Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Rock art researchers have for years read ethnographic reports about Native American beliefs that some rock art images appear overnight, and we have consistently dismissed this as superstitious mythology.

Ute Indians believed that rock art was created by little people who may live within the rock itself. The Piikani Blackfoot believed that rock art would appear overnight to predict upcoming events, and they would often consult rock art panels about enemy presence, and to divine the success of war parties. They also attributed the presence of rock art high on the rock face, above the reach of people to birds. As no one could obviously reach high enough to create these images, they were obviously created by bluebirds under the direction of Thunder. The upshot is that we, of course, know better with our scientific acumen, and that there is no basis for a belief as obviously wrong as that rock art can appear overnight.

Fig. 1, 5LA8464, Box Canyon Site,
Photo: Peter Faris, 1999.

It is interesting, however, that all rock art researchers that I know agree that they have had experiences where they have noticed rock art that they had not seen before in places where they have looked many times, which seems to have appeared overnight. We know that differing light conditions affect the visibility and under the right conditions a pictograph that has faded to illegibility can sometimes be seen more completely, and a petroglyph made with shallow scratches can literally snap into visibility. An excellent example of this is represented by the Box Canyon Site, 5LA8464, in the Picketwire Canyonlands in the Purgatoire River Canyon, illustrated in Figure 1.

The Box Canyon petroglyph scene is shallowly scratched onto the darkened surface of a fairly hard sandstone cliff, and had been missed by numerous people walking past it for years. Then, on the right day, under the right light conditions, it was clearly seen by a park ranger as he passed the cliff face. I believe that the ranger was Mark Mitchell whom I have mentioned before in my August 20, 2009, posting about Armored Horses.

Fig. 2, 5LA8464, Box Canyon Site tracing,
reproduced by Mark Mitchell.

The panel was recorded in August, 1999, under the direction of James Keyser. Because the images consist of essentially shallow scratches on the hard rock surface it was virtually impossible to properly photograph. The method adopted was to trace the images on transparent plastic sheeting with a permanent felt marker. The final image consists of photocopies of these transparent plastic tracings reduced to the same percentage in the photocopier, and the resulting reduced-scale photocopies were pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, for further reduction through the same process. The final result can be seen in figure 2 as a whole scene in Plains Biographic style.

A group of Pawnee horsemen on the right have made a horse raid on a tipi village represented by the tipi on the left. Defending horsemen have taken at least one casualty represented by the mounted figure with an arrow in his chest in front of the tipi. The attackers, recognized as Pawnee by their distinctive moccasins with flaps at the ankles, and their hair in a queue at the back, are riding away with some dismounted horses representing the success of their raid. I have assumed that the victimized group are Cheyenne or Arapahoe because they inhabited the area in historic times.

As mentioned above, this complicated panel had been scratched onto the cliff face, probably between 150 – 250 years ago, but had not been noticed until the late 1990s. Why, one might almost imagine that it had appeared overnight!

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