Saturday, September 25, 2021



 "The Shaman" of Les Trois Freres, France. Photograph J. Vertut, collection Bégouën.

Henri Edouard Prosper Breuil was a French pioneer in rock art studies who did the first recording of many of the French cave art discoveries. One particular image that proved controversial was from the cave of Les Trois Freres. In a chamber that he dubbed The Sanctuary Breuil sketched a figure he called The Sorcerer.

Composite of photograph and Breuil's sketch, Internet photograph, public domain.

“The Sorcerer engraving was first studied and copied by Henri Breuil while making his sketches of the cave art, back in the 1920s. He drew a human-type figure with a headdress that resembled antlers, and it was this sketch – published in the 20s – that influenced many subsequent theories about the Sorcerer. Breuil himself believed that the picture represented a shaman or magician, and that its presence in the Sanctuary indicated that the chamber was used for shamanistic or ritualistic ceremonies.” (Visual-Arts-Cork)

Breuil's sketch of "The Shaman" from Les Trois Freres, France. Internet photograph, public domain.

Breuil’s sketch shows an anthropomorphic figure wearing a set of antlers and, while the antlers figure prominently in his sketch, researchers have since questioned the accuracy of Breuil’s work because no photograph of the image shows the antlers in question. It is reported that this image is both painted (or drawn) in pigment, but also that there is some fine scratching involved in it so the possibility remains that the antlers are there in finely scratched detail that Breuil’s up close and in person examination revealed, but that they have not been picked up in subsequent photographs.

Finds at the British site of Star Carr have provided a possible explanation for the antler headdress on this figure.

        Star Carr deer mask, Internet                      photograph, public domain.

“The site was occupied during the early Mesolithic archaeological period, which coincided with the preboreal and boreal climatic periods. Though the ice age had ended and temperatures were close to modern averages, sea levels had not yet risen sufficiently to separate Britain from continental Europe. Highlights among the finds include Britain’s oldest structure, 21 red deer stag skull-caps that may have been headdresses and nearly 200 projectile, or harpoon, points made of red deer antler. These organic materials were preserved due to having been buried in waterlogged peat. Normally all that remains on Mesolithic sites are stone tools.” (Wikipedia)

The lower portions of the skulls had been removed, the inside surface smoothed, and holes drilled for the thongs that are assumed to have held the masks on the wearer’s head. Some of the larger examples have eye holes suggesting that they covered a portion of the wearer’s face as well. This is notable because it may cast light on one of the Abbe Breuil’s more controversial conclusions from the French cave of Le Trois Freres.

Star Carr deer mask, Photograph

Now that we have actual antlered headdresses it seems to heighten the possibility that Breuil was indeed correct and seemingly supports his version of the figure wearing an antlered headdress. The versions with eye holes might also explain the strange round eyes on the figure as well.

None of this proves anything, of course, but it may add possible evidence toward the eventual conclusion of this mystery.

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Visual-Arts-Cork, Trois Freres Cave,

Wikipedia, Star Carr,

Saturday, September 18, 2021



Palpa geoglyphs, Paracas culture, Peru. Internet image.

  Close-up, Palpa geoglyphs, Paracas culture,                   Peru. Internet image.

Everyone interested in rock art knows about the Nasca geoglyphs in Peru, but not everyone knows of the geoglyphs around the nearby town of Palpa which are considered to be centuries older, created by the fascinating Paracas culture.

Palpa geoglyphs, Paracas culture, Peru. Internet image.

“The valleys of Palpa and Nasca share a combined cultural history, with the Palpa area of the Nasca basin containing geoglyphs and linear features that are comparable in quality and complexity to the concentration of lines and geoglyphs on the Nasca desert plains (pampas).

To differentiate the two ‘Nasca geoglyphs’ is used to denote all pre-Hispanic ground carvings in the Nasca drainage, whilst the ‘Palpa geoglyphs’ refers to the subset of geoglyphs located in the area around the present-day town of Palpa.

  Close-up, Palpa geoglyphs, Paracas culture,                   Peru. Internet image.

