Saturday, July 14, 2018


5DT813, Panel 1, composite of 4
tracings, Photo and drawing from
Carol Patterson.

I would suppose that most of us have been involved to some extent with recording rock art. If so, you have to be aware that the least controllable aspect of any such project is the drawing of the rock art panel. Drawing is still vitally important because we can always see things on the rock surface that the camera does not pick up. However, in the rock art recording projects I have done some of the volunteer recorders turn in really poor drawings that look like they were done by a child. Not everyone has had training in close observation and drawing.

I have recently had the pleasure of reading the 2006 report on the rock art of Eagle Rock Shelter (5DT813) done by Dr. Carol Patterson and Dr. Alan Watchman, and I was struck by the high quality of the documentation produced. I am especially impressed by the quality of the drawings of the rock art panels that they included with all the photographs in this report. I want to pass on to you the process they used and show some examples of the remarkable quality they achieved.

 5DT813, Panel 8 complete.

5DT813, Panel 8, left side.
5DT813, Panel 8, right side.
Drawings and photos from
 Carol Patterson.

"The documentation of the Gunnison Gorge rock art site was conducted in a systematic manner that employed site mapping, drawing of the plan and elevation, ink drawings and GPS recordings. Colorado State Historical Society forms were completed for each panel. Digital and film photography was used for recording each panel. The petroglyphs are very difficult to see, and film photography would not reveal enough detail for quality reproductions. Black and white photographs were taken for archival records, but the very faint paint remnants are not visible in this format. Digital photographs manipulated in Adobe Photoshop for color enhancement revealed the remnant red paint on several panels. The whole site is basically weathered sandstone with engravings covered with dust and encrustations combined with some areas that are chalked, rubbed from cattle, spalling, and washed by rain and affected by seepage and algal growth." (Patterson and Watchman 2006:23)

This, in itself, exceeds the standard for many rock art recording projects, but this is just the beginning for Carol and Alan in their determination for accuracy in the final record.

 5DT813, Panel 16, close-up.

5DT813, Panel 16, Photo and
drawing from Carol Patterson.

"The techniques used for documenting the rock art were as follows:
1. Systematic digital photographing of each panel, at the same distance and at right angles to the panel to produce a color reproduction of the entire panel. Some panels required two or more photographs to capture the entire panel. Each photograph included a distance and color scale.
2. These images were downloaded to a computer and processed through Adobe PhotoShop 7.0 and adjusted to reduce the glare and increase the contrast. This improved the visibility of the petroglyphs that had been obscured by dust and reflections.
3. Each panel was printed out and put into a plastic sleeve with a second and third layer of plastic over it. Drawings were then made on the plastic in the field as described below." (Patterson and Watchman 2006:23)

Then the actual drawing on the plastic sleeves is described as follows: "Each panel printout in its plastic sleeve was put on a clip board and taken back to the field. In front of the petroglyph panel, the color photograph was traced on the plastic sleeve. The first sheet of plastic was labeled 'geology' and on it was drawn the rock features, cracks, spalling and scratches. The second sheet was labeled 'chalk' and the chalked areas were reproduced on this sheet. The third and last sheet over the petroglyph was labeled 'petroglyph' and with a 'pecking' motion, a dot was placed in every single pecked mark that could be seen on the photograph and check(ed) on the panel surface. The resulting ink drawings on plastic were then scanned to produce a single graphic representation of the panel. The plastic sheets were assembled to produce a full reproduction of each panel, including cracks and notes about threats to the panel, or scanned separately to obtain specific information about each panel." (Patterson and Watchman 2006:23)

               5DT813, Eagle Rock shelter,
               photo from Carol Patterson.

Notice that the drawing is done by tracing the photograph of the panel while in front of the panel to that each detail can be double checked against what is actually there, but various aspects of the panel are drawn on different sheets of plastic so they can be examined separately if so desired. Doing final scans of each sheet separately, and then combined, seems to me to be a wonderful way of recording all aspects of the rock art panel and combining the accuracy of tracing off of a photograph with the ability to detect details and subtle variations by human observation of the actual rock art.  

