Sunday, September 30, 2012


Los Pantalones as seen on the cliff. Southeastern
Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, 1998.

Every once in a while we run across an image in rock art that we just cannot imagine an explanation for. In my case one of these images is a panel in southeastern Colorado that was dubbed by Bill McGlone as Los Pantalones. This appears to be three figures, approximately life sized, wearing the pantaloons of a Dutch burger, and the figure on the left even appears to be smoking the long-stemmed clay pipe of the 1600s and 1700s. The right hand figure is considerably fainter than his two companions - see the close-up below.

Los Pantalones, contrast enhanced. Southeastern
Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, 1998.

The three figures are faded/repatinated to the point of being somewhat difficult to make out suggesting some age, indeed, in my illustration I have had to push the contrast considerably to make the images stand out.

This is another example of rock art in which I just cannot conceive of an explanation. I leave it to all of you historians out there. What’s up with Los Pantalones?

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Pictograph Panel, Westwater creek, Utah. Photo: Peter Faris, 2001.
We all are aware that according to Native American testimony the imagery on a shield is thought to confer spiritual protection on the bearer. It may illustrate his spirit guide or a dream seen during a vision quest, but in any case the subject matter refers to the bearer’s power and sacred protection. The imagery on a shield is however, more than just a spiritual statement, it is an uniquely recognizable composition. No two shields are likely to have the same decoration as no two warriors could have had the same dream or vision.  That means that portraying the design on a shield is also making a reference to an identifiable person – in other words it is a portrait of sorts. There are a few known instances where one warrior presented or gifted his vision and the imagery referring to it to someone else (or sold it to someone else) and in these cases there would possibly be more than one, but these instances are relatively rare and probably known in their reference group so they still refer to known individuals.

Westwater Creek pictograph panel, right side. Photo: Peter Faris, 2001.

Westwater Creek pictograph panel, left side. Photo: Peter Faris, 2001.

The pictograph panel seen in the illustration is from the upper reaches of Westwater Creek in the Bookcliffs of Utah. The rock art appears to date from prehistoric through historic periods. The prehistoric is indicated by pedestrian shield figures and the historic is represented by later Ute equestrian warriors. On the left side of the illustration there are two pedestrian shield figures, and on the right side two shields are portrayed by themselves. In all of these instances the shields have unique decorative patterns on them. These would have belonged to four different, and identifiable, individuals, and members of the reference group of those individuals (his tribe or clan) would have recognized the pattern and known to who the shield belonged. In this fashion the shield can be seen as a shorthand reference to a particular individual, an identifying design. Those shields do not represent four anonymous warriors, they serve as a portrait of sorts for each of their owners, and the pictograph panel then could be seen as a portrait gallery, the place where notable individuals from that group are commemorated.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Although rock art is not often thought of as a subject for poetry and creative literature, there is no reason that the subject we love should not also inspire creative efforts in literature. In my own small way I have attempted to write essays on various aspects of the subject for many years. To this end I want to share with you a poem written by someone with particular insight on rock art as seen from his heritage, N. Scott Momaday. A biographer of Momaday's recently wrote:
 "Navarre Scott Momaday was born in Lawton, Oklahoma and spent the first year of his life at his grandparents' home on the Kiowa Indian reservation, where his father was born and raised. When he was one year old, Scott's parents moved to Arizona. His father was a painter. His mother, who is of English and Cherokee descent, became an author of children's books. Both worked as teachers on Indian reservations when Scott was growing up, and the boy was exposed not only to the Kiowa traditions of his father's family but to the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo Indian cultures of the Southwest. Momaday early developed an interest in literature, especially poetry."

"To read Momaday’s poems from the last forty years is to understand that his focus on Kiowa traditions and other American Indian myths is further evidence of his spectacular formal accomplishments. His early syllabic verse, his sonnets, and his mastery of iambic pentameter are echoed in more recent work, and prose poetry has been part of his oeuvre from the beginning. The new work includes the elegies and meditations on mortality - but it also includes light verse and sprightly translations of Kiowa songs."


Lascaux Auroch.

For we have seen the animals
That linger in primordial tar,
Parade in step and intervals
That mark millennia, an arc

Of time beyond the reckoning
Whose hand has traced these living lines?
Whose mind has ventured past the thing
That mere mortality confines?

Horse, bison, auroch, bear, and deer,
Convene forever in the night,
Their ghosts, in old communion here,
Emerge in stark, forgotten light.

Or has their spirit thrived unseen,
Bled into earth and rock? –
In attitudes austere, serene,
Evincing myth, story, epoch."

Excerpted from Again the Far Morning by N. Scott Momaday, University of New Mexico Press. Reprinted in Ancient Meditations, New Mexico magazine, August, 2011, p. 37.

I cannot imagine saying it any better than that.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Tsagaglalal, Horsethief Lake State Park, Washington.
Photo: Peter Faris, July 2000.

In the summer of 2000 I had the good luck and great privilege to be guided around Horsethief Lake State Park, in Washington State, by Dr. James Keyser, one of the great names in North American Rock Art studies. There is considerable Yakima polychrome painted style rock art in this area and it is also the site of numerous petroglyphs including the marvelous petroglyph known as Tsagaglalal, “She who watches”, which originally probably also included some paint.

Another Tsagaglalal, Horsethief Lake State Park,
Washington. Note chipped edges of rock.
Photo Peter Faris: July, 2000.

Along with considerable rock art, the vicinity of Tsagaglalal also contains some small rock shelters which seem to have been used as vision quest sites. The rock floors of these shelters show a considerable degree of butt-polish apparently acquired by frequent sliding in and out of place accompanied by long periods of sitting. The rock here is volcanic, apparently basalt, and naturally fractures in angular blocks. The rock shelters are located in low cliff and are the result of large blocks cracking loose and falling away leaving small, roughly rectangular openings. Many of the nearly right angled edges of the rock around these shelters have been chipped away in small flakes. Keyser suggested that the rock might have been chipped away for medicinal purposes because of the spiritual nature of the site (so near to Tsagaglal). Additionally, the supposed vision quest shelters also usually contain petroglyphs as well.

Native American beliefs in animism attributed a spirit presence to many of the physical features around them. According to Wikipedia animism “is a philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans and animals but also in plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder and lightning, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment.” The presence of Tsagaglalal would have added a strong spiritual attraction to the environment as well. I can picture that a young Native American undergoing a successful vision quest in this environment might well have wanted to take a chip of the rock with him, to include its power in his medicine bundle.

Pebble wedged in a crack. Horsethief Lake State
Park, Washington. Photo: Peter Faris, July 2000.

Another interesting phenomenon found in these rock shelters is the placement of small pebbles of stone into cracks in the rock face at these shelters, perhaps as some sort of offering. I think of this as the “Kilroy was here” motivation, the human urge to make some sort of visible change, to leave some record of their existence. Alternatively, the pebbles may have originally been jammed into the crack to hold some sort of organic offering in place that has since been lost to the elements.

Perhaps any study of a rock art location should include a much more detailed study of surrounding rock surfaces for such modifications as further clues toward the later interpretation of the purpose and significance of the rock art.

Note: I am deeply grateful to my friend Jim Keyser for taking the time and effort to guide me to these locations.