It is speculated that the Palpa geoglyphs derive from the period of the Paracas culture (800 BC – 100 BC), the precursor to the evolution of the Nasca culture (100 BC – AD800), that are both distinguished by their unique associated ceramics and textiles.” (Heritage Daily 2021)  

  Close-up, Palpa geoglyphs, Paracas culture,                   Peru. Internet image.

There are some apparent differences however. The Nasca lines and shapes are generally on the reasonably flat surface of the Nasca Plain and are not generally believed to be intended to be seen in their entirety from ground level observers. Also most of them are just lines and/or geometric shapes. Many scientists speculate that the Nasca geoglyphs are there for humans to interact with by walking the lines. The Palpa geoglyphs, however, are apparently fantasy anthropomorphs and zoomorphs predominantly, and they are placed on hillsides and slopes so they can be seen and comprehended from the ground level, perhaps ancestors or deities watching over the village.

“The Palpa geoglyphs were mainly position(ed) on sloped terrain near the Rio Grande basin or the Palpa alluvial plain, which allowed the geoglyphs to be seen from a distance. Hardly a trace of use has been associated, making it difficult to theorize their purpose or function in Paracas culture, in marked contrast to later geometric geoglyphs of the Nasca culture.” (Heritage Daily 2021)

Palpa geoglyphs, Paracas culture, Peru. Internet image.

They appear to be more for observing than for interacting with. So, although they are all geoglyphs in the same general region, their meaning and intended purpose must have drastically changed over the intervening centuries.

Another difference is seen in the technique used to create the images. “The early figures were made by removing dark stones from lighter sediments. But, unlike later geoglyphs, the removed stones were not only used for marking the outline of the geoglyph, but were also piled up to form the mouth, eyes, or other anatomical features.” (Heritage Daily 2021)

  Close-up, Palpa geoglyphs, Paracas culture,                   Peru. Internet image.

Also, the Nasca geoglyphs are all relatively simple. Most of them are large but simple geometric figures and lines, even the portrayals of animals are, for the most part, simple outlines. The Palpa geoglyphs, on the other hand, are quite a bit more complex with body details in-filled and ornate headdresses, accessories and decoration.

NOTE: 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 this you should read the original reports at the site listed below.


Archaeology News, 2021, The Mysterious Palpa Geoglyphs, #139923, August 2021, Heritage Daily,

Saturday, September 11, 2021


An equestrian raider on horseback with a musket and stolen domestic stock. The zoomorph on top right is interpreted as a “rain-animal” magically summoned to wash away the tracks. Photograph Sam Challis and Brent Sinclain-Thompson.

Students of rock art have long been entranced by the wonderful realistic rock art of the prehistoric inhabitants of South Africa. Scholarly curiosity in South African and African rock art has prompted the creation of organizations such as TARA (Trust for African Rock Art) and the Bradshaw Foundation. It prompted President Nelson Mandella to state that “Africa’s rock art is the common heritage of all Africans, but it is more than that. It is the common heritage of humanity.” 

My personal introduction to African rock art was Carson Ritchie’s Rock Art of Africa. Ritchie said “At one end of the time scale, they (the creators of African rock art) had been in touch with the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean. At the other, they had been exterminated by black and white invaders of Africa, the last of them disappearing less than a hundred years ago.” (Ritchie 1979:23) Although Ritchie’s explanations are quite racist by today’s standards his volume did a creditable job in presenting the range and breadth of African rock art.

The rock art tradition of the peoples of Africa is often assumed to have ended with the disruption caused in the 17th century by the invasion of European colonials and the subjugation and enslavement of native inhabitants of the various African colonies. But we have now learned, with the studies of a team from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg led by Sam Challis and Brent Sinclair-Thomson that at least one form of rock art continued under the regimes of the white invaders.

Borderland region painting with horses and guns. Photograph Sam Challis and Brent Sinclain-Thompson.

“With the founding of the Cape Colony in 1652, European colonists were forbidden from enslaving the indigenous Khoe, San and African farmers. They had to look elsewhere for a labour force. And so slaves, captured and sold as property, were unwilling migrants to the Cape, transported – at great expense – from European colonies like Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, the East Indies (now Indonesia), India and Sri Lanka. Far cheaper was the illegal trade in indigenous slaves that grew in the borderlands of the colony. Khoe-San people were forced into servitude as colonists took both land and livestock. Together with immigrant slaves they were the labour force for the colonial project.” (Callis and Sinclair-Thomson 2021)

Borderlands painting of ostriches and baboons. Photograph Sam Challis and Brent Sinclain-Thompson.