Variations of this technique could be used for rock art panels in different situations: for instance figures with both painting and pecking could be recorded with the paint and pecking on different plastic sheets so the differing techniques could be studied separately and then combined as well. Elements of a rock art panel from different cultures and ages could be easily recorded separately but then also presented in combination. Another variation that Carol has tested is to use colored pens on the different layers to bring out differences more clearly.

While working to this standard would obviously take more time than by usual methods, the results are clearly worth it. The beautifully detailed resulting drawings, with their separate layers of information, allow study at a deeper level and finer factual analysis than those of most reports. Well done!


Patterson, Carol, Dr., and Dr. Alan Watchman
2006 Gunnison River Rock Art Site (5DT813), Delta County: Documentation, Evaluation, and Management Plan. Submitted for Julie Coleman, BLM Archaeologist, BLM Field Office, Montrose, CO, 80401, Urraca Archaeological Services, Montrose, Colorado

Saturday, July 7, 2018


Venus of Laussel, France.
25,000 BP. Photo Wikipedia,
Public Domain.

The cornucopia (from Latin cornu copiae) or Horn of Plenty is a symbol of abundance and nourishment, commonly a large horn-shaped container overflowing with produce, flowers, nuts, other edibles, or wealth in some form. It supposedly originated in classical antiquity, and it has continued as a symbol in Western art, particularly associated with the Thanksgiving holiday in North America. (Wikipedia)

Venus of Laussel, France.
The horn in her right hand.
25,000 BP. Photo Wikipedia,
Public Domain.

I have long been fascinated, however, by the Paleolithic carving known as the Venus of Laussel who holds what appears to be a cornucopia in her right hand.

“The Venus of Laussel is a Venus figurine, a 1.5 foot high limestone bas-reliefof a nude female figure, painted with red ochre. It was carved into a large block of fallen limestone in a rock shelter (abri de Laussel fr: Abri de Cap Blanc) in the commune of Marquay, in the Dordogne department of southwestern France. The carving is associated with the the Gravettian Upper Paleolithic culture (approximately 25,000 years old). It is currently displayed in the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux, France.
The figure holds a wisent horn, or possibly a cornucopia, in one hand, which has 13 notches. According to some researchers, this may symbolize the number of moons or the number of  menstrual cycles in one year.” (Wikipedia)

I must admit that I have always thought of these so-called “notches” as growth rings but I suppose it is possible that they were intentionally cut into the horn. If the menstrual cycle does actually apply we assume that gives them a fertility connotation, which would certainly be in keeping with the fertility symbolism and abundance symbolized by the cornucopia. Most interpreters seem to go with the fertility and abundance interpretations.

Bison rib rasp, Oneota site,
Minnesota, ca. 1700 AD,
Oak wood rasp, Ute Indian.

Another possibility for the notches down the side of the horn that should be considered is that it is a musical instrument. Just as the Ute Indians of southwest Colorado used a notched stick or rasp with the bottom end resting on some sort of resonation chamber and rubbed with another stick as a rhythm instrument for their annual Bear Dance, this notched horn could be rubbed with a stick or bone for the same effect(although I would have expected the notches to be along the inner curve of the horn if this was the case). In this case the hollow horn might act as its own resonation chamber.
Now, while I know of no examples of the cornucopia symbol used in Native American rock art, at least in the context that our western cultures give it, the example from Laussel certainly is carved in stone and that is all the connection I need. If the horn held by the Venus of Laussel does carry implications of fertility and abundance (as is the case with our cornucopia) this would imply a cultural belief that has lasted some 27,000 years, and that is an amazing run of continuity.

NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them.



Friday, June 29, 2018


Inscription on a limestone
ostracon. Tomb of Sennifer,
Egypt. Photo
Public domain.

The oldest known inscription in an early version of our alphabet (well almost) is an ostracon, an inscribed piece of limestone discovered in 1995 in Egypt, in the tomb of Sennefer (or Senneferi). The text is actually written in hieratic, a form of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the words are of foreign (not Egyptian) linguistic origin, and appear to be mostly Semitic.(Jarus 2018) The earliest forerunner to our alphabet was written in Semitic language scripts. This inscription has recently been analyzed and deciphered, and is thought to represent an abecedary. 

"An abecedarium (or abecedary) is an inscription consisting of the letters of an alphabet, almost always listed in order. Typically, abecedaria (or abecedaries) are practice exercises." (Wikipedia)

Painted mural, Tomb of Sennefer,
Luxor, Egypt. Public domain.

