Sunday, December 27, 2009


It is unavoidable that students of rock art try to connect the images that they see with specifics such as who made it, when, and why? As we approach the historic period another goal is to attempt to connect the rock art images with specific historic instances. Historic period rock art has a fascination all of its own as we can often know considerably more about what we see painted or carved into the rock. Inevitably when considering rock art connected to specific identifiable historic events the subject will eventually come around to the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, one of the most momentous events to the Anglo society of the time of conflict between Native American societies and the new culture of Americans. While there are numerous examples of Native American art about the battle they have been found in ledger books on painted robes for the most part. There has seemed to be little rock art on the subject of the battle of the Little Bighorn.

I know of a couple of rock art panels that can be associated with the Little Bighorn battle. Linea Sundstrom has published a petroglyph panel in her 2004 book Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art of the Black Hills Country, that she speculated can be directly associated with the famous battle.

Petroglyph panel 39FA79, from p.111,
Linea Sundstrom, Storied Stone,
Indian Rock Art of the Black
Hills Country
, 2004.
Panel 39FA79 in South Dakota appears to have a coup counting record at the top showing the deeds of a warrior with “a large plume atop his head and a round-headed war club” (p. 110-11). She suggests that the whole panel might illustrate the events of one individual’s life, and it shows a number of heroic deeds and hand-to-hand combat. In two of the instances illustrated he is shown next to a feathered staff. “This indicates membership in a warrior society, perhaps the Strong Heart Society”.

Sundstrom continues to describe the lower portion of the panel. “At the bottom of the panel are four long rows of sketchy human figures. Their position indicates that they were “taken,” that is, killed. Because part of the panel is missing, it is impossible to make an exact count, but more than 200 must have been in the drawing before weathering erased some figures.” Rows of guns are included in the composition suggesting a large number of captured weapons as part of the same event. “At the left end of the top row of corpses is an eagle like that seen on U.S. Army insignia. Because no single Indian ever killed that many U.S. soldiers, this count must represent a collective event of killing – probably the battle of the Little Bighorn.”

Historic Inscription,
G. Crook, 1876, drawn by
Laurie White, 09-20-09
The second instance that I have of rock art that might be considered to have been connected to the battle of the Little Bighorn was described in a posting I published on this site on October 8, 2009, a historic inscription that appears to be of Brigadier General George Crook. Crook was commanding the column from the south that left Fort Fetterman on May 29th toward what was hoped to be the final solution to the Plains Indian problem. Crook commanded ten companies (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, I, L, and M) of the 3rd Cavalry, five companies (A, B, D, E, and I) of the 2nd Cavalry, two companies (D and F) of the 4th Infantry, and three companies (C, G, and H) of the 9th Infantry, marching toward the Powder River area.

On June 17 Crook’s column had been surprised by Crazy Horse and 500 warriors on the Rosebud River and turned back, forcing them to retreat. Thus, they were not in a position to support Custer and the 7th cavalry on June 25 when they attacked the combined tribes’ large village on the Little Bighorn. Larry Loendorf has recorded an inscription that reads “G. Crook, 1876” and he reports that it is in a location that Crook can be assumed to have had access to on this expedition. Loendorf will be very interested in any information that might be provided about other historic inscriptions of General George Crook, and in addition, we will be eager to see any other rock art that might seriously be considered to be somehow connected to the events of June 25, 1876.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


In Plain Sight: Old World Records in Ancient America , Gloria Farley, 1994, ISAC Press, Columbus, Georgia.

This ambitious book recounts a lifetime of work by Gloria Farley, an influential proponent of North American epigraphy, the discovery and decipherment of petroglyphic inscriptions in languages from the Old World here in the New World. Believers are convinced that evidence exists for untold numbers of visitors prehistorically to North America from many different parts of the world including Europe, the Mediterranean, and Africa. Beginning with a fascination with the Kensington Rune Stone, Farley went on to discover and record petroglyph inscriptions in western Oklahoma, northeastern New Mexico, and southeastern Colorado, that she believed proved prehistoric visitation by parties of explorers. Reading this book really brought me a sense for her passion for the search, and her excitement at new discoveries and inscriptions. I came away with a strong feeling for her dedication to the importance of her quest.