These slaves were not, however, willing workers and not all accepted their fate. “Desertion was their most common form of rebellion. Runaway slaves escaped into the borderlands and mounted a stiff resistance to the colonial advance from the 1700s until the mid-1800s. In most cases the fugitives joined forces with the skelmbasters (mixed outlaws), who themselves were descended from San-, Khoe- and isiNtu-speaking Africans (hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers).” (Callis and Sinclair-Thomson 2021)

Armed equestrian. Photograph Sam Challis and Brent Sinclain-Thompson.

“Thus, we find recorded examples of mixed bandit groups hiding out in mountain rock shelters within striking distance of colonial farms. Using guerrilla-style warfare they raided livestock and guns. In their refuge, they made rock art, images within their own belief systems that relate to escape and retaliation. These sites can be reliably dated, because they include rock art images of horses and guns. In our most recent study of rock art in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, we see that this art also provides us with the raiders’ perspective. Our fieldwork enables us to view something of the slave and indigenous resistance from outside the texts of the colonial record.” (Callis and Sinclair-Thomson 2021)

Black horse with reins, baboons below him. Photograph Sam Challis and Brent Sinclain-Thompson.

Well, of course on man’s bandit is another man’s escaped slave and, as they are both human, they felt the urge to tell their story and left an art record like all the other creators of rock art.

 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 original reports at the references listed below.


Challis, Sam, and Brent Sinclair-Thomson, 2021, South Africa’s Bandit Slaves and the Rock Art of Resistance, 20 August  2021, The Conversation Africa, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Ritchie, Carson I. A., 1979, Rock Art of Africa, A. S. Barnes and Co., New York.

Saturday, September 4, 2021


Although I have written previously about speech or wind symbols in rock art, so far I focused on symbols that resembled the speech scrolls in the art of Mesoamerican peoples. There are a number of other examples of symbolic notations of speech or sound, conventions of portrayal used by artists elsewhere found in rock art or other art of First Nations peoples. Before going further in this exploration I need to clarify that what we are actually looking at should more technically be described as oral emanations, whether representing breath or sound, or both, is not usually possible to define.

Dog with good voice, from Red Cloud's Census, Garrick Mallery, fig.1197, p. 718.

Elk walking with his voice, from Red Cloud's census, fig. 1197, p. 718.

Five Thunders, from Red Cloud's census, Garrick Mallery, fig. 681, p.486.

Many examples from the First Nations peoples of North America are known with straight or wavy lines emanating from the mouths of anthropomorphs or zoomorphs. A number of examples from various sources can be seen on pages 718 -719 of the Dover publication of Garrick Mallery's Picture Writing of the American Indians (1889) reprinted in 1972. The bulk of Mallery's examples appear to come from painted robe or ledger book art of the Northern Plains.

Wer-panther, Halo shelter, Val Verde County, TX. Photograph Peter Faris, March 2004.

Some commonly seen examples are wavy lines emanating from the mouths of animals in rock art. Often referred to as “spirit lines” these can be seen from Mallery’s examples as representing sound or breath. One excellent example of this is the red two-legged feline painted in Halo Shelter, Vel Verde county, Texas.

“At Halo Shelter (41VV1230), a red two-legged feline (60 cm long) emits a series of long, undulating red lines from its toothed mouth. The arrangement of the speech-breath lines forms a tightly constrained, acute angle. The feline’s fur is standing on end, and its tail arches over its back. A long, thick red line emerges from its nose before turning downward to intersect the undulating lines below. The painting of the feline has been heavily abraded and incised. This form of Indigenous postpainting modification is common in the Lower Pecos, but it is especially pronounced on this figure.” (Boyd and Busby 2021) This portrayal can be compared to Mallery’s illustration of the name glyph of a man named Dog With Good Voice, from Red Cloud's Census, (fig.1197, p. 718) and to another of a man named Five Thunders, from Red Cloud's census (fig. 681, p.486). In both of these examples from Mallery the name glyph has wavy lines issuing from the mouth to illustrate sound. Other instances of wavy lines issuing from the mouth may be interpreted as breath instead of sound.