Writing in the Times of Israel (22 May 2018),  Amanda Borschel-Dan recorded that the record was painted upon a limestone flake, and was recovered from the tomb of Sennefer at Luxor. "Newly deciphered Egyptian symbols on a 3,400-year-old ostracon from Luxor's Tomb of Senneferi appears to be the first written evidence of the ABC letter order of the early Semitic alphabet, according to a University of British Columbia Egyptologist. In his article, "A Double Abecedary? Halaham and 'Abgad on the TT99 Ostracon," Prof. Thomas Schneider concludes that a small (approximately 10 x 10 centimeters, or about 4 x 4 inches) double-sided limestone flake was used by Egyptian scribes as a mneumonic device to remember the letter orders of not one, but two forms of early Semitic alphabets." (Borschel-Dan 2018)
"Three of the words start with the ancient equivalent of B, C and D, creating what may be a mnemonic phrase. Thomas Schneider, a professor of Egyptology and Near Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia, reported the discovery in a paper published recently in the Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research. This discovery "would be the first historical attestation of 'our' alphabet sequence," he told Live Science in an email." (Jarus 2018) 
"One side of the limestone piece contains a series of Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols that represent the words "bibiya-ta" (a word that can mean "earth snail"), "garu" (a word that can mean "dove") and "da'at" (a word that can mean "kite"), Schneider wrote in his paper. More than 3,000 years ago , the "g" would have represented the sound that "c" does today, Schneider told Live Science. This means that the first letter of each of these words is the ancient equivalent of "BCD."  (Jarus 2018)
"The other side of the inscribed piece of limestone also contains a series of Semitic words written in hieratic Schneider said. The first letters of the first four words in that series - the letters "hlhm" - represent the first few letters of another ancient alphabetic sequence, one that never became as popular as the ancient forerunner of our alphabet. These words form a phrase that means, "to make pleasant the one who bends reed, water [according] to the Qab." The "qab" is a unit of measurement that equals about 1.2 liters, Schneider wrote. This phrase likely helped the person who wrote this inscription to remember the first few letters of this alphabetic sequence, Schneider said." (Jarus 2018)
"Whoever wrote these inscriptions 3,400 years ago may have been trying to remember the start of both alphabetic sequences, Schneider said. Sennefer(i) was an official who dealt with Egyptian foreign affairs and likely understood the Semitic languages that were used in the Eastern Mediterranean, Schneider said." (Jarus 2018) So, these inscriptions were not written in our alphabet, but in Egyptian hieratic, and were not written in our language, but in the ancient Semitic language. This  ancient Semitic language was generally written by the Semites themselves in a version of the Phoenician script that later evolved into our alphabet. Even if the connection to us is a little tenuous, a written inscription of that age deserves attention.
NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.


Borschel-Dan, Amanda
2018 Aleph is for 'Elta: First Written Record of Semitic Alphabet, From 15th Century BCE, Found in Egypt, 22 May 2018, Times of Israel,

Jarus, Owen
2018 Earliest Version of our Alphabet Possibly Discovered, Live Science, May 16,

Saturday, June 23, 2018


Tool-sharpening grooves,
Picture Canyon, Baca County, CO.
Photo Peter Faris, 21 Sept., 1986.

In southeastern Colorado there are large numbers of sites that have rows of lines or grooves pecked or ground into the rock. Over the years attempts have been made to decipher them as Ogam inscriptions, counts of some sort, even ribstones as proposed by Larry Loendorf, or just tool-sharpening grooves.

"Ribstones may vary in their details but all consist of a long, vertical line or groove along the length of a boulder that is crossed by shorter grooves, creating a figure that represents the backbone and ribs of a buffalo. The grooves have been pecked and abraded into the boulder surface a depth of 1 or 2 centimeters, and a series of cupule-like holes have been placed between the lines. The inclusion of pecked eyes, ears, a mouth, and horns, suggests a living buffalo, and the presence of buffalo hoofprints on a number of boulders created the impression of movement." (Loendorf 2008:214)

Tool-sharpening grooves,
Picture Canyon, Baca County, CO.
Photo Peter Faris, 21 Sept., 1986.

