Saturday, May 27, 2017


Hand stencil, Maltravieso Cave,
Caceres, Spain, little finger
deliberately painted out,
Paleolithic. Public Domain.

Handprints are a common image in rock art from time immemorial. One interesting phenomenon in handprints in European Palaeolithic cave art is the image of a handprint with one or more fingers only partially represented, or missing altogether. Whereas this used to be interpreted as missing fingers due to Ice Age frostbite, or cultural practice such as chopping off a finger as a mourning ritual, recent authors have suggested that this represents counting systems or tallies.

Handprints, Gargas Cave, France,
Paleolithic. Public domain.

Handprint with missing digits,
Gargas Cave, France, Paleolithic.
Public domain.

It is relatively easy to see how handprints with one to five fingers fully extended or folded/missing could be intended as a count of one to five (, May 6, 2017). But what about handprints with one or more fingers only partially represented? We have five fingers on each hand so for counting with a base ten (a decimal system) our hands are ideal, but what about other systems of enumeration such as counting to a base twelve? Many human cultures have used base twelve numeration (duodecimal) systems throughout history. Their influences have given us dozen count quantities, 12 and 24 hour clocks, 12 inches in a foot, 12 signs in the zodiac and 12 months in a year. (Wikipedia)

Duodecimal hand counting
diagram, from Everett, 2017.

Hand-counting in a duodecimal system is facilitated by the fact that the four fingers have three finger bones each (phalanges) and these can be counted with the thumb of each hand. With this system you can designate a quantity of twelve on each hand, or up to twenty-four total with both hands. This leads to the proposition that the paleolithic handprints with missing portions of fingers represent numbers in a duodecimal (base twelve) counting system.

In his fascinating book Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures, Caleb Everett (2017) explains this, and more in detail, how counting led to civilization and vice versa. So, is this the explanation for the handprints with missing fingers? I do not know but it is possible, what do you think?

NOTE: The illustrations labelled public domain were retrieved from the internet with a search that included the phrase public domain. If any of these are not intended to be public domain I apologize. Please inform me and I will give proper credit or take them down.


Everett, Caleb,
2017 Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.


Saturday, May 20, 2017


Anubis Cave, NW Oklahoma,
On spring equinox,
March 20, 2015.

From the beginning, the study of North American rock art has attracted interest from unorthodox places. Indeed, when I started studying rock art in the late '70s the idea of studying rock art was itself unorthodox. Most archaeologists approached it as if it were somehow dangerous or unclean. One was not supposed to draw any conclusions from imagery because it could not be scientifically tested. As my background was Art History I had a different attitude - thank goodness. This interest (passion really) has afforded me some of the most wonderful opportunities and experiences in my life.

Phil Leonard in Crack Cave,
southeast Colorado,
March 20,2004.

Early on the fields of archaeology and astronomy were conflated into the study of archeoastronomy. These studies were magically granted legitimacy because there were things that could be measured, predicted, and tested. Also, early in the process of legitimizing rock art studies the field of epigraphy appropriated a certain bandwidth in the spectrum of rock art studies. Insinuating itself between pictorial rock art and historic inscriptions, epigraphy dealt with inscriptions that some people believed were written in historic scripts and languages, usually from Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. 

The Denver Post, Sunday, 
September 18, 2005.

As I live in Colorado, the epigraphic controversy mostly revolved around inscriptions supposedly written in ancient Celtic ogam (oggam, ogham - do not write me to correct my spelling, all have been used) although Phoenician and others have been identified as well. Many of these inscriptions were found to involve archaeoastronomy sites, and the site and the inscription were often presented as proof of each other's authenticity. I happen to know that some of the archaeoastronomy sites actually work as advertised, I have seen them do it. On the other hand I do not personally buy into the epigraphy theories of visitors from the Old World leaving inscriptions in the American West. I have, however, known many of the people on both sides of these arguments and consider them to be friends. I also have friends that I do not agree with on religious or political matters so that has not been a major problem for me. Indeed, I sometimes feel that these arguments bring a new perspective and passion to discussions that can get a little dry.

What I am leading up to with this is the work of Scott Monahan. Monahan is a videographer and documentarian who has been recording archaeoastronomic sites for over 30 years, and attempting to confirm some of the claims of epigraphers. To many of my friends that latter automatically disqualifies him from any serious consideration. But, think about this -  thirty some years ago a rock with runes on it from North America woulds have been laughed out of the building, now that we know of three possible Pre-Columbian viking settlements in North America what should the reaction be?  
In Scott's own words, " is my project's home page for promotion to the general public.  It features a widescreen slideshow of static shots from my documentary, captioned in lieu of narration, at the top of the page. Beneath the slideshow are links to 3 featured videos: a trailer, a teaser and a prequel. The prequel rebuts a widely-held misconception in the academic community that Ogham written horizontally on flat surfaces is illegitimate.  I filmed plenty of examples in Ireland matching the style found in our area in a 1980s video survey of the Emerald Isle.  Also, a video of University of Calgary's David H. Kelley's introduction to the Ogham alphabet and its genesis is linked, prominently, from my home page." (Scott Monahan)

Further, he continued with, " frames the controversy we, as members of the Western Epigraphic Society in the late 80s and early 90s, encountered in trying to interest archaeological and anthropological authorities.  This webpage provides specific context and supporting detail my documentary cannot due to the limitations of the medium and the need to keep a general audience's attention.  Therefore, your rockartblog audience is encouraged to examine, as well, a collection of 9 published and unpublished works I've assembled to provide "drill-down" context to the videos I've created." (Monahan)

Take a look, give him a fair evaluation, Scott is a serious researcher, with a different approach and belief set than mine, but that does not mean he doesn't have some good ideas. You might enjoy it. I always do.