Halo shelter, Val Verde County, TX. Photograph Peter Faris, March 2004.

A painted anthropomorph from Halo Shelter is shown with a cloud of lines issuing from the head.

Reproduction of a Forrest Kirkland water color. Turpin, 1994, p.87, fig. 7.

Turpin (1994:87) included a reproduction of a Forrest Kirkland water color painting of another Pecos River Style panel with a prone figure she identifies as a shaman with wavy breath or sound lines coming from his mouth.

Crow equestrians. Horse Raiders of the Missouri Breaks, Keyser and Minick, 2018, p. 25, fig. 15.

Keyser and Minick (2018: 25) show Crow examples of equestrian figures where the horse is displaying wavy lines from the mouth, possibly panting after a run.

Lakota drawing. From Storied Stone, Linea Sundstrom, 2004, p. 184, fig. 14.

Sundstrom ( 2004:184) illustrates a Lakota drawing of a ceremony of the Elk Dreamer’s Society wherein the wavy lines of the elk in the lower right encompass the participants and impart his power to them through the power of his breath or bugling.

Pecos River Style anthropomorph. Carolyn E. Boyd and Ashley Busby, 2021, From Speech-Breath: Mapping the Multisensory Experience in Pecos River Style Pictography, Figure 6.

Boyd and Busby (2021) also show many examples of Pecos River Style pictographs where breath or sound is indicated by a cloud of dots emanating from the mouths of figures

Pecos River Style anthropomorph  Fate Bell Shelter, Seminole Canyon, Val Verde County, TX. Photograph Peter Faris,  March 2004.

This photo from Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park, Val Verde County, Texas shows a cloud of dots above the head of the anthropomorph in the fashion that they designate a representation of sound.

So, breath or sound? I personally lean toward sound, with the other elements in the composition as clues to what sound the viewers are being reminded of but, either way, many examples of moving breath and/or auditory vibration can be found in rock art.

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Boyd, Carolyn E. and Ashley Busby, 2021, Speech-Breath: Mapping the Multisensory Experience in Pecos River Style Pictography, 28 June 2021, published online by the Cambridge University Press for the Society for American Archaeology.

Keyser, James D., and David L. Minick, 2018, Horse Raiders of the Missouri Breaks, Eagle Creek Canyon Petroglyphs, Montana, Oregon Archaeological Society publication #25, Portland.

Mallery, Garrick, 1889, Picture-Writing of the American Indians, Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., reprinted 1972 by Dover Publications, New York.

Sundstrom, Linea, 2004, Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art of th Black Hills Country, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Turpin, Solveig, 1994, On a Wing and a Prayer: Flight Metaphors in Pecos River Rock Art, pp. 73-102, in Shamanism and Rock Art in North America, edited by Solveig Turpin, Rock Art Foundation Inc., San Antonio.

Saturday, August 28, 2021


T-shaped doorway, Porcupine House, Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, Colorado. Photograph Peter Faris, June 1981.

What do the T-shaped doorways of the 4-Corners area and the I-shaped ballcourts of Mesoamerica have in common. Just possibly the Hohokam pipette symbol is what they have in common, or more precisely, perhaps both of those shapes influenced the development of the pipette symbol.

T-shaped petroglyph, Square Tower Canyon, Hovenweep National Monument, San Juan county, Utah. Photograph Peter Faris, 28 May 1988.

Ruin of T-shaped door in foreground. Aztec Ruin, Aztec, San Juan County, New Mexico. Internet photograph, public domain.

T-SHAPES: Lekson states quite unequivocably that the T-shaped doorway originated in the 4-corners region in the areas influenced by Chaco Canyon and spread from there. “And we can say with some confidence that T-shaped doors began at Chaco, proliferated across the Four Corners during Aztec’s era, and all but disappeared from the northern Southwest at the same time they reappeared far to the south, at Paquime and the Casas Grandes region. T-doors are, indeed, all over the map, but in sequence: T-doors followed the Chaco-Aztec-Paquima meridian. If some enterprising graduate student crossed their eyes and dotted the Ts into a GIS with time periods, they would pop up first around Chaco and at a few of its outliers, then show strongly at Aztec and throughout its region, and finally all but vanish in the north and explode at Paquime and all over northern Chihuahua.” (Lekson 2015:85) The T-shape is not only seen in doorways in the American southwest. There are also examples found in rock art in various locations.

