and Herds: Rock Art of the High Plains, Lawrence Loendorf has proposed (p. 138) that some figures with outsized or exceedingly complicated antlers have shamanic purpose. Loendorf stated; “The antlers of a number of quadruped figures resemble nets as much as they do antlers and, on some figures, the net-like antlers have replaced the figure’s head entirely. Since, in reality, the antlers of deer captured by net hunting are invariably entangled in those nets, it is easy to appreciate why antlers and nets might have become combined in the hunter’s mind and substituted for each other in an instructional rock art panel.” This also seems to be a possibility. In addition to these there will be a certain number of people who will want to credit hallucinogenic plants, and the entoptic images crowd as well.

One other possible motive for these sorts of exaggerations would be to emphasize the trait of the animal that the exaggerated organ is believed to represent. In the case of phallic figures, whether human or animal, if the phallus is exaggerated we have absolutely no trouble in crediting that to an intended emphasis on fecundity and sexuality. If the example is a bear with an emphasis on its claws or teeth we automatically assume that the meaning has something to do with the fierceness and danger represented by that animal. Well, just like the bear’s claws and teeth are its weapons, the antlers of the deer, and the horns of the bighorn sheep, are their weapons. Perhaps these are just an attempt to portray the greatest and most macho of each of these species, perhaps with spiritual meanings.

As for the Push-me-pull-you, other than vague hints of trying to show more than one aspect of a creature in a single image, such as its physical presence and its spiritual meaning at the same time, I haven’t the faintest idea - do you?

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Rock art researcher and expert Dr. Lawrence Loendorf has recently recorded a historic inscription which reads “G Crook 1876” from a location in an area where Crook was known to have been that year. He reports that “it may be legitimate and represent General George Crook the famous western Indian fighter”. Larry is very interested in trying to find other examples of inscriptions of General Crook “to see if there are matching attributes”.

"G Crook 1876" inscription field sketch.

General Crook was figure of great importance in the history of the later years of the Indian Wars in the West. A petroglyph panel in Canyon Pintado in Moffat County, Colorado, has been identified by locals as “General Crook’s Horse” (see below). According to local historian Hartley Bloomfield, the petroglyph was created by a Ute Indian who had scouted for General Crook and commemorated it with this image. Also, according to Mr. Bloomfield, the markings on the side of the horse had been confirmed as a horse brand which would be consistent with General Crook’s time and situation.

"General Crook's Horse",
Canyon Pintado, Colorado.

If you know of any other inscriptions (or maybe have heard rumors of them) from regions where General George Crook could have campaigned or passed through on his travels please respond in the comment box below, and be sure to include contact information so Dr. Loendorf can contact you personally. This is your opportunity to play a part in recovering information from an important era in the history of the West, and to collaborate with a bona fide rock art expert in this study. Send us your comments.