Friday, November 2, 2012


Warrior petroglyph, Plains Apachean, Picture Canyon,
Comanche Grasslands, Baca County, Colorado.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1986.

As the archaeologist for Comanche Grasslands in southeastern Colorado stated at a rock art meeting back in the 1990s, “you have to understand – I am the professional”. She made this statement to a group of rock art researchers from varying backgrounds who had been studying the rock art of southeastern Colorado for many years. She made this comment when some of us challenged her statements that doing rubbings from rock art panels would not harm the images. When it came to rock art she could not have found her elbow with a hammerstone, but she was so blinded by conceit and professional bias that to her an art historian and an engineer who had been studying rock art for decades could not possibly know as much about it as an archaeologist who had not studied rock art at all.

A totally opposite sensibility was displayed by Linea Sundstrom who wrote in Talking With The Past: the Ethnography of Rock Art (Keyser, et al.  2006: 136-7) “I think a lot of us are trained to think that the only way to study anything is through “science”. Most of us have our degrees in anthropology and yet very few of us were required to take a course in history, art history, or historical theory. I suggest that this is our bias. We think we’re scientific and therefore unbiased, but instead we’re scientific and biased in that particular way. There are other ways to study the world.”

Lawrence Loendorf expressed a similar recognition of the situation when he wrote in Discovering North American Rock Art (2005: 7) “When it comes to studying rock art traditional archaeologists, especially those trained in the United States, are a curious lot. Although they might take a photograph or two at a newly discovered site, they prefer to ignore the site’s research potential. The nature of a rock art site itself may be part or the reason. Archaeologists take pride in their ability to make meticulous and complete records of everything they uncover during an excavation. When remains such as hearths are encountered, they are carefully removed and taken back to the laboratory for additional analysis. In contrast, rock art sites are fixed in the landscape rather than portable and must be recorded in situ.”

Another example of this sort of approach can be found in the voluminous work of James Keyser who, although trained as an archaeologist, has primarily focused on rock art and has made monumental contributions to what we know about it.

What Linea Sundstrom, Lawrence Loendorf and Jim Keyser have in common that has led them to this sensitivity is that although they are professional archaeologists, they have specialized in rock art studies during significant careers. I believe that such a concentrated focus has opened their eyes to the limitations of a traditional archaeology degree toward so many questions in rock art.

I submit that there are indeed a number of other disciplines that can provide insights into rock art and the creative processes that manufacture it. An art training is invaluable in understanding the materials and techniques of artistic production, and might also provide some insight toward the motivation behind artistic production. An education in comparative religion should also be valuable in understanding the motivation behind the creation of some rock art, and also its place in the culture and its rites. Finally, historians are not only encouraged, but expected, to extrapolate from a limited number of facts to a large conclusion which is applied to the history of a culture, and Art Historians perform the same role in analysis of the art of that culture, and in the case of rock art interpretation we are often/usually exrapolating from a limited number of facts.

In order to reach a proper understanding and appreciation of rock art, I submit that we can use the input and understanding of researchers from many disciplines. Not that any one of us will always have the correct answer, but we will at least have been open to potential insights that traditional archaeology, and any other single discipline, may have overlooked. We are all in this together.


Keyser, James D. George Poetschat, and Michael W. Taylor, editors,
2006    Talking With The Past: The Ethnography of Rock Art, Oregon Archaeological Society, Portland.

Loendorf Lawrence L., Christopher Chippindale, and David S. Whitely, editors,
2005    Discovering North American Rock Art, University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

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