T-shaped petroglyph embellished at top. Northwest New Mexico. Photograph Wendell Wilmoth.

T-shaped doorway, Casa Rinconada, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Photograph Peter Faris, August 1984.

Mayan T-shaped wind symbol, 'Ik'. Internet illustration, public domain.

Callis (2021) sees the influence as having gone the other way. “It is proposed here that the T- or Tau-shaped doors so emblematic of Southwestern architecture after AD 1000 are the result of that contact. T-shapes similar to those in the North American Southwest are found as wall perforations at the late Classic – and highly unique – site of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. Furthermore, although not readily evident, the doorways of many Terminal Classic Maya structures also incorporate the T-shape. T-shapes are also found as architectural elements in other features, such as friezes, throughout Mesoamerica. That the T-shape is a representation of the Mayan glyph Ik’ – that signifies both wind and breath and, by extension, life or spirit – is widely accepted within the Mesoamerican context. This paper demonstrates through comparison with Maya and other Mesoamerican architecture, as well as analysis of known Southwest-Mesoamerican contacts and known instances of cultural diffusion, that these Mayan T-shapes, the most basic form of the Mayan glyph Ik’, also inspired the T-shaped doors of the Southwest.” (Callis 2021:1)

What we do know is that whichever way the influence of the T-shaped door went it can be found both to the north and the south of the Hohokam region so it is certain that they were exposed to it and knew of it.

Pipette, Cochise County, Arizona. Photograph from Arizona Memory Project.

PIPETTES: The pipette symbol is centered on the Hohokam region (although examples have been found farther away). Pipettes are basically a series of squares connected by a central passage. Wright and Russell (2011)  illustrate approximately 60 pipettes from rock art sites in their paper (incidentally they also include five T-shapes, supposedly as half pipettes, and a few images that I did not include in this count because I just cannot agree with their identification of the symbol as a pipette). In their paper Wright and Russell mostly picture pipettes with two (28) or three (24) lobes, although they also have a single square they so identify as well as some with four (5) and five (3) lobes.

Hohokam Pipette symbol, Pima Canyon, Arizona. Photograph Debbie L. Wise.

Hohokam Pipette symbol, Hieroglyphic Canyon, Arizona. Photograph Dale O'Dell.

“We submit that the compartmentalization of the cosmos into containers was  a conceptual metaphor of the tiered cosmos. This metaphor was embedded in the Uto-Aztecan language shared across Mesoamerica and the Greater Southwest and materialized in pipette symbolism. The distribution of the pipette compares favorably with the spatial extent of Wilcox’s (1987) ‘Mesoamerican cosmological metastructure’, supporting our assertion that the pipette was a key symbol of this religious structure with roots in Mesoamerica. While there is no evidence for pipette imagery in Southwestern material culture prior to AD 600, scenes of transcendence are known from Archaic Chihuahuan contexts.” (Wright and Russell 2011:377-8) In other words Wright and Russell are suggesting that the pipette symbol represents tiers of the cosmos with a passage up through them (for the entry of humans). This does not, however, account for the facts that the pipette symbol is so similar to the I-shaped ballcourt of Mesoamerica, and the fact that Mesoamerican culture had a large influence on Hohokam culture, including ball courts.

I-shaped ballcourt, Zapotec, Monte Alban, Mexico, ca. 500 - 100 BCE. Internet photograph, public domain.

Mayan I-shaped ballcourt, Cihuatan site, El Salvador. Photograph Wikipedia.

BALLCOURTS: One of the iconic features of Mesoamerican urban sites is the ballcourt. Many of these were formed in the shape of the capital letter “I”.

Ballcourt of Gravel, Mixtec, Codex Yuta Tnoho, Online illustration, public domain.

I-shaped ballcourt, Paquime, Chihuahua, Mexico. Online photograph, public domain.