The inscriptions discovered by Farley were, for the most part, deciphered by Barry Fell. Fell’s work is considered by most professional archaeologists to be seriously flawed, he worked almost entirely from drawings, photographs, and latex peels that his many followers (including Farley) sent him. It has also been proven that in many instances he (or the original site recorder) altered the images to improve his results. I have visited a number of the sites deciphered by Fell (and some of the sites recorded by Farley) and can attest to examples of inaccuracies and alterations in the images. It would be unfair to Farley, however, to blame her for all of Fell’s flaws. Unfortunately she believed in him implicitly.

Evaluating the claims in her book is really the only fair way to deal with her work. According to my notes, in her book Farley claims discoveries of inscriptions in 31 various Old World languages and/or scripts. I say languages and/or scripts because in many cases the inscription as deciphered is claimed to be a inscription in one language, but written in a different script. So for instance, an inscription might be read in the language of Phoenicia, but written in Numidian script. Also, there are a couple variants of Ogam found, and deciphered, which do not exist in the Old World (where most linguists insist the only real Ogam is found). As for subject matter, inscriptions cited in her book made references to at least 28 Old World deities from Scandinavia, through Europe and the Mediterranean, to Africa. Perhaps the hardest part for me to accept is the unbelievable proliferation of supposed evidence based upon the slenderest of influences. In case after case finding a petroglyph that looks like a symbol from some Euro/African script is later referred to with “we now know that travelers from (wherever) were here”. In one example a stone from Oklahoma that was carved with a horizontal line and three symbols was declared to actually be a Lybian boundary marker with a four-word sentence on it in the Egyptian language, but written in Numidian script. One rock shelter near the Colorado/Oklahoma border was found to have inscriptions in it written in Iberic, Numidian, Egyptian, and Ogam.

In my opinion Gloria Farley was a victim of the thrill of discovery, which can be quite addictive. The adrenaline rush of a good discovery on the scale of these supposed discoveries leads one to really want to repeat the experience. In the real world, however, scientific and historical discoveries are expected to live up to certain standards of proof. If you don’t subject your supposed discoveries to these standards of proof you don’t have to worry about being wrong. One really good rule of thumb to apply is “Occam’s Razor”, the dictum that states that the simplest, and easiest interpretation is most likely to be the correct interpretation. So we have to ask ourselves, what is easier to believe? Either an anonymous Native American carved an abstract symbol (or a doodle) on a rock face in southeastern Colorado, or a party of ancient Celts were in western Oklahoma and southeastern Colorado and they left proof by carving an inscription into a cliff in the language of the Numidians written in the script of ancient Carthage. Why Champollion’s decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in the 1820s is beggared by comparison! I know how I have to interpret this, how do you?

This book review was originally written for the Nov./Dec. online newsletter of the Pleistocene Coalition and can be seen with minor editing changes on that organization's website.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Back in 1982 I had the privilege of meeting H. Marie Wormington on a few occasions. During the course of one conversation we discussed her theory of why so many 6-toed footprints (and 6-fingered hand prints) can be found in rock art.

The doyenne of 4-corners archaeology, Marie had joined the Denver Museum of Natural History staff in 1935 as an archaeologist, and was the curator of archeology there from 1937 to 1968. Her knowledge and opinions were extremely influential in early studies of prehistoric cultures of the 4-corners and Great Plains.