This is a surprisingly good description of many of the panels that I mention above, enigmatic collections of tool-sharpening grooves that seem to beg for additional identity. I personally have made many attempts to link them to some type of count, from calendar to number of game animals bagged, with no convincing success.

Now, a recent discovery at the site of the Roman town of Interamna Lirenas, located 90 miles southeast of Rome, have suggested another possibility, that of sundials.

Roman hemicyclium, Archaeology,
May-June 2018, p.68.

"The limestone sundial measures about 21 inches by 13 inches by 10 inches (54 by 35 by 25 centimeters), and has a bowl-like face engraved with 11 hour lines, which mark the 12 hours of daylight. Three curved lines intersect perpendicularly with these hour lines, marking when the winter solstice, equinox and summer solstice should happen researchers said.
The sundial's iron needle that casts shadows - known as a gnomon - is missing but its lead base is still there, the researchers noted they added that this type of bowl-like sundial is known as a hemicyclium, and was common during the Roman period." (Geggel 2017)

Blessed Twins inscription (5LA2224),
2975±200 BP , Las Animas County,
CO. Photo Peter Faris, 24 May 1987.

Each of the examples herein of the tool groove groupings have cracks or crevices in the rock face that a piece of wood, a section of tree limb perhaps, could be jammed into to served as a gnomon. Could they have been intended as sundials by their Native American creators? That would require a whole lot of research, to begin with I do not have records of the original orientation of these panels so I cannot say which way they faced. Would a couple of them thrown shadows at all? I also have no idea of the units of passing time that they would have measured, did Native American peoples of southeast Colorado divide the day up like we do?

In most instances I also have no record of the direction these panels face which would, of course, be of major importance if they were used as sundials. What is their orientation?

Tool-sharpening grooves,
Hackberry Springs, Bent County, CO.
Photo Peter Faris, 21 Sept., 1986.

Given the uncertainties of the sundial possibility, balanced against Larry Loendorf's description of ribstones, I think we will have to go with Larry on this one - they are ribstones - at least until I hear a better suggestion.

NOTE: The sundial image in this posting was retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If this images was not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.


Geggell, Laura
2017 Time to Celebrate: Ancient Sundial Made to Celebrate Roman Politician, Live Science, November 9, 2017

Loendorf, Larry
2008 Thunder and Herds, Rock Art of the High Plains, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Lobell, Jarrett A.
2018 Artifact,  Archaeology , p. 68, May/June 2018

Saturday, June 16, 2018


5,000-year-old Egyptian "Nativity

Italian rock art researchers have announced the discovery of what they are calling "the oldest nativity scene ever found." Because of the magnitude of the claim they are making about its meaning I am quoting the article in its entirety. On December 22, 2016, Rossella Lorenzi wrote on, "Italian researchers have discovered what might be the oldest nativity scene ever found - 5,000-year-old rock art that depicts a star in the east, a newborn between parents, and two animals." (Lorenzi 2016)

Now the panel undoubtedly does depict a man and woman with a small figure between them, two animals (one a probable), and a dot on the right that has been identified as the "star in the east."

The description goes on: "The scene, painted in reddish brown ochre, was found on the ceiling of a small cavity in the Egyptian Sahara desert, during an expedition to sites between the Nile valley and the Gilf Kebir Plateau. "It's a very evocative scene which indeed resembles the Christmas nativity. But it predates it by some 3,000 years," geologist Marco Morelli, director of the Museum of Planetary Sciences in Prato, near Florence, Italy, told Seeker. Morelli found the cave drawing in 2005, but only now his team has decided to reveal the amazing find." (Lorenzi 2016)

"The discovery has several implications as it raises new questions on the iconography of one of the more powerful Christian symbols," Morelli said. The scene features a man, a woman missing the head because of a painting detachment, and a baby. "It could have been interpreted as a normal depiction of a family, with the baby between the parents, but other details make this drawing unique," Morelli said. He noted the newborn is drawn slightly above, as if raising to the sky. Such position, with the baby not yet between the parents, would have meant a birth or pregnancy." (Lorenzi 2016) Where in the world would this conclusion have come from, that a position between and slightly above would have meant birth or pregnancy? But what if it is not rising to the sky? What if it is slightly higher to represent that it is farther away? They do not say that the lion is rising to the sky, yet it is much higher than the small figure. Maybe the lion is not yet born either.