“In contrast to the lowlands, the first highland ballcourts date to over a millennium after the Paso de la Amada court. The first securely dated full-sized ballcourts, from the end of the Middle Formative (600 to 500 BCE, occur at the central Mexican highland sites of Capulac Concepcion and La Laguna. While exhibiting different orientations, both courts have similar sizes and shapes: lateral mounds terminate in closed ‘end zones,’ giving the court, in plan view, the I shape so typical of later ballcourts throughout Mesoamerica. In Oaxaca, I-shaped ballcourts, interpreted as boundary and defensive mechanisms associated with a state game centered at the Zapotec urban center of Monte Alban, first appeared in the final portion of the Late Formative.” (Blomster and Chavez 2020) While these are named Ballcourts, and we certainly believe that the Mesoamerican ball games were conducted in them, they are also believed to have served a number of other functions, ritual and otherwise.

So, with the main sequence of construction (with T-shaped doors) at Chaco occurring between 850 and 1125 CE, and with the peak of Hohokam culture dating from between 850 and 1400 CE, and with Mesoamerican ballcourts recorded from 1400 BCE to the 1500s CE we have sufficient time overlap for the influences from the north and the south to come together with the Hohokam, resulting in the pipette symbol.

So is the T-shape half of an I-shaped ballcourt? Is a two-lobed pipette a I-shaped ballcourt, or two T-shapes together end to end? Is a three-lobed pipette a ballcourt and a T-shaped doorway connected? I really cannot say, although I do believe that those more conversant with Hohokam than I should take a detailed look at it. What I can say is that with the influences from both the north and the south converging on Hohokam that amalgam is certainly a possibility.

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Blomster, Jeffrey P. and Victor E. Salazar Chavez2020, Origins of the Mesoamerican ballgame: Earliest ballcourt from the highlands found at Etlatongo, Oaxaca, Mexico, 13 March 202o, Science Advances, Vol. 6, No. 11, KOI”10.1126/sciadv.aay6964

Callis, Marc, 2021, Ik’ Way: The Mayan Origin of T-Shaped Doors in the North American Southwest, Southwestern Lore, Summer 2021, Colorado Archaeological Society

Lekson, Stephen H., 2015, The Chaco Meridian: One Thousand Years of Political and Religious Power in the Ancient Southwest, Rowman and Littlefield, Boulder, Colo.

Wright, Aaron M. and Will G. Russell, 2011, The Pipette, the Tiered Cosmos, and the Materialization of Transcendence in the Rock Art of the North American Southwest, Journal of Social Archaeology, 11(3), pages 361-386

Saturday, August 21, 2021


Station 16, Jeffers Petroglyph Site, Minnesota. 
Internet photograph, public domain.

Many instances of tallies have been identified in rock art. It is often assumed that any panel that has repetitive elements is a tally. There is another sort of count that I believe we should also be aware of – a register. There are many nuances to the meanings of both terms but, for the purposes of this paper, I am going to use the following definitions.

Tally - "A continuous record or count of a number of things or people." (

Register - "A list or record of acts, events, etc." (

Hopi Clan Registry, Willow Springs, Arizona. Photograph Paul and Joy Foster.

So a tally is a count of items, and a register is a count of events or occurrences. For example, the Hopi Clan Registers at Willow Springs, Arizona, are not tallies by these definitions, but lists of events - the event being a visit by a member of a clan to Willow Springs. These have been interpreted because members of the Hopi Clans have provided testimony explaining them. The meanings of other tallies and registries are much more problematical however.

In the photograph above (top of page), from the Jeffers Petroglyph Site in southwestern Minnesota, Rauff (2013, 2015) identifies the dots as tallies because they represent a count of something.

Awl sharpening grooves with petroglyphs and tallies, Purgatory Canyon, Bent County, Colorado. Photograph Peter Faris, 9 July 1998.

Some rock art enthusiasts designate ranks of tool sharpening grooves as tallies because of their groupings. I see many of those groupings as coincidental; the grooves are in the same place because that rock is particularly good for sharpening a bone or antler awl, or because there is a comfortable rock in front of it to sit on while working, etc. I also question many of them because the depth is excessive, much deeper than necessary to make a simple tally notation. There are, however, sites where tool sharpening grooves are lined up like tally marks, and accompanied by other clues such as other tally seeming notations and other petroglyphic images deeply engraved or pecked. This site from the Purgatoire River in southeastern Colorado exhibits all three; tally-like markings, deeply engraved petroglyphs, and tool or awl sharpening grooves. This opens up the possibility that the grooves really may have been intended as some sort of tally.