She explained to me that her theory had been based upon the circumstances of a Fremont culture burial that she had excavated many years before. This particular male skeleton was found with valuable grave goods suggesting a VIP, and she found that this person had displayed polydactylism - the man had six fingers. She had put those two facts together and theorized that perhaps the presence of the polydactylism had contributed to the person’s status. We frequently hear that among Native American cultures physical and mental differences were looked upon as marking a person as special instead of being a cause for discrimination against them. Following this thought it only made sense that a person born with six fingers might have gravitated to a position of influence in the society, perhaps a shaman or medicine man. And then, to expand on that thought we have to ask who was most likely to have been commemorated in rock art?

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

It is often assumed that a hand print in rock art represents a person’s signature or identity and, if this is indeed the case, the six-fingered hand print or footprint represents a particular important individual who possessed that trait. At Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, at the base of the cliff behind the magnificent ruin of Pueblo Bonito, traces of a small room can be found with a series of six-toed footprints carved into the cliff face which served as the back wall of the room. These footprints were carved up the cliff face as if emerging from the ground. This might possibly represent the residence of some powerful shaman, a member of the group but residing somewhat separately, identified as someone with great spiritual power by polydactylism, and thought of as emerging from the underworld to the fourth world in which we all reside.

Room behind Pueblo Bonito, Chaco
Canyon, NM. Photo: 1994, Peter Faris.
6-toed footprints behind Pueblo
Bonito, Chaco Canyon, NM.
Photo: 1994, Peter Faris.

Given the separateness of the residence, the polydactylism, and the footprints shown as if walking up the cliff from underground, it is a possibility that we should consider.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Flying head petroglyph, Leo Petroglyph Site,
Leo, Ohio. Photo: 1985, Peter Faris.

Among the mythology of many Native American tribes can be found an unlikely monster consisting of a gigantic flying head with large horns or antlers.

An Assiniboine version of this myth mentions two travelers (brothers) who were exploring the new land and after a long while came to the Rocky Mountains. From there they were carried eastward by a whirlwind to the seashore. They met an old woman who fed them. She sacrificed some corn to the water and invoked the appearance of the Wan-wan-kah. Immediately afar off appeared an object moving over the surface of the water, approaching with great rapidity, which soon arrived at the place where the travelers stood. The being thus conjured up had the head of a man, though of monstrous size, and out of which projected two horns as large as the largest trees.

This Assiniboine legend of a monstrous flying creature with an emphasis on the gigantic horned head echoes the flying head mythology of other peoples. A petroglyph has been reported at Paint Lick Mountain in Tazwell County, Virginia, consisting of a shape “with two feetlike appendages”. This petroglyph has been connected with the Flying Head myth of the Cherokee, Iroquois, and others.

At the Leo Petroglyph site in southern Ohio one of the petroglyphs on the horizontal ground level rock surface is a round head with horns and other appendages. It is easily identified as a head by facial features including two eyes with eyebrows and a mouth. The head wears two large curved bison-like horns with another pair of spike horns between them. Under the head appears an apparent dewlap under the chin (directly below the mouth) as from an old bison bull of great power and dominance. The suggestion of flying ability is given by the presence of a pair of small bird feet appended under the head (remember the feet mentioned in the Flying Head myth). Normally one would assume that flying ability would have been indicated by wings but as the myths of the flying head do not mention wings the image would be incorrect if equipped with them. After wings, however, perhaps the second most identifiable feature of a bird may be its feet and adding them to the head image confers bird-like powers on the head – the ability to fly. Given its particular features this figure would seem to be an unequivocal representation of the mythical flying head.

The petroglyphs at the Leo Petroglyph site in southern Ohio are carved on a ground level flat rock surface of what appears to be gray limestone. A large kiosk-like roof has been erected over them to protect them from weathering but there were no provisions for lighting when I visited there. To make the petroglyphs more visible in the dim light someone had painted them in with black paint, a terrible practice to those concerned with rock art conservation, but in this case it was what made photographic recording possible.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


On May 4, 2009, I wrote a posting about A POSSIBLE MASTODON PETROGLYPH IN SOUTHEASTERN COLORADO which presented an image that shows characteristics that lead some people to believe that it is meant to represent a mammoth or mastodon. Given that Paleolithic art in Europe and into Russia portrays mammoths and mastodons, and that people lived here in North America at a time that mammoths and mastodons still existed, and that these people are believed to have even eaten mammoth and mastodon, how can it be that there would not be any images of them in our rock art?

