Saturday, August 30, 2014


One category of rock art symbolism that has not been satisfactorily explained is the series or group of markings classified as a tally. We assume that they are a tally because we would use marks like these that way, but, of course, no-one really knows at present whether most of these are or are not actually tallies in the sense of counting something. For want of a better term I like to call these by the name tallyform.

Markings identified as Ogam, Baca County, CO. 
Photograph: Peter Faris, Feb. 1996.

There is a category of tallies that are usually fairly easy to recognize and these are coup counts. I have written on this previously and will again in the future, but for now I am discussing the series of markings that look like a numerical tally and that cannot be interpreted. Attempts have been made to identify them as Ogam writing, but most students of the field just do not agree. The main problem to identifying these as a tally is the question “a tally of what?”

There are some sequences in nature that are often cited as possible reasons for keeping the tally. Advocates of Archaeoastronomy often argue the need for agricultural people to be able to use some sort of calendrical count to determine when is the proper time to plant. Therefore in a tallyform a count of 28 to 30 repeating marks is often cited as representing the lunar cycle and a 12 mark count would be identified as the lunar year. Actually, of course we have no way of knowing whether or not this is actually the true intention of the creator of the marks. As to the attempts to identify these as planting calendars I have a major problem. No farmer plants his crops according to the calendar, they plant according to the conditions. One year may have an earlier planting season, and the next year a later planting season. This is determined by ambient temperature and moisture, not a calendar. My grandfather in western Washington interpreted the clouds around Mount Rainier to predict weather and climate. In one ethnographic example I recall a Native American farmer on the Great Plains testified that he planted when the leaves of the trees were the size of a squirrel’s ear.

Awl sharpening grooves, Purgatory Canyon, Bent County,
Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 9 July 1998.

Another factor to be considered is the type of mark we are considering. I do not consider that a row of awl sharpening grooves in a rock can be designated to be a tally, they were created for another purpose entirely.

"Music", Purgatoire, Bent County, CO.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 1991.

"Music" close-up,  Purgatoire Canyon, Bent County, CO.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 1991.

Down in the Picketwire Canyonlands, south of La Junta, Colorado, there is a unique form of this tallyform type of petroglyph. Long horizontal lines on cliffs, with many fairly evenly spaced short vertical lines hanging down from them, and a dot on the end of the short vertical lines. Because of the vague resemblance of these to the notes in musical notation we always referred to these with the shorthand designation of "music", and some are impressively long stretching over 40 or 50 feet of cliff. These certainly look like monumental tallies of some sort.

"Music" , Purgatory Canyon, Bent County, CO.
Photograph: Peter Faris, 9 July 1998.

So what do we make of a line of markings in a cliff, say seventeen, or thirty five, or many more, that does not correspond to any natural cycle we can determine? Might it perhaps represent the number of buffalo killed by hunters in the season, or the number of rainy days? Perhaps, but unless we are given more information how will we ever know? 

No comments:

Post a Comment