“There are essentially two approaches to interpreting tallies that have not been explicitly identified by their makers. The first is to uncover a structural isomorphism between the count and grouping of tallies and that of some natural phenomenon. Marshak made use of this technique in postulating astronomical counts in tally marks on Paleolithic bones.” (Rauff 2013:83)

“The second approach is a kind of cultural triangulation that attempts to match the tally marks with identifiable objects or events that are culturally associated with the rock art. Merrell, for example, believes that the tallies in the Lava Tube Cave petroglyphs in Idaho ‘denote cave visits or perhaps represent caches of meat stored in the caves’ (p.36). As another example of this second approach consider the tally marks that are known as part of the vertical series.” (Rauff 2013:84) While there may be tally marks in Lava Tube Cave I seriously doubt that they represent caches of meat stored in the caves. First, why would you use a permanent mark to represent a temporary resource? And second, I do not believe that the people who cached the meat supply would then leave a sign announcing it to all and sundry. I believe they would have wanted to protect that knowledge.

Vertical Series rock art, southwest Montana.
Keyser and Klasses, 2001, fig. 16.6, p. 286. 

Among the rock art that strongly suggests that it represents tallies is the Vertical Series Tradition of the Northern Plains. “The rock art of the Vertical Series Tradition is among the most enigmatic and intriguing on the Northwestern Plains. It consists mostly of repeated nonrepresentational symbols arranged in multiple vertical columns or series – the characteristic that gives this tradition its name. The repetition of simple geometric shapes and their consistent arrangement into rows or columns gives the strong impression that they are part of a structured system of communication. Perhaps these symbols form an incipient ideographic notation system – an early precursor to true writing.” (Keyser and Klassen 2001:281)

In other words, perhaps the number of the symbols represents an aggregate number of things and the shape of the symbol represents the thing being counted.

"Music," Purgatoire Canyon, southeast Colorado. Photographs Peter Faris.

Some sets of symbols carved into the cliffs if the Picketwire River in southeast Colorado consist of a long horizontal line with shorter vertical lines appended vertically beneath it, each short, vertical line terminating in a pecked circle. Dubbed “music” by the locals, these signs somewhat resemble signs described in Garrick Mallery’s report as notation of passing time. In his report “Picture Writing of the American Indians”, Garrick Mallery gave the following description of time notation by the Dakota tribe.

Year tally, Garrick Mallery, fig. 182, p. 265.

“Dr. William H. Corbusier, surgeon, U.S. Army, gives the following information: ‘The Dakotas make use of the circle as the symbol of a cycle of time; a small one for a year and a large one for a longer period of time, as a life time, one old man. Also a round of lodges or a cycle of seventy years, as in Battiste Good’s Winter Count. The continuance of time is sometimes indicated by a line extending in a direction from right to left across the page when on paper, and the annual circles are suspended from the line at regular intervals by short lines as in Fig. 182.’” (Mallery 1893:265)

Hicklin Springs, 5BN7, Colorado. Field drawing, Peter Faris, 26 September 1992.

Also from southeastern Colorado is this panel from the Hicklin Springs site, 5BN7, in Bent County. James Rauff included it in his 2015 paper as his figure 14 misattributing its source, having picked it up from a publication which had also misattributed it. This is, in fact, my drawing of the panel from a rock art recording project in 1992. Rauff notes the dot patterns and defines them as tallies. “A similar complex is shown in Figure 14, and archaic petroglyph from southeastern Colorado. The regularity in the dotted grids suggests that the dots were pecked into an intentional pattern with, perhaps an intentional count.” (Rauff 2015:17) There are indeed many other dot patterns at 5BN7, and some of them may well be tally counts.

Baca County, Colorado. Photograph Peter Faris, February 1996.

Finally, I want to again bring up the line groupings so often interpreted as Celtic “Ogam” by amateur epigraphers in the southeastern Colorado/western Oklahoma area. While some of these petroglyphs may resemble Celtic Ogam, to me they exhibit the characteristics of tallies more, and for the purposes of this analysis I so designate them.