Monahan, Scott

Saturday, May 13, 2017


Count or tally of four? Hand
Print with missing little finger.
Maltravieso Cave, Spain.
Public Domain.

For quite some time there has been discussion on the question of handprints in Palaeolithic cave art with missing digits. Originally proposed as evidence of Ice Age artists losing digits to frostbite or accidents, or alternatively digits that were cut off as sacrifices in a ceremonial context, they have been more recently been proposed as evidence of tallies, or numerical records.

Count or tally of four? Hand
Print with missing little finger.
Maltravieso Cave, Spain.
Public Domain.

"Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of Palaeolithic hand stencils is that on many examples one or more fingers are missing. Early theories saw this as reflecting fingers that really were missing from their subject’s hands, either through frostbite, accidents during flintkapping, or through ritual mutilation. The former have been rejected: these societies were certainly tailoring sophisticated clothing in order to survive the harsh Ice Age climate and mittens would not be beyond their technological ken, and no flintkapper, however unskilled, would sever an entire finger. Deliberate mutilation, perhaps as part of the rituals that accompanied a rite of passage or as punishment, remains a possibility. In many cases, however, two, three or four fingers are missing from stencils, and the deliberate removal of this number – which would render the hand useless – would be suicidal to small-scale hunter societies in such hostile environments. It seems far more probable that such stencils with attenuated fingers resulted from the deliberate bending back of fingers, which have been created experimentally. In some cases too, little fingers seem to have been deliberately painted over, adding strength to this observation. In such cases unskilled work results in the blurring of finger outlines, although most Palaeolithic examples are sharp, suggesting perhaps a degree of artistic familiarity and resulting skill." (Pike, date unknown)

Hand with extended digits
representing a count of five.

Four in a decimal
counting system.

It is relatively easy to see how hand prints with one to five fingers fully extended or folded/missing could be intended as a count of one to five. Examples of this are found in the Paleolithic cave art of Europe (as seen in the examples illustrated). But, what about hand prints that illustrate partial fingers, say three and a half fingers plus the thumb. If we say that the fingers portray a count or tally, does the half finger portray a fraction? While I cannot know for certain, I must confess that I do not feel wholly comfortable stating that the Paleolithic artist/mathematician is portraying a fraction. If I am to take this proposition seriously I need another explanation for the partial finger. Luckily there is another possibility that answers this question without the need to propose fractions - a duodecimal counting system (base 12). I will write about this possibility next week.

NOTE: Illustrations used in this posting were obtained from an internet search for public domain pictures. If any of these pictures are not public domain and were used mistakenly please inform me and I will give proper photo credit of remove the photo.


Everett, Caleb,
2017 Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Pike, A.W. G., et al,
Date unknown, Stencils in Upper Palaeolithic Cave Art, Dept. of Archaeology, Durham University, Durham, UK,

Saturday, May 6, 2017


Sego Canyon, Utah. Panel with
possible vandalism.

On June 24, 2016, I posted a column titled Cumulative Vandalism - The Importance of Rock Art Recording, in which I presented a photograph of a Ute pictograph from Sego Canyon, in Grand County, Utah. I had come across this picture online and I noticed a difference in the photo from what I remembered of the actual site.

Sego Canyon, Utah. Close-up of
panel with possible vandalism.

In the photograph that I found online the Ute shield had been embellished with a ring of white hand prints around it that were not in my earlier photographs of the panel. I stated in that posting that this either consisted of a serious case of vandalism, or an example of a computer modified (Photoshopped) photograph. My point in that column was to point out the importance of having a comparative record to check against in such a case of possible vandalism.

Ute Shield panel, Sego Canyon,
Grand County, Utah. Photo:
Peter Faris, October 9, 2016.

Close-up of Ute Shield, Sego
Canyon, Grand County, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, October 9, 2016.

On October 8, 2016, I was able to visit the Sego Canyon site again and was relieved to confirm that the ring of hand prints was indeed a computer alteration. The actual panel did not show the white painted hand prints that were in the computer picture. The real rock art has been subjected to a certain amount of vandalism by the addition of scratched names, but the only thing damaged by the circle of white hand prints is the computer record. This will cause future students of rock art confusion during online research, but the actual art is still safe. Still, the alteration of the image is vandalism of a sort. This puts another version of it out into the world, sort of like President Trump's "alternate facts" as voiced by Kellyanne Conway. Any future analysis of this art must cope with knowledge of this situation - a kind of intellectual or aesthetic vandalism.

NOTE: One possibility that I had to consider is that the hand prints might actually be there, but be too faint to see or show up in photographs taken from the viewing area. The pictures showing the circle of white hand prints around the Ute shield could possibly be the result of d-stretch photo enhancement. An Internet search proved that to not be the case as I found a 2014 image of the same panel that was enhanced through d-stretch by Kerk Phillips (Internet address below) that does not have the hand prints. This leaves us with Photoshopping as the likely source of the hand prints.


Faris, Peter,
2016    Cumulative Vandalism - The Importance of Rock Art Recording, June 24, 2016,

Phillips, Kerk
2014     Sego Canyon Rock Art,