Saturday, June 30, 2012


Panel of hands at El Castillo, Spain.

On April 21, 2012, in a posting entitled “Neandertal Use of Red Ochre Pigment,” I speculated that Neandertal rock art would be identified eventually, I just had no idea that it would happen so soon. A column at dated June 14, 2012, written by Stephanie Pappas, announced the identification of a number of red ochre images on the walls of the Spanish cave El Castillo as dating to the Neandertal period.

These images are a panel of hands stenciled onto the cave wall made by placing the hand flat against the rock and blowing liquid red paint over it to outline the hand. These hands are also accompanied by some round red ochre spots that appear to have been blown directly onto the wall. The dating was done by uranium/thorium dating of the calcite layer over the paintings. Dating a number of caves gave a range of expected results but the date of 40,800 years B.P. for one of the red disks on the wall at El Castillo dates back to around the period that Homo sapiens first appeared in Europe. And a date of that age for the calcite layer means that the paint is some unknown number of years earlier. This raises the real possibility that some of the earliest imagery done at El Castillo could have been produced by Neandertal artists.


Saturday, June 23, 2012


Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) petroglyph on rhinoceros
rubbed rock face. Fig. 17.8, Heyd and Clegg, 2005, p. 267,
Free State, South Africa.

The term “incorporation” in rock art generally refers to the inclusion of natural features of the rock surface in the design of the image on a rock art panel. On December 8, 2010, I published a posting on a rock face that had been polished by its use as a rubbing post by mammoths. A fascinating example of South African incorporation of animal rubbing on a rock art panel was reported by Sven Ouzman in his paper Seeing is Deceiving: Rock Art and the Non-Visual, pages 253-269, in Aesthetics and Rock Art, edited by Thomas Heyd and John Clegg, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Aldershot, England, and Burlington, VT., 2005. In this paper Ouzman examines "episodes of use" of the image.

According to Ouzman the first use of this portion of the rock face was as a rubbing post by rhinoceroses and then it was later engraved with the image of a black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). Adding the image in this location confirms the recognition by the artist that this particular portion of rock face has been made special by the attention paid to and the usage of it by rhinoceroses, and that then the addition of the image of a black rhinoceros suggests that the petroglyph was believed to actually incorporate some of the spiritual essence of that animal.

Unfortunately, the article does not state how the original use as a scratching or rubbing post by the rhinoceros was established or confirmed. Until I find out otherwise I will have to assume that this was done with protein residue analysis or some related technique. Whatever the case, however, I find this remarkable instance of incorporation to be absolutely fascinating, and it may represent a phenomenon that we should look for in other locations.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


One can often deduce a considerable amount from the actual details and form of rock art. In the case of petroglyphs it comes as a surprise to no-one that examining the grooves can suggest whether they were created by incising or pecking. The physical appearance and condition often allows that sort of analysis. Another example of this that I have looked for, and think that I may have found in a few instances, is the use of a simple protractor for drawing circles. Some circles just seem too perfect to have been done freehand, even by an experienced artist.

Such a tool would have been made simply by tying a couple of sticks together at one end for a pivot and then parting the other end. It could have been held at the chosen angle by tying another stick across them creating a triangle with the two long sides extended out. Simply charring one of the ends then would allow one to use this tool to draw almost perfect circles in charcoal on the cliff face.

3-Kings Panel, McConkie Ranch, Vernal, UT.
Photo Peter Faris.

In the most compelling examples the resulting circle has been used to portray a shield. The first example that suggested this to me is the shield of the main figure in the so-called “Three Kings” panel at McConkie Ranch outside of Vernal, UT.  This appears to be so precise that I wondered whether it could have possibly been drawn freehand.

Castle Gardens, Fremont County, Wyoming.
Photo Peter Faris, September 1992.

 Subsequently I also found myself questioning a couple of the shields seen in this panel from Castle Gardens, Wyoming.

If ancient cultures such as the Egyptians could use wooden dividers in their construction of buildings and monuments, they why would I not also assume that Native Americans had this in their toolbox too, and that they would have used it in drawing circles? 

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Sheep trap petroglyph near Moab, UT. Photo Dell Crandall.

This first illustration is a petroglyph that was provided by Dell Crandall in Moab, UT., it apparently shows a bighorn sheep trap. This might be a natural trap like Dead Horse Point near Moab where a high pinnacle is connected to the rest of the mountain by a narrow neck and once the animals were driven out onto it they could be confined easily with no way down.

The petroglyph consists of a circular shape with a funnel-shaped entrance, and what appears to be footprints or animal tracks entering it and then circling around. This seems to represent exactly what we would expect to see happen in real life in such a scenario. Outside the wings of the trap are a group of quadrupeds (apparently bighorn sheep) which may illustrate the herd grazing on the slope below the trap.

Bighorn sheep trap wings with corral section at center, near 
DuBois, WY. Photo Peter Faris, September 1998.

The other photographs are of an actual constructed bighorn sheep trap in the Shoshone National Forest of the Wind River mountains above DuBois, Wyoming. This trap was constructed by the Shoshone group called “Sheep Eaters” and may, in fact, be early historic in date. Assembled of wood (stumps, trunks, and branches) it consists of a central corral and a long pair of fences in a “v-shape” leading to the opening of the corral. This trap is located on a high mountain saddle in heavily forested area.

Bighorn sheep trap central corral section, near 
DuBois, WY. Photo Peter Faris, Sept. 1998.

We assume that the way that these traps worked was for a group of people to start somewhere down near the bottom of the slope at a time that bighorn sheep were known to be grazing there. As a long line the people would then start up the slope making noise. Any animals above them on the hillside would presumably want to be farther away so they would also begin to drift upward toward the saddle that would allow them to cross to the other side and down into the next valley. As they approached that saddle they would run into the wings of the trap deflecting them toward the center. In the center there was a low wall that they would want to jump over at some point to continue to escape the approaching people, but this led them into the corral.

In either case a limited amount of exertion by a group of people would presumably reward them with a large amount of game. If we are to assume that some rock art actually does represent hunting (which I think very few would deny) then this petroglyph is quite likely to represent exactly what it looks like, a bighorn sheep trap. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Fremont figure, Old Airport site, Moab, Utah.
Photo Peter Faris, September 2000.

On a couple of previous occasions I have published postings of images that I called Optical Illusions. These generally consist of images that can be seen as more than one thing (note: also see Visual Puns). This week’s offering is an excellent example of that phenomenon.

This image is from the old airport site near Moab, Utah, and consists of images produced by the Fremont Culture. The panel contains a mix of Fremont figures (anthropomorphs) and four-legged animals or quadrupeds (zoomorphs generally identified as desert bighorn sheep). The figure that I focus on here, however, contains elements of both. The large anthropomorph to the right of center is a traditional Fremont Classic figure with a plumed headdress; except the plumes of the headdress are also the horns of two of the quadrupeds standing nose to nose where the figure’s head belongs. Thus the head and the headdress can be seen either as just that, a head with headdress, or as two animals facing each other, or as both.

Since this image combines elements of both human and animal features I suppose it should also be classified as therianthropic. In any case the artist who produced this image was obviously thinking about the identifying qualities of his figures, and combined elements of them to overlay the double meaning or identities in the same figure. Personally, I see this as an example of real creativity, the combining of images to make another image that has never existed before, as well as a possibly intended joke or visual pun.