Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Rock Alignment, Baca County, CO. The middle
rock in this picture is behind the clump
of weeds. Photo: Peter Faris, 1988.

In Baca County, in southeastern Colorado, a very interesting phenomenon is represented by a large number of rock alignments. Straight lines of various sized rocks carefully laid out across the landscape in almost perfect rows, some for considerable distance. The longest that has been reported to me is approximately one-half mile in length. There does not seem to be any discernible pattern to their layout or locations. Some go up hills and down, others up the center of a valley between two hills. These occur over a larger area than just Baca County, Colorado. A few years ago I was told by a rancher from near Boise City, OK, that he had them in that area as well.

A Native American informant reportedly told some investigators that these rock alignments represented escape routes, where members of a threatened tribe could sneak away without leaving any footprints by walking on the rocks like stepping stones. This is patently silly as you would not need to follow footprints to find your quarry if they obligingly had left you a trail of stepping stones to follow, much more durable and easier to see than bread crumbs.

So what is the purpose for these alignments? I truly do not know. As usual these things are “discovered” when they become known to modern science, no matter who knew about them before. Investigators have made much about the fact that they supposedly can only be “seen from above.” Well it is possible that they were made as some sort of spiritual activity, if the labor of creating these lines was an offering to the spirits. That does not fit very well with anything we know about Native American religions. That suggestion does occur to us because it fits well with many of the religious traditions of the dominant western culture. Carved stone saints standing in niches in European cathedrals are fully finished in the back even though no member of the congregation will ever see that back, because God knows whether or not it is complete, and less than complete is thought to be less than satisfactory to God.

We are faced with an unknown here and much serious study will be required to gather more information. Until then, I am open to suggestions.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


On an August afternoon in 2003, friends Bill and Jeannie guided us to visit the Mortandad Ruin near Los Alamos, NM. The remaining ruins consist primarily of a cliff of cavates, rooms excavated into relatively soft volcanic tuff. There is also a considerable amount of rock art, some of it petroglyphs pecked into the cliff walls, and some of it images carved into the smoke-blackened walls of cavates, exposing the light colored tuff beneath. A probable sun symbol in one caveate consists of a circle around a dot (a haloed sun) with approximately sixteen short tic marks on the inside of the circle pointing roughly toward the central dot. Another haloed sun symbol petroglyph carved near the top of the cliff consists of approximately six concentric circles around a central dot.

While inspecting a cloud petroglyph on a generally southwestern-facing point near the top of the cliff I realized what a marvelous weather-spotting point this actually was. I could see a thunderstorm clearing the canyon rim far down the broad valley, bringing refreshing rain to a hot summer afternoon on an arid and sun-facing cliff, and which seemed to fully explain the cloud petroglyphs in that location.

Bighorn sheep petroglyph with a rainbow
on his left horn. Mortendad ruin, New Mexico.
Photo: Peter Faris, August, 2003.

On September 16, 2009, I did a posting about that weather-watching station and the weather-related rock art found there. Also found in that weather-watcher’s station, near the cloud petroglyphs, a small and carefully carved rainbow reminds us of the joyful conclusion of this refreshing summer rain. This rainbow is carved on the left horn (to our right) of the head of a bighorn sheep. This head with horns is presented in the relatively unusual aspect of a frontal view, instead of the usual side view of the sheep’s head. Heart shaped petroglyphs on the right side of the panel represent other sheep’s heads seen in frontal view, but only the one on the left has the rainbow carved into his left horn. So is there a connection between bighorn sheep and rainbows that could help explain this image?

Close-up of bighorn sheep petroglyph with a rainbow
on his left horn. Mortendad ruin, New Mexico.
Photo: Peter Faris, August, 2003.

In Landscapes of the Spirits: Hohokam Rock Art at South Mountain Park (2002), archaeologist Todd Bostwick wrote about the meteorological connotations of bighorn sheep in the American southwest. “Ethnographer Amadeo Rey has noted that no other animal was treated with such awe and reverence by the O’odham as the mountain sheep. Called “Cheson” by the Northern Pima, the bighorn sheep was closely associated with the wind. Some villages had shrines dedicated to the wind and Cheson. Parts of the mountain sheep are very powerful; both the hides and horns must be kept in a safe, respected location to avoid insulting the wind and bringing on violent storms.” 

Thus we have the fact of the conjunction of bighorn sheep head and rainbow symbol, in a location which seems to be devoted to weather watching, and mythological connections between bighorn sheep and weather in the American Southwest, all suggesting that the curved lines superimposed on the bighorn sheep’s left horn are indeed representative of a rainbow.

