Thursday, January 6, 2011


Red paint smear with petroglyphs,
Photograph provided by Bonnie Newman.

We have all seen them, the meaningless smears of paint two to three feet above ground level on a vertical rock face, often in a rock shelter or overhang somewhere in the American west. The paint often looks relatively new but it is always unrecognizable as any sort of image or symbol, just a smear. Rock art researchers have speculated that these markings were made by sheep which had been marked with paint. This premise has now been confirmed by X-ray fluorescence spectrometry in a project by rock art researchers Bonnie Newman and Larry Loendorf.

Ewes with paint applied to their rumps.
Photograph provided by Bonnie Newman.

“Ewes with painted rumps are responsible for creating some "rock art" panels in central Wyoming. That's what researcher Bonnie Newman, of the Museum of New Mexico's Office of Archaeological Services, and New Mexico State University archaeologist Larry Loendorf discovered when they compared suspiciously abstract paint smears at the Notches Dome site with paint found at a nearby historic shepherds' camp. X-ray fluorescence spectrometer analysis revealed that the blue, green, and red paint smeared onto Notches Dome rock projections was chemically very similar to the paint used in a woman's portrait on a barn wall at the sheep camp. Ewes marked with paint for breeding and branding purposes had probably taken shelter beneath the rock ledges, where they left paint smears later mistaken for rock art.” This marvelous analytical tool was previously discussed here on October 28, 2010.

Close-up of sheep paint smear. Photograph
provided by Bonnie Newman.

Sheep paint on rock surface.
Photograph by Bonnie Newman.

For at least a century pigments have been used to brand sheep, or to match ewes with their infants, as well as which ewes have been bred by which sires. The paint spot for the first purpose would have been applied to the back of the ewe and baby which could be rubbed off on an overhanging rock. The paint used to determine which sire bred which ewe would have been applied on the low chest area of the ram, some of which would have rubbed off on the ewes back or rump when he mounted her. A shepherd with two or more breeding rams could mark each one with a different paint color to maintain records of bloodlines among his flock. Some of this paint could be transferred to the rock by the ewe in the same way as in the other example.
Bonnie Newman and Lawrence Loendorf have pretty much settled the question for us with this cutting edge research.

Bonita Newman is an archaeologist with ICI Corporation, Virginia Beach, VA., and is currently a member of the board of directors of the Colorado Rock Art Association. Lawrence Loendorf is a retired professor from New Mexico State University, and a former President of the American Rock Art Research Association.

Quote from: Archaeology Magazine, Volume 61 Number 1, January/February, 2008.

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