"As death was associated to Earth in contemporary rock art from the same area, it is likely that birth was linked to the sky," Morelli said." (Lorenzi 2016) I would love to see the references that back this statement up, I just don't believe it.

"The scene becomes more symbolically complex if the other figures, two animals and a small circular feature are taken into consideration. On the upper part is a headless lion, a mythical beast which appears in several rock art drawings from the same area, while below the scene a baboon or an anthropomorphic monkey can be seen. In the east, the Neolithic artist (has) drawn what appears to be a star. The researchers called the site the "Cave of the Parents." No doubt it's an intriguing drawing," Morelli said. "We didn't find similar scenes until the early Christian age." (Lorenzi 2016)

In the above statement the author failed to distinguish whether any lion in general was the "mythical beast which appears in several rock art drawings from the same area" or whether it is the headless state of the lion which renders it mythical. Given the long tail it does appear to represent an lion, a figure important to the later Egyptians, and, as an apex predator, a figure likely to be of importance to anyone who lives where they are found. As to the "baboon or an anthropomorphic monkey", it is just as likely to represent a seated human with outstretched arms. Without a head I don't believe it can be definitely identified.

All in all this story would be perfectly acceptable if the author had inserted the word "possibly" about a dozen times, but as it stands it is unacceptable sloppy rock art analysis and reporting.


Saturday, June 9, 2018


5LA5598, Boulder Site, Pinyon
Canyon, Photo US Army, Fort Carson.

Petroglyphs on boulders at 5LA5598,
         Boulder Site, Pinyon Canyon, Photo
                from Larry Loendorf.

Back in the 1980s, Dr. Lawrence Loendorf organized and directed a ground-breaking rock art recording project on the Fort Carson Colorado training grounds known as the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site in Las Animas County, Colorado. This is a detached training ground in southeastern Colorado belonging to Fort Carson. Larry organized interdisciplinary teams to comprehensively record, not only the rock art and the surface it is on, but the surroundings, thus capturing a detailed picture of it in its actual environs. This picture would include the geography, geology, botany, and data on climate and resources, anything that could help understand the culture that produced the art.

Quadruped Petroglyphs on
boulders at 5LA5598, Boulder Site,
Pinyon Canyon, Photo from
Larry Loendorf.

I found this to be, at that time, eye-opening and revolutionary, and I am still impressed by his concentration and the depth of his detail. I recently contacted Loendorf to ask for a statement on his approach to recording rock art for RockArtBlog, and this is his reply.

"The rock art recording completed by Sacred Sites Research, Inc. (SSR) follows a process that developed over the past 50 years. The initial decision in rock art recording is whether the intent is to record the rock art site or the rock art at a site. Although this sounds like the same thing, the recording of a rock art site is quite different than simply recording the rock art.
The SSR approach is to record the whole site with emphasis on its setting as well as the rock art." (Loendorf 2018)

"Time and again by recording the whole site SSR makes discoveries that are important to understanding the rock art. The vegetation at a site, especially what is growing along the cliff wall or in the rockshelter, can include medicinal plants like Datura or tobacco. There are frequently small rock shrines or fasting beds near rock art sites. We find the tools used to make the petroglyphs or pictographs, often at the base of the panel. The most common find is a portion of a painting or petroglyph that has fallen out of its original place. These can serve as samples for dating or additional studies." (Loendorf 2018)

"Of course, SSR also records the rock art. The methods used for this work have changed through the years with new technology that significantly improves the process. DStretch software and DStretch enabled cameras (now cell phones) is the most important new technology although the use of drones to map large sites with multiple panels, is a close second. Other new techniques like the use of portable x-ray fluorescence instruments to study pigments, or small digital microscopes to examine areas of superimposition are important advances and there are others that artists use in completing their scale drawings. However, SSR rock art teams learn the most by recording the whole site." (Loendorf 2018)

He is describing an in-depth, detailed study of the rock art as well as its surroundings. He illustrated this point by describing a discovery on a recent recording project at a site near Carlsbad, New Mexico, Kee's Site.

Kee's Site, near Carlsbad,
New Mexico. Photo from
Larry Loendorf.