"Moab mastodon", Photo: Dell Crandall.

One example that has been frequently put forward as such a portrayal is the so-called Moab Mastodon in Utah, located near the Colorado River. This heavy-bodied quadruped certainly has thick legs like an elephant, and has what appears to be a trunk on the end of its head. For quite some time I have not been able to accept that this was actually a mammoth or mastodon, but my objection has been based upon very small details – it has toes (or claws). Proboscidians have no external toes, they have visible nails, but no external toes, and the Moab image definitely has toes (or claws). One alternate explanation for that image has been rather than portraying a proboscidian, the Moab image represents a bear, thick legs, claws (toes), and all. But how many bears have trunks?

National Geographic, Vol. 209 (2). Photo: Steve Winter.

The answer to that question has been that it is not a trunk, it is a fish that the bear has caught and is holding in its mouth. That would certainly explain it, but what is a fishing bear doing in the desert outside of Moab, Utah? Alaska yes, British Columbia yes, even the Pacific Northwest, but in Moab, Utah? In their February, 2006, issue, National Geographic magazine included a photograph by Steve Winter showing an Alaskan brown bear with a fish in its mouth. When I saw this photograph the plausibility of the explanation of the petroglyph being a bear with a fish in its mouth had been strengthened.

The real question is what kind of fish in the Colorado River would be that big? One possible candidate is the endangered Colorado Pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius, formerly known as the squawfish). Reports of individuals of this species have (according to Wikipedia) ranged up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) long and weighing over 100 pounds (45 kilograms).

So let’s give credit where credit is due – while we may not have a petroglyph of an extinct mastodon, we just might have a petroglyph of an endangered fish.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Rock art researchers have for years read ethnographic reports about Native American beliefs that some rock art images appear overnight, and we have consistently dismissed this as superstitious mythology.

Ute Indians believed that rock art was created by little people who may live within the rock itself. The Piikani Blackfoot believed that rock art would appear overnight to predict upcoming events, and they would often consult rock art panels about enemy presence, and to divine the success of war parties. They also attributed the presence of rock art high on the rock face, above the reach of people to birds. As no one could obviously reach high enough to create these images, they were obviously created by bluebirds under the direction of Thunder. The upshot is that we, of course, know better with our scientific acumen, and that there is no basis for a belief as obviously wrong as that rock art can appear overnight.

Fig. 1, 5LA8464, Box Canyon Site,
Photo: Peter Faris, 1999.

It is interesting, however, that all rock art researchers that I know agree that they have had experiences where they have noticed rock art that they had not seen before in places where they have looked many times, which seems to have appeared overnight. We know that differing light conditions affect the visibility and under the right conditions a pictograph that has faded to illegibility can sometimes be seen more completely, and a petroglyph made with shallow scratches can literally snap into visibility. An excellent example of this is represented by the Box Canyon Site, 5LA8464, in the Picketwire Canyonlands in the Purgatoire River Canyon, illustrated in Figure 1.

The Box Canyon petroglyph scene is shallowly scratched onto the darkened surface of a fairly hard sandstone cliff, and had been missed by numerous people walking past it for years. Then, on the right day, under the right light conditions, it was clearly seen by a park ranger as he passed the cliff face. I believe that the ranger was Mark Mitchell whom I have mentioned before in my August 20, 2009, posting about Armored Horses.

Fig. 2, 5LA8464, Box Canyon Site tracing,
reproduced by Mark Mitchell.

The panel was recorded in August, 1999, under the direction of James Keyser. Because the images consist of essentially shallow scratches on the hard rock surface it was virtually impossible to properly photograph. The method adopted was to trace the images on transparent plastic sheeting with a permanent felt marker. The final image consists of photocopies of these transparent plastic tracings reduced to the same percentage in the photocopier, and the resulting reduced-scale photocopies were pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, for further reduction through the same process. The final result can be seen in figure 2 as a whole scene in Plains Biographic style.

