Friday, February 14, 2014


Seth Eastman on Dighton Rock, daguerreotype, 1853.

On February 1, 2014, I posted a column entitled "Dighton Rock - North America's Oldest Rock Art Report" about how this petroglyph boulder is the first known rock art site in America to be reported about. Dighton rock, however, holds another distinction in addition to being the subject of the first known rock art and archaeological site to be reported in writing. It may also be the subject of the first photograph taken of rock art in North America. 

On May 4, 2013, I posted a column entitled "The Oldest RockArt Photograph", in which I discussed a letter in Charles Darwin’s correspondence that mentioned an 1874 photograph of a bear pictograph from Picketwire Canyonlands that had been sent to Darwin. At that time I posited that it may be the oldest known rock art photograph, certainly in North America (although the photograph has not been located in Darwin’s correspondence).

                           Seth Eastman on Dighton Rock,
                               daguerreotype, 1853.

Now, I have another candidate for the title of oldest North American rock art photograph. In his 1991 book Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia) Stephen Williams showed an 1853 daguerreotype of Dighton Rock in Berkley, Massachusetts. Williams described it as follows: “I believe that it (Dighton Rock) is the first American archaeological artifact to be captured by photographic means. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, whom we encountered some pages ago with reference to the Grave Creek Stone, had as his major artist for his monumental six-volume work a young West Pointer named Seth Eastman. His busy army career took him from Minnesota to Texas and finally to the Seminole Wars in Florida.
Eastman, a talented artist, carefully documented Indian life on the frontier while on these military travels between 1829 and 1849. Though much of his work for Schoolcraft was studio-done on artifacts and the like, he did travel to New England, where he drew both the Dighton Rock and the Newport Tower. These drawings are all fine and good, but Eastman made archaeological history in 1853 when he sat atop Dighton Rock on shirtsleeves and a silk vest, with the inscription “enhanced” by chalk, and had a daguerreotype image made of the scene. What a way to be immortalized.
Schoolcraft used Eastman’s drawing of the Rock in his 1854 work.” (Williams 1991:215-6)

Online searching has turned up two versions of the photo; in one Eastman wears a top hat, and in the other version he is bare-headed. There are also variations that have the image reversed. In any case the early date of 1853 makes these daguerreotypes an excellent candidate for the title of Earliest Rock Art Photo!


Williams, Stephen
1991    Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

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