Along with the question of which rock art represents a tally and which is just a pattern or design is the question “a tally of what?” In most cases I believe this is just not definable – the production of rock art being a very subjective process tallies very seldom include the necessary clues. They are, however, another sign that the people who produced it thought and felt like us, they are another sign of our common humanity.

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Keyser, James D., and Michael A. Klassen, 2001, Plains Indian Rock Art, University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Mallery, Garrick, Picture Writing of the American Indians, in Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnography to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1888-1889, by J. W. Powell, Director, Government Printing Office, Washington DC., reprinted in two volumes in 1972 by Dover Publications, Inc. New York.

Rauff, James V., 2013, Rock Art Tallies: Mathematics on Stone in Western North America, Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 76-88, July 2013.

Rauff, James V., 2015, Mathematical Ideas In North American Rock Art, paper presented at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, San Antonio, Texas, Janluary 2015.


Merrell, Carolynne L., 2007, Lava Tube Dave Pictographs in the Great Rift of Southeastern Idaho, in American Indian Rock Art, Vol. 33, Don D. Christensen and Peggy Whitehead, eds. American Rock Art Research Association, Phoenix, AZ. Pages 27 – 40.

Saturday, August 14, 2021


It is quite common in looking at rock art to have the feeling that the images are telling a story, and that you can almost understand it, almost being the key word here. Although many rock art researchers deny that we can interpret the imagery we find, I disagree - at least in some cases. Some rock art is obviously telling a story and we are meant to be able to decipher it.

Bird Rattle (Blackfeet) carving his petroglyph,1924, Writing-on-Stone, Alberta, Canada. From James Keyser, 2004, Art of the Warriors, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

A prime example of this is Bird Rattle’s panel from Writing-On-Stone at Alberta, Canada. As explained by Klassen, Keyser, and Loendorf in their paper in Plains Anthropologist (2000) “The recent discovery of photographs and narrative of a 1924 trip by Roland Willcomb and Piegan elder Bird Rattle demonstrates that a well-known historic petroglyph at Writing-On-Stone was carved by this Plains Warrior as part of the Biographic rock art tradition.” (Klassen et al. 2000:189)

       Bird Rattle's panel, Writing-On-Stone,           Alberta, Canada. Photograph Peter Faris,                           June 25, 2016.

Bird Rattle and Willcomb had met in 1923 in the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. Willcomb had come to the West as an engineer and in the summer of 1923 joined the Montana Highway Commission, overseeing the building  of roads on the reservation from 1923 to 1925. After meeting Bird Rattle a close friendship developed between Willcomb and him which lasted until the death of Bird Rattle in October 1937. (Klassen et al. 2000:191-2)

         Bird Rattle's panel, Writing-On-Stone, Alberta, Canada. Figure 7, page 196, Klassen                        et al., 2000.

“Within a year of their meeting, Willcomb had arranged to take Bird Rattle on a visit to Writing-On-Stone. Apparently, he had been told of this ‘place of mystery, where the ghosts live’ 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 audio recorded a narrative of the journey, apparently based on his original notes and letters. 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 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.” (Klassen et al. 2000:192-3)

Coso range, California. Photograph Paul and Joy Foster.

The example in the panel from the Coso Range in California by Paul and Joy Foster is another candidate for such attempts at interpretation. Although some of the elements are a little hard to make out what I see in it is; a large anthropomorph holding what might be an atlatl in his right hand with a projectile point superimposed over the end of it. Five more, carefully delineated projectile points are seen on the right side of the panel for a total of six. Additionally, six zoomorphs are illustrated, one overlapping the anthropomorph and five more on the left side of the panel. If this is not a “mighty hunter” bragging I don’t know what would be. I have been around hunters and fishermen enough to know their bragging when I hear it, or in this case see it. “Six animals with six shots.

Of course, such interpretation is not acceptable in Archeology, but it is fairly common in Art History, so I reserve the right to indulge in it periodically.

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Klassen, Michael A., James D. Keyser, and Lawrence L. Loendorf,  2000, Bird Rattle’s Petroglyphs at Writing-On-Stone: Continuity in the Biographic Rock Art Tradition, Plains Anthropologist, Vol. 45, No. 172, pp. 189-201.