"Recently on a project near Carlsbad, New Mexico, we recorded Kee's Painted Shelter, a site that has long been known but never fully recorded. The Kee's stie has mainly abstract figures with a few representational ones covering its wells and ceiling. The site is a long oval-shaped rockshelter in the canyon wall. Across from Kee's, slightly upstream, in the opposite canyon wall is the Honest site. The Honest site was excavated by Susan Applegarth in the 1970s and found to contain a fairly thick layer of Archaic-age deposits circa. 3000 years of age. Applegarth mentioned the Kee's site but did not incorporate it into her research.
During our project, I was near the Honest site while the crew was completing drawings of the paintings at the Kee's site. Even though the two sites are some distance apart, I could clearly hear every word they were saying. Since sounds carry better at night when temperatures are cooler, it is apparent the Kee's site has an auditory component that we would have overlooked. It also serves as a link between the two sites in a way that would not have been discovered without recording the whole site and not just the rock art." (Loendorf 2018)

Although I opened this column with a description of my positive and enthusiastic response to Loendorf's work back in the 1980s, it applies doubly now because of the technological improvements (such as DStretch, and X-ray fluorescence) that have been made since then, and which he makes use of on his rock art recording projects. Larry produces arguably some of the most complete reports available today on his rock art recording projects, and his work should stand as an example for quite some time.

His business: Sacred Sites Research is a 501(c)3 non-profit, and is located at 6220 Mojave Street NW, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87120.

Illustrations and quotes from Larry Loendorf, and also from:

Loendorf, Lawrence L.
2008 Thunder and Herds, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Saturday, June 2, 2018


It wasn't done by the butler in the library . . . . . it was done in the Missouri Breaks, by the Blackfoot and the Crow.

Cover: Horse Raiders in the Missouri
Breaks,  Keyser and Minick, 2018,
Oregon Archaeological Society,

Back in the dim past (1970s and 80s) when I was only a few years into my studies of rock art, I was lucky enough to meet Jim Keyser, the only archaeologist I know who had the courage at that time to state that we could, in fact, interpret rock art and learn a lot about it and the people who made it, not just record it. Since then, Jim's publications with a number of collaborators, provide an education in how to approach the subject of meaning in rock art. Now I have the distinct pleasure of presenting to you a 2018 book by James D. Keyser, and David L. Minick, Horse Raiders in the Missouri Breaks: Eagle Creek Canyon Petroglyphs, Montana, another volume in the series published by the Oregon Archaeological Society in Portland (

Eagle Creek Canyon Petroglyphs
site, 24CH757, Montana.

Stylistic comparisons,
Fig. 12, p. 22.

Most rock art books are large regional surveys or site reports, but this is an in-depth analysis of the rock art of a single locale, but (as with all of Keyser's work) with a very broad range of comparative material explaining and establishing it in time and place. It includes very detailed descriptions of the rock art, and comparisons to ledger-book art as well. Including over 100 pages on just six panels at a single site (just five panels if you discount panel three which is a modern autograph - vandalism), its detailed chronologic and stylistic classification will inform studies over a much broader region, and its approach to the study of rock art sets an example that we can all benefit from. For example: it includes eight pages (31 - 38) of analysis of saddles in rock art. I also count forty pages devoted to interpretation of the rock art at the site.

Jim Keyser with a recording crew, 
Eagle Creek Canyon project.

From his beginnings in rock art studies Keyser has  propounded the theory that Native American winter counts and ledger book art provide a lexicon that we can use to inform our analysis of rock art imagery. Over his productive career Keyser has also accumulated comparative files of other rock art sites which join the winter counts and ledger book art in his lexicon of examples. This analysis, based on Keyser's huge comparative files, also places it in the broader context of regional rock art, and Native American art which could be applied to other art forms and media.

Plate 5, Horse, Carved and 
abraded on Panel 5.

David Minick is a long-time member of Oregon Archaeological Society and member of Keyser's rock art research team. His profession was Photo-journalist and Photographer and for the last 5 -6 years he has done much of their camera work specializing in DStretch analysis, along with lab work. He has also co-published some site reports with Keyser from Oregon, Washington, and Utah, especially recovering imagery with DStretch.

Plate 2, Horse and rider
from Panel 2.