Bostwick, Todd W., Landscapes of the Spirits: Hohokam Rock Art at South Mountain Park, 2002, University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Horned Lizard Petroglyph, p. 53, Astronomy
Magazine, April 2010, Winter solstice sunset
in notch in Sierra Estrella mountains.

Among rock art sites with solar alignments in South Mountain Park in Phoenix is the site illustrated with a sunset alignment. These rock art sites are identified as having been created by the Hohokam people.
City of Phoenix archaeologist Todd Bostwick photographed a winter solstice sunset with the sun’s disk disappearing into a notch in the Sierra Estrella mountains to the West from one site. Remarkably, the viewing point at this site is a pointed boulder with a petroglyph of a thick-bodied horned lizard, facing downward pecked on the face of it. If there were mythological connections between the setting sun and a horned toad/lizard this would be a remarkable piece of evidence.

Regal Horned Lizard, p.49, Wade C Sherbrooke,
Introduction to Horned Lizards of North America,
2003, University of California Press,
Berkeley and Los Angeles.

In his 2003 volume Introduction to Horned Lizards of North America, Wade Sherbrooke stated (p.149) that Hohokam art clearly depicted two species of horned lizard, the Short-horned lizard, and the Regal Horned lizard. Both of these species are found throughout the area inhabited by Hohokam peoples. The Latin name for the Regal Horned lizard is Phrynosoma solare, from the Latin solaris for “belonging to the Sun”.
These heat-loving lizards retire from the evening cool and the cold of the night by retreating into underground burrows or burying themselves in the sand. This may well be reflected in the downward facing position of the horned lizard in the picture of the Gila Vista site, implying the retreat of the lizard at the sundown being observed through this alignment, and possibly identifying this image as the Regal Horned Lizard.


Bostwick, Todd W.
2002   Landscape of the Spirits, Hohokam Rock Art at South Mountain Park, photographs by Peter Krocek, University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Sherbrooke, Wade C.
2003   Introduction to Horned Lizards of North America, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Monday, August 2, 2010


At The Dalles on the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington a number of examples can be found of a curious little fellow known as the Spedis Owl. Figures of this owl have been found from a wider area but seem to concentrate on The Dalles as the focus.

Spedis owl, petroglyph, The Dalles,
Columbia River, Washington/Oregon.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2000.

An Internet search will yield quite a bit of misinformation about the name of the Spedis owls. Arguably the most egregious is that they were produced by the Spedis tribe which that author is the only person to know about, and seems to have personally fabricated. I believe that the version that states that the type site for these owl petroglyphs was found near the site of land originally homesteaded by Mr. Spedis, explained to me by Jim Keyser sounds to be considerably more reasonable.

Spedis owls, petroglyphs, The Dalles,
Columbia River, Washington/Oregon.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2000.

As to their purpose or original meaning, that is also all over the map on the Internet. Various meanings have been proposed based upon the owl mythology of Native American peoples from virtually all over North America. It seems reasonable to me to pay the most attention to myths and beliefs from cultures that were closest to that site, either geographically or culturally.

Spedis owl, petroglyph, The Dalles,
Columbia River, Washington/Oregon.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2000.

The location of The Dalles was roughly on the edge of the Northwest Coast culture area. Kwakiutl people believed that owls were manifestations of people’s souls, and the Tlingit associated the owl with warfare and reportedly believed that warriors hearing an owl were receiving an assurance of impending success in warfare. In Yakima mythology, the owl was the husband of Tah-Tah kle-ah (Owl-woman Monster), one of five monstrous sisters, a very large, horrible woman who lived with one of her sisters in a cave and ate Indians. One day the cave became red hot and blew out killing the monsters (a volcanic eruption?). One of the Spedis owl portrayals is grotesque enough to be easily seen as part of a cannibal-monster myth.

Spedis owl, petroglyph, The Dalles,
Columbia river, Washington/Oregon.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2000.

Local peoples seem to have passed on two other basic ideas about these owls, at least the more benign versions of the Spedis owl. One idea is that this owl is a clan symbol and the petroglyphs were marking clan territory or indicating ownership of specific fishing sites on the river. The other that has been passed on is that the Spedis Owl was placed upon the rock to protect people from water monsters that could pull people into the river and drown them. While these seem to me to be quite reasonable explanations, the protection from water monsters strikes me as the sort of interpretation arrived at by later peoples after the original motivation has been forgotten. Lacking further information I think of these charming owl figures as clan symbols and markings indicating ownership or a record of fishing rights.

Although we may never know the actual original purpose of these figures, we can make some semi-educated guesses, and we can certainly appreciate them for their marvelous and charming inventiveness.