Thursday, January 7, 2010


Some rock art researchers have noted that among the rocks used as hammerstones rounded quartz pebbles are particularly commonly used in the American Southwest. This has led to speculation that there is something special about quartz that give it special meaning for this purpose.

In his 2002 book The Mind In The Cave, David Lewis Williams discussed the importance of quartz in a spiritual context (p. 176-77). He related the findings of David Whitley who wrote about a site named Sally’s Rock Shelter in the Mojave Desert where pieces of quartz which had been used as hammerstones on petroglyphs had been dropped around the site.

Quartz hammerstone on a petroglyph
boulder, Airport Hill, St. George, UT.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2002.

Williams cited a number of other connections between Southwestern Native American spiritual practices and quartz. He speculated that the reason that quartz cobbles were considered to be special was because they possess triboluminescence, when two rounded quarts cobbles are rubbed together in the dark they generate flashes of light in their interiors, an effect that I have personally confirmed many times with quartz cobbles in a dark room. Williams confirms that striking a quartz cobble against a rock surface (in other words using it as a hammerstone) does not seem to generate those interior flashes of light, but it still might be thought to possess enough spiritual significance because of that property that it is prized for use as a hammerstone.

Petroglyph on boulder, Airport
Hill, St. George, UT.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2002.

The name triboluminescence comes from the Greek tribein, meaning “to rub”. It occurs when energy is input into atoms from external sources. The electrons absorb this energy by moving to a higher state, and when the electrons return to their normal state the energy is released in the form of light.

David Whitley had previously written essentially the same as Williams in 2000 in The Art Of The Shaman, (page 102) where he said “the reason for this selective utilization of quartz lies in shamanistic beliefs about and uses of this mineral. Quartz crystals were common components of shamans’ ritual kits. Shamans also sometimes took white quartz rocks on their vision quests. They would strike them together to release their supernatural power.”

Quartzite hammerstone, Wild Horse
Draw, Canyon Pintado, CO.
Photo: Peter Faris.

At Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, New Mexico, the Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology had a pair of quartz cobbles on exhibit labeled as “lightning stones”. Ellis, an archaeologist who worked in the Southwest from the 1930s to the 1960s, had excavated them from a kiva and speculated that in the dark of the kiva they were rubbed together to generate their flashes of light that resemble internal flashes of lightning inside of clouds.

The illustrations accompanying this column show a quartz cobble that had been used as a hammerstone to create a petroglyph(s) on a boulder on Airport Hill, St. George, UT, and one of the many petroglyphs found on boulders on Airport Hill, in St. George, UT, which may have been produced with this hammerstone.

The final illustration is a hammerstone from Wild Horse Draw in Canyon Pintado, northwestern Colorado, which seems to be a quartzite cobble. It is possible that the close resemblance of quartzite to quartz confers some of the same special spiritual significance on it. I have reproduced the “lightning stone effect” with quartz cobbles many times and can personally attest to the magical effect. If it fascinates me, how much more entrancing must it have been in prehistoric situations in a pitch black kiva, proof of spiritual power at our fingertips.


  1. Some where I read about quartz pebbles being used inside rattles made from opaque hide membranes. I too have known for a long time about this magical property of the stone.

  2. From a British context, small pieces of quartz have been found in the few excavations around rock art sites .However it is ubiquitous . When used to engrave motifs it leaves a fine white residue which is more appealing than the usual sandstone dust .This obviously disappears after the first rains .


  3. my teacher owns some of these