Saturday, July 16, 2011


It is a dictum that we tend to find pretty much what we are looking for, and what we are looking for is primarily affected by our mind set and the knowledge that we have to apply to the quest. In evaluating rock art we are looking for its meaning and we too often interpret the clues in that rock art to fit our preconceived notions. One excellent example of that can be found in interpretations of the symbol that consists of a circle or oval bisected by a line. This is usually dismissed by rock art researchers as a known quantity – it is an atlatl, the Aztec name for a spear thrower. Although that can be correct in the case of some hunting scenes, it is often misapplied even there in that the term is so often used to designate the fletched dart projecting from the prey animal instead of the actual spear thrower (atlatl) that launched it.

5BN7, Hicklin Springs, Bent County, CO.
Photo: Jeannie Hope Gibson, 1991.

On the other hand, among those interested in epigraphy the same symbol, at least when seen alone and not sticking out of the back of an animal, it is often called a “phi-sign” because of its resemblance to the Greek letter phi. Indeed, in some parts of the world, in inscriptions of certain ages this interpretation may make much more sense.

Dr. Douglas Reagan is an ecologist. This gives him a mental framework and a set of knowledge tools that is somewhat different than that of so many rock art researchers who usually tend to be from an archaeological background, or the arts.

While hiking in The Narrows of Utah’s Canyonlands Dr. Reagan observed a rock art panel like the examples from Kenneth Castleton’s book Petroglyphs and Pictographs of Utah. It included images of ducks or geese as well as images of our symbol in question. As an ecologist however, Douglas saw ducks among cattails, and he soon saw other examples. Douglas had observed and recognized a complex of water-related images in this dry and desert environment. Many images of various types of water fowl and shore birds have been long known from the 4-Corners region and Colorado Plateau. They are traditionally interpreted as a plea for rain through sympathetic magic. When found with the “atlatl” images of a circle or oval bisected by a straight line, they are interpreted as a hunting scene. Douglas Reagan has now given us an alternative interpretation, a wetlands scene.
p. 248, Fig. 7.99, Petroglyphs and Pictographs of Utah,
 Vol. II, Kenneth B. Castleton.1987, Utah Museum
 of Natural History, Salt Lake City.

Dr. Reagan applied his knowledge as an ecologist to an examination of the landforms of the area and found definite indications of much wetter periods in the past in the ground. In other words, instead of being a desert at the time the petroglyphs were created, the scenes of water birds and possible cat tail plants were created at a time that the area was much wetter. Reagan believes that he has since found evidence of this in the presence of soil deposits that were laid down in relatively still water, and in buried snail shells of a species that indicate the presence of lake water at the soil level that relates to the period of creation of the rock art.

So what do we make of this; it is certainly an intriguing possibility, as well as a reminder to us to look for the context before deciding that we know what we are talking about.


  1. Interesting!I never thought of them as anything but atlatls, but this makes sense. Only thing that bugs me is they are too rounded not as oblong as cattails ( am I getting too picky? ha). Anyways it makes ya think! Now I must go look at my picks of Grimes Point since that is suppose to be an ancient lake bed!

  2. I always assumed that the "Phi-sign" images were the darts from the atlatl especially those protruding from Big horn Sheep and antelopes, animals that do not as rule hang around cattail environments.