This partnership has combined their talents to illustrate an example for the way rock art sites should be approached. As a result of their extensive analysis the authors have developed an explanation of the presence of the rock art being studied as an ancient form of tagging, or calling cards. Back on March 13, 2011, I posted a column titled Tagging and Territorial Marking in Rock Art, looking at the question as to whether some rock art was the equivalent of the modern form of vandalism - tagging. The idea is that it is a mark left by someone for someone else to find, not quite in the sense of "Kilroy was here," but more in a challenging sense, like "I was here and there was nothing you could do about it." Keyser and Minick have, of course, provided a much more thorough explanation of rock art as a "calling card."

In their analysis the examples of Blackfoot and Crow rock art in the same location are successive messages from one group to the other, taunting them. In their theory the basic motive was the Plains Indian phenomenon of horse raiding, stealing horses from an enemy group. This site, Eagle Creek Canyon in Montana, they present as being located in the area bordering between both tribes and on a natural route for horse raiding. If my group was successful I might leave a horse image on the cliff to taunt you, and after a reciprocal raid your group might leave a horse image there to trump mine.
Five Star Book.

This volume provides a lesson as to how rock art analysis should be conducted. It can be ordered from the Oregon Archaeological Society at


Keyser, James D., and David L. Minick,
2018 Horse Raiders in the Missouri Breaks: Eagle Creek Canyon Petroglyphs, Montana, Oregon Archaeological Society, Portland.

Saturday, May 26, 2018


Bird Rattle's petroglyph record of his 1924
visit to Writing-On-Stone. Photograph
Peter Faris, 25 June 2016.

It is a verity in our branch of Art History study that we rarely get to know who created the art we study. In my March 3, 2018, posting I presented rock art (of a sort) that had been created by Sir Isaac Newton. Now, in this posting, I am visiting the author of a historic panel found in Writing-On-Stone, in Canada.

Close-up of the car on the right,
next to large "V"-necked figure
(the figure was not created
by Bird Rattle, it was already there).
Photograph Peter Faris, 25 June 2016.
This car contains 4 passengers.

A couple of years ago I finally had the pleasure of visiting the famous rock art site of Writing-On-Stone provincial park, in Alberta, Canada. There, along the cliffs on the north side of the Milk River valley, a whole lot of world-class rock art can be seen.

Close-up of the car on the left.
Bird Rattle's petroglyph record of his 1924
visit to Writing-On-Stone. Photograph
Peter Faris, 25 June 2016.
This car contains 2 passengers.

Among many images in the Plains Biographic tradition to be found at Writing-On-Stone, one panel shows a pair of automobiles with passengers clearly seen within. While unmistakably of historic origin, the actual details of its creation were debated until a photograph turned up which shows the creation of the images by a Piegan elder named Bird Rattle in 1924.

Bird Rattle carving his petroglyph,1924,
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park,
Alberta, Canada. Public Domain.

"Taken by Roland Willcomb, the photograph clearly shows the South Piegan elder Bird Rattle carving a petroglyph - one of two very similar, detailed automobiles - on a panel at the main site in what is now Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. The origin of these automobile images has long been a source of debate. Several early researchers assumed the vehicles were recent Euro-American images, while one of us in more recent research had identified certain stylistic elements which suggested a possible aboriginal source. The photograph conclusively ends the question as to the origin of the automobile petroglyphs, but more importantly, its discovery led the authors to additional photographs, correspondence, and documents pertaining to Bird Rattle's and Willcomb's association with Writing-on-Stone." (Klassen et al 2000:189)

Bird Rattle, ca. 1910, Photograph
Edward S. Curtis. Public Domain.

"Born about 1863 near Writing-On-Stone (Willcomb 1968a:3), Bird Rattle grew up during the last of the buffalo days on the Northern Plains. He was intimately familiar with Writing-On-Stone. As a boy in 1866, he and his famil were camped near the locale at the time of the Retreats-Up-The-Hill battle - one of the last major conflicts involving the Blackfoot Nation. Bird Rattle's name has long been association with both Retreats-Up-The-Hill and Writing-On-Stone, as his version of this battle directly links the rock art with this famous conflict. (Dempsey 1973) After the buffalo were gone, Bird Rattle settled in a cabin on Cut Bank Creek, just north of Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation of Montana. By the 1920s, Bird Rattle was a prominent Piegan elder and the owner of a sacred Beaver Bundle. (Willcomb 1970a:44)." (Klassen et al 2000:191)

