Saturday, January 11, 2014


Of the many symbols found in rock art inscriptions it would indeed be strange if none of them were found in other contexts of Native American art.
Hicklin Springs, 5BN7, Bent County, Colorado.
Photograph: Peter Faris, May 1992.

Panel # 3.B2, Hicklin Springs, 5BN7, Bent County,
Colorado. Drawn by Peter Faris, 25 Sept. 1993.

At site 5BN7(Hicklin Springs) in southeastern Colorado’s Bent County one of the petroglyph panels (Panel# 3.B2) carved in the cliff face shows a grouping of short curved lines - semicircles (horseshoes) in four vertical columns.

My field sketch of the panel allows us to count 26 of these symbols on the panel. This is a relatively common symbol in rock art in southeast Colorado and the west, but this is a particularly good grouping of them. According to Thomas Mails if this symbol is painted upon a horse it represents a horseshoe or horse track and symbolizes a horse taken from an enemy in a horse stealing expedition or a fight. Now my grandfather taught me that when you hung up an actual horseshoe for good luck you hung it this way, with the open side up so the good luck would not run out - the way the semicircles are oriented on the rock art panel at Hicklin Springs. Notice that with the Mails and the Bad Heart Buffalo examples the horseshoe is presented the other way around, with the opening down.

Thomas Mails, 1972, Mystic Warriors of the Plains, Barnes and
Noble Books, New York. Pages 220 (left) and 222 (right).

In his book Mystic Warriors of the Plains (1972), Thomas Mails illustrated a number of such symbols that he identified as being used in horse painting. “Painted exploit symbols used on horses. a, war party leader. b, enemy killed in hand combat. c, owner fought from behind breastworks. d, hail. e, coup marks. f, horse raids or number of horses stolen. g, mourning marks. h, medicine symbol.” (Mails 1972: 220)

Writing in Ledger Book Art: A Key to Understanding Northern Plains Biographic Rock Art, James D. Keyser (1989:92) called Ledger Book Art a “lexicon” for Biographic rock art. In this he was pointing out that Ledger Book art, and Plains Biographic rock art as well, are usually records of specific events and that the symbolism used extends to both media.

Amos Bad-Heart Bull, p. XV, in Wind on the
Buffalo Grass, Leslie Tillet, 1976.

“Amos Bad Heart Buffalo’s drawing of himself as a cowboy, done Dec. 3, 1900. The inscription, translated by Helen Blish reads, “Oglalas from White Clay district herding their cattle.” The sketch at upper left is of a cattle ranch of that time, and the label above it reads, “Chenney River S. Dak. Squn Hamper Creek.” (Tillet 1976: XV) Even though he seems to have reconciled to living the white man’s life, he still has his horse painted with traditional symbols, a holdover of the traditional attitudes and ways.

Amos Bad-Heart Bull, p. 34, in Wind on the
Buffalo Grass, Leslie Tillet, 1976.

Also by Amos Bad Heart Buffalo, this panel from a warrior parade shows a horse painted with symbols denoting successful horse raids. “Warrior parades – provided the audience with another means of measuring prestige. Each detail in his drawings gives clues to the particular warrior society that the Indian belonged to. “(Tillet 1976:32)

Does the difference in orientation between the rock art panel and the other examples negate any comparison or assumption of similarity? With a symbol this simple and common my feeling is no, it is recognizable from any angle and is probably not changed by changes in orientation. Perhaps some of the other shapes and symbols in rock art had similar meanings to the artist’s who produced them. Many of Mail’s other symbols are fairly common in rock art of Colorado and the West. Keep your eyes open, it’s at least worth thinking about.


Keyser, James D.
1989    Ledger Book Art: A Key to Understanding Northern Plains Biographic Rock Art, p. 86-111, Rock Art of the Western Canyons, edited by Jane Day, Paul D. Friedman, and Marcia J. Tate, Denver Museum of Natural History and Colorado Archaeological Society, Denver.

Mails, Thomas E.
1972    Mystic Warriors of the Plains, Barnes and Noble Books, New York.

Tillet, Leslie
1976    Wind on the Buffalo Grass: The Indians’ Own Account of the Battle at the Little Big Horn River, & the Death of their life on the Plains, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York.

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