Sunday, March 13, 2011


Aurora, Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, 2010.

One of the motives often cited for the creation of rock art is territorial marking. Somewhat like a wolf or coyote scent marking his territory, the creator of the rock art is supposed to be putting a message on the rock for all to see stating “this is my territory”. As I understand it this is pretty much also the motivation for tagging (the spray painting of symbols and/or messages) in our modern society. The image I have included in this article is an example of tagging from just a little distance outside of my neighborhood in 2009. So why was this design painted on the surface of this electrical control box? While I am not sure of the reason, I suspect it was an adolescent’s cry for attention - I am here! Another possibility is that it was a territorial marker, exactly as in the theory postulated.

Fremont Indian State Park, Utah. Photo: Peter Faris, 2001.

I have friends who believe passionately in this theory of territorial marking, who see a pattern in the placement of rock art images on geographical features near the edges of territorial boundaries which they interpret as boundary markers to warn other groups that they have reached the land of our group. Even if we accept the reality of this pattern of symbol placement at territorial boundaries there is another possible motivation for this effect that they totally overlook. The boundaries of our territory are not only the part of our land first contacted by foreigners; they are also often the farthest places in our territory from our residential centers. In other words they would also be the best locations to place something that we do not want our own people to have unrestricted access to. Whether we are trying to keep something secret or trying to keep something of spiritual significance undefiled by our profane eyes, a spot as far as possible from where our people live would tend to fall on the boundaries of our territory.

Is this at all possible? There are examples, at least in the religions of peoples of the Great Plains, where items of great spiritual significance are supposed to be concealed from the eyes of others. The design on the shield of a Plains Indian warrior was considered so sacred that it had to be concealed from prying eyes, and the shield was kept hidden in a decorated cover except when opened to carry into combat. There are also instances of objects that are sacred to the tribe or group being kept wrapped up in a so-called “medicine bundle” and concealed in the care of a specially appointed keeper, only to be opened and viewed by the few select people who are considered qualified, on the occasion of special rites or ceremonies. In light of these examples, hiding images of sacred significance as far from the prying eyes of the rest of the group could make sense.

So what is it; boundary marker, scent marking, or sacred imagery? I do not yet know any way we could differentiate. I guess that we will probably individually continue to apply the interpretation that makes the most sense to us personally. I must admit however that I enjoy speculating that the creation of many of the abstract symbols in rock art was done by adolescent prehistoric taggers, and that their parents could be seen shaking their heads in dismay over such vandalism to the neighborhood.

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