Roland H. Willcomb was born in Massachusetts and educated in engineering. He had first come to Montana in 1908 (Willcomb 1970a). Willcomb worked around the American West until 1923 when he returned to Montana to work for the Montana Highway Commission. Between 1923 and 1925, he was the Project Engineer overseeing construction of roads across the Blackfeet Reservation. Willcomb met Blackfeet elders including Bird Rattle in Browning, Montana, and "a close friendship developed between Bird Rattle and Willcomb which continued until Bird Rattle's death on October 31, 1937 (Willcomb 1979a)." (Klassen et al 2000:191-2)

"Within a year of their meeting, Willcomb had arranged to take Bird Rattle on a visit to Writing-On-Stone. Apparently, Willcomb had been told stories of this "place of mystery, 'where ghosts live'" (Willcomb 1968a:1) and he wished to experience it himself. Their journey to Writing-On-Stone was documented by Willcomb with a series of photographs, and he later recorded a narrative of the journey (Willcomb 1968a), apparently based on his original notes and letters." (Klassen et al 2000:191-2)

”On the morning of September 13, 1924, Willcomb and Bird Rattle, accompanied by a second Piegan elder, Split Ears, and Jack Wagner who acted as an interpreter, left Browning in Willcomb's car. The party drove north to the Canadian border. There they were joined by two of Willcomb's friends from Great Falls, John Stevenson and I. O. Deshon, who arrived in a second car. From the border the two cards proceeded to Writing-On-Stone, where the party set up camp near the cliffs. After briefly inspecting the rock art on the cliffs, the party gathered around the campfire where Bird Rattle and Split Ears described the rock art as messages from the spirit world which could be read by Medicine Men (Willcomb 1968a:13). These messages, which frequently changed overnight, warned of enemies in the area, told them the location of buffalo herds or strayed horses, and foretold future events. One of the stories told by Bird Rattle that evening was that of the Retreats-Up-The-Hill battle, which Willcomb transcribed in great detail in his later narrative. (Willcomb 1968a; Dempsey 1973)." (Klassen et al, 2000:193)

It was during this visit that Bird Rattle decided to add a record of his trip to the Biographic rock art at Writing-On-Stone. "According to Willcomb, at one point during the day, "Bird Rattle decided that he should record our trip. He selected a bare rock face some distance from any of the ancient 'writings.' He tried his best with a hard piece of quartz, but was barely able to scratch the surface of the sandstone" (Willcomb 1968a:17). Bird rattle, in fact, selected a face already containing rock art, and despite Willcomb's assertion to the contrary, he was quite successful in carving his record of the trip, judging from the resulting petroglyphs." (Klassen et al 2000:194)

"By recording this significant event as rock art, Bird Rattle demonstrated the relationship between narrative expression and the spirit powers of a sacred place. Bird Rattle's petroglyphs, and Willcomb's narrative of this trip (together with the anonymous 1932 narrative), provide new insights into the aboriginal significance of Writing-On-Stone, and the meaning of its rock art."
(Klassen et al 2000:195)

(I wonder whether Bird Rattle actually wore his feather headdress as he created his images, or whether the photo was posed later.)

For students of this art form which is all too often presented to us anonymously on the surface of the cliff, cave, or boulder, and incident like this where we have factual knowledge of the time and place, as well as the thoughts of the creator, can be of inestimable value in looking for meaning.
I am personally very grateful to Klassen, Keyser, and Loendorf for their work in winkling out the facts of this story, and then bringing it to us.

NOTE: The images of Bird Rattle in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.


Dempsey, Hugh A.,
1973 A History of Writing-On-Stone, Unpublished manuscript on file with the Provincial Museum of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

Klassen, Michael A., James D Keyser & Lawrence L. Loendorf,
2000 Bird Rattle’s Petroglyphs at Writing-On-Stone:Continuity in the Biographic Rock Art Tradition, Plains Anthropologist, 45:172, 189-201.

Willcomb, Roland H.
1968a        Ah-sin-efp: Writing-On-Stone, Manuscript on file at the Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena.
1970a        Bird Rattle and the Medicine Prayer, Montana Magazine of Western History 20:42-49.