Fremont Indian State Park, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1992.
Back in the 1980s I was invited to speak about rock art at a meeting being held in the town of Springfield in southeastern Colorado. As part of the presentation I was talking about bighorn sheep petroglyphs which are very common in that area. I don’t honestly remember exactly what I was saying about them, but I was rudely interrupted from the floor by someone who stood up and loudly proclaimed that LaVan Martineau had solved the question of bighorn sheep petroglyphs. “They are a metaphor for travel. The clues needed to understand their meaning are that the length of the legs represents the distance to be traveled, and the contour of the belly of the sheep represents how rough the country to be crossed is. Bighorn sheep petroglyphs with a deeply rounded belly show the contour of the country to consist of deep valleys, in other words rough country with plenty of mountains and valleys to cross”(Martineau 1973).
The photograph of petroglyphs from Fremont Indian State Park in Utah includes two bighorn petroglyphs. According to Martineau that would refer to two trips, presumably taken by the maker of the images. Also, their bodies are shaped differently so that means that the country they passed through varied on those trips.
From The Rocks Begin to Speak, LaVan Martineau, 1976, p.122.
In his book, The Rocks Begin To Speak, Martineau illustrates a mountain sheep (which he calls a goat) and his analysis says that the “symbol – of a goat with four legs signifies travel”. Martineau proceeded to read this image as the story of Major John Wesley Powell’s exploratory voyage through the Grand Canyon in 1869. “The horn incorporates with the goat’s back to form a V on its side, meaning open, or an opening – in this case the opening of a canyon, the Grand Canyon itself. This highest horn is also crooked, denoting the crookedness of the canyon, it also forms the goat’s head to denote going into a crooked canyon’’ (Martineau 1973:122).
Martineau went on to explain that “the other horn traversing the full length of this goat’s back indicates a journey the full length, or from one end to the other of this canyon. This lower horn is a single one, a doubled horn would indicate a safe journey. This was obviously not the case , since the Paiutes killed three of Major Powell’s men who had left the expedition, supposedly near Separation Rapids”. As I have previously written, Martineau claimed that he learned to read the symbols in rock art during training for the US Army Intelligence Corps. Well, I also went through the US Army Intelligence Corps training and served in the US Army Intelligence Corps, and I can testify that there was nothing in that training that had any relevance to rock art.
Wounded bighorn sheep, Three Rivers Petroglyph Park,
New Mexico. Photo: Jack and Esther Faris, 1988.
In fact the illustration of the bighorn sheep from Three Rivers Petroglyph Park in New Mexico with three arrows sticking in him provides strong evidence that at least some bighorn sheep rock art represents groceries.
Flint blade from Baca County, Colorado.
Drawn by Peter Faris, 1994.
Shortly after the episode in Springfield, I had the opportunity to view a cache of large blade tools that had been discovered in a rock shelter in that same area by the wife of the rancher that owned that particular parcel of land. These impressive blades had been struck out of Alibates flint. I borrowed one of the blade tools which was chipped into an effective knife blade, and turned it over to Dr. Richard Marlar, who was at that time perfecting his techniques for detecting and identifying blood protein residues on stone tools. He had discovered the amazing durability of blood protein residues which last for surprisingly long periods of time on a stone surface. Dr. Marlar ran his tests on this blade and found positive signs of bison, deer, sheep, and rabbit blood on that blade. In other words, back before it was cached prehistorically this blade had been used as a knife to cut up those animals, or at least had come into contact with blood from those animals. From this we can probably deduce that the ancient inhabitants of southeastern Colorado had hunted and butchered bighorn sheep, probably the desert bighorn variety.
To me this fact provides a strong piece of evidence that the ancient images of bighorn sheep are more likely to have represented hunting records and food resources, than they are to have represented metaphors for travel. Which brings us back to the original question, are bighorn sheep petroglyphs statements about hunting a food source (groceries), or are they a metaphor for travel? In my view the Alibates flint blade that had butchered bighorn sheep also butchered the idea of the bighorn being a metaphor for travel, but I do not expect that this reasoning will affect true believers.
On the other hand, if we want to make up a meaning that satisfies both possibilities it would be that the bighorn sheep petroglyph represents the food needed for the trip – groceries and travel metaphor in one! However, our making it up has no bearing on the truth of the situation. The risk here is in believing our own pronouncements too seriously. Remember, we are trying to figure out what the ancient peoples who produced the rock art meant by it, not trying to figure out what we think it might mean. There is often a big difference