A group of Pawnee horsemen on the right have made a horse raid on a tipi village represented by the tipi on the left. Defending horsemen have taken at least one casualty represented by the mounted figure with an arrow in his chest in front of the tipi. The attackers, recognized as Pawnee by their distinctive moccasins with flaps at the ankles, and their hair in a queue at the back, are riding away with some dismounted horses representing the success of their raid. I have assumed that the victimized group are Cheyenne or Arapahoe because they inhabited the area in historic times.

As mentioned above, this complicated panel had been scratched onto the cliff face, probably between 150 – 250 years ago, but had not been noticed until the late 1990s. Why, one might almost imagine that it had appeared overnight!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Although they are not technically kachinas, the shalakos dance in pueblo ceremonials like the kachinas. Resembling giant birds, the Zuni shalakos are up to ten feet tall. While dancing rhythmically, they clack their beaks. They dance until near sunrise. The tall, conical, and long-necked for of the shalako with their long beaks was probably derived from the sandhill crane.

Zuni Shalako, p. 102, Hopi Indian Kachina Dolls
by Oscan T. Branson, 1992,
Treasure Chest Publications, Tucson.

Rock art depictions of the shalako kachina can be dated back to the 14th century but its recent history is more complex. In her book Kachinas In The Pueblo World Polly Schaafsma described the loss of much of the Kachina cult at Hopi. First through the efforts of the Spanish after their conquest of the southwest to eradicate native religions and supplant them with Christianity. This was conducted by the destruction of religious items and shrines, even religious leaders on occasion. Among Pueblo peoples this was manifested by burning kachina masks, costumes, and dolls, and outlawing the dances and ceremonies. Then in the nineteenth century Hopi was swept by smallpox epidemics which killed many of the elders who possessed the ceremonial knowledge necessary for the rites.

Zuni Shalako, by Fred Kobotie, plate 36,
Kachinas in the Pueblo World, Polly
Schaafsma, 1994, University of New
Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
This was apparently the case with the Hopi shalako. Its first recorded appearance at Hopi was in 1870 and its second was in 1893. At the 1893 reappearance a Hopi informant stated that their Shalako ceremony had not occurred for over 30 years. This Hopi shalako was based on the Zuni Sia Shalako, but the ceremony was Hopi based upon reconstructions from memories. Shaafsma relates this story on pages 142-3 of her book. She also related how the lost Hopi Shalako returned to Second Mesa through the efforts of the great Hopi painter Fred Kobotie who painted a reproduction based upon two tablitas he found in the basement of the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts, and he recognized them as belonging to the Hopi Shalako based on his memories of descriptions by his grandfather.

Shalako petroglyph, West
Mesa, Albuquerque, NM.
Photo: 1988, Peter Faris.
Shalako petroglyph, Galisteo Dike,
NM. Photo: 1988, Peter Faris.
Shalako petroglyph, Galisteo Dike,
NM. Photo: 1988, Peter Faris.
Shalako mask pictograph, Village
of the Great Kivas, Zuni, NM.
Photo: Teresa Weedin.
Shalako depictions are found in rock art in the area of the Western pueblos near both Hopi and Zuni, and are also found in the Rio Grande area. The examples shown here are petroglyphs of shalakos from west of Albuquerque and from Galisteo Dike east of the Rio Grande and south of Santa Fe, and a beautifully painted contemporary pictograph of shalako from the panel of kachina masks at the Village of the Great Kivas near Zuni.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Back in the early 1990s I organized and supervised a rock art recording project with the Denver Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society. We were recording petroglyphs at Hicklin Springs (5BN7) in Bent County, Colorado. In the process of planning this recording project I looked at some of the other recording projects that had been published, at that time a limited number. In looking at those models, including the marvelous New Mexico Rock Art Recording Field School, I found that one common characteristic was the use of a trait list for the rock art recorders. I believe that the idea behind trait lists was the desire for accuracy, a way to standardize identifications of imagery. I was quite uncomfortable with the use of trait lists, as I found in many examples I actually disagreed with the identifications on the list myself. I still believe that as a future researcher of rock art if I were performing a computer search of images I would rather decide for myself what a particular symbol represented than to trust that identification to someone I do not know, with qualifications I do not know. Indeed, I found examples I personally disagreed with where petroglyphs of phallic male figures seen from the front were identified as “lizard men”.

Petroglyph panel at Hicklin Springs,
5BN7, Bent County, Colorado.
Photo: 1994, Peter Faris.

I did find, however, that in cases where a style had been described I had to adhere to the traits of that style in our rock art recording project. Our recording project at Hicklin Springs required deciding stylistic designation in many cases that conformed to descriptions that had been previously published for the area. Some of these were designations such as Purgatoire Petroglyph style, Rio Grand style and Plains Biographic style. One of the most frequently used descriptions was Abstract style petroglyphs. This had been proliferated to a point of silliness with terms like Curvilinear and Rectilinear Abstract styles trying to distinguish between groups of symbols that, in most cases, combined both curvilinear and rectilinear elements. One of the most egregious examples was the identification of “Great Basin Abstract Style” rock art in a location some 700 miles and at least two different cultural complexes away from the Great Basin. In order to simplify this I decided on simply using the term “Abstract Style” with any modifiers coming in the description farther down on the form. In attributing imagery to a specific style you have to show that the details of the image meet the descriptive criteria of that style.

Tarantula, Picketwire Canyonlands,
Las Animas County, Colorado.
Photo: 1993, Peter Faris.

One panel of images that we found at Hicklin Springs was obviously a group of “Abstract Style” figures with nothing about them that is in any way identifiable as representative, and when that panel was recorded it was duly noted as such (see illustration). Roughly contemporaneous with that recording project I was involved in a number of trips visiting rock art sites in Southeastern Colorado, especially in the Picketwire Canyonlands. On a couple of those trips I ran across the exceedingly large insects shown in my other two photos.

Tarantula, Picketwire Canyonlands,
Las Animas County, Colorado.
Photo: 1993, Peter Faris.

Centipede, Picketwire Canyonlands,
Las Animas County, Colorado.
Photo: 1994, Peter Faris.

To me these illustrate the potential problems of fitting images into style designations and trait lists. It struck me then that the panel of abstract images from 5BN7 looks as much or more like the large arthropods I saw just a few miles from that panel as they look like other petroglyphs that fit the designation of Abstract Style. So here is the dilemma for rock art recorders. To name or not to name – that is the question. In order to organize data we tend to prefer things named and classified, but how can we know that they were named correctly?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Back about 30 years or so rock art recording was much less sophisticated and technical than it has become since. It was also less effective and often caused serious damage to the rock surface. Rubbings required pressure on the rock face and often bled chemicals through to the rock surface. Photographic recording was often done with materials applied to the petroglyph to enhance the contrast in the photo. The most egregious example of that I know of is in the canyon of the Purgatoire River in southeastern Colorado where a line of petroglyph characters was carefully painted in with aluminum paint to show up well in photos. One very popular technique was the creation of a silicon latex or rubber peel, or mold taken by painting the liquid latex on the surface. This was peeled off the rock after curing and then used as a mold to make casts of the petroglyph with plaster. One problem with this technique is that it all too often pulled portions of the rock surface away too, irreparably damaging the petroglyph. As somewhat of an aside, I have seen one site where some moron tried to make a plaster cast of a petroglyph, and didn’t even know enough to use a release agent on the rock surface. The plaster stuck, of course, and was then obviously chipped off by hand with results you can imagine.

Fig. 1 - Scan of shield figure petroglyph,
input on computer screen.
Photo: Tim Urbaniak.

I received some truly exciting information and pictures from Tim Urbaniak at Montana State University in Billings, Montana, about a new technique of three dimensional recording of petroglyphs that does not require any touching of the rock surface, let alone adding material to it. Tim is a doctoral student, and has spent the last decade exploring applications of technology to archaeology and historic studies as the director of the MSU Billings Archaeology Field Team.
The recording was done with a Polhemus FastSCAN Scorpion unit. Tim has found it to be accurate to about 1/3 millimeter. A handheld unit contains two cameras and a laser unit which sweeps the rock face when the trigger is pulled while the cameras record the resulting sweep from two different angles. The resulting signals are analyzed with software which provides a detailed record of the distance to any point on the rock surface. Figure 1 shows the resulting scan pattern on the computer monitor screen. The data can then be used to generate a three dimensional image of the surface in the computer as shown in Figure 2.

Fig. 2 - Scan data result processed, shown
on computer screen. Photo: Tim Urbaniak.
The best part comes with the final option offered by this digital technique. The computer can also use this data to recreate a three dimensional facsimile of the surface using rapid prototyping techniques. Figure 3 shows a resulting reproduction in ¼-scale in (I presume) Tim’s hand. This rapid prototyping might be done using a milling machine to carve the shape into a block of material, or with other techniques which build the shape up with layers of cut paper or by selective hardening of liquid plastic cast in thin layers. Many other methods can be imagined as well, the point being that once the original scan has been done and the digital recording is made, it can be used in many different ways and preserved digitally for future developments.
Fig. 3 - Shield figure petroglyph reproduced
with rapid prototyping. Photo: Tim Urbaniak.
Think of it, a virtually perfect, permanent, three dimensional record, made with no touching of the rock face, digitally preserved for future possibilities. Thank you Tim!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Setting sun with sun dog (parhelion) on the left,
Denver. Photo: Peter Faris, 1998.
Sun dogs (parhelia) are a particular type of ice halo which produces a colored patch to the left and right of the sun, 22 degrees or more distant and at the same distance above the horizon as the sun itself. Best seen and most conspicuous when the sun is low, they are not rainbows. The Blackfeet knew them as “when the sun paints his cheeks”. According to The Old North Trail, Life, Legends and Religion of the Blackfeet Indians,by Walter McClintock, the Blackfeet believed that “when the sun paints both his cheeks” it is a warning that severe cold is coming, and that “when the sun paints his face on the forehead, chin and both cheeks (four Sun Dogs), it is a warning that a chief will soon die.”
Setting sun with 22 degree halo and sun dog,
Denver (the sun is behind the tree
on the left). Photo: Peter Faris, 1995.

Although they are fairly common, especially in northern latitudes, they are often overlooked because people just don’t look for them and they are not noticed unless extremely bright.

Three Rivers, New Mexico.

Photo: Peter Faris, 1998.
Parhelia would be expected to be portrayed in rock art as a sun sign with two or more spots added outside the perimeter of the sun sign. This example, which can be found at the Three Rivers petroglyph site in New Mexico, consists of the normal southwestern concentric circle sun symbol surrounded by a ring of 16 dots which may represent multiple parhelia (with a little exaggeration thrown in). In his book Rare Halos, Mirages, and Anomalous Rainbows and Related Electromagnetic Phenomena, William Corliss presents examples of multiple sun dogs with examples of up to eight cited. I would expect that a rock artist who had observed such an example of multiple parhelia could be motivated to reproduce it as the sun symbol surrounded by many dots as in this example. It certainly should be considered a possibility.

Another excellent book on atmospheric phenomena is Robert Greenler's, Rainbows, Halos, and Glories, 1980, Cambridge University Press, London, New York.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


The descriptive term of “sport” in the natural world is used to define an animal that is somehow different or non-typical for its species. According to Webster it is an “animal or plant that shows an unusual or singular deviation from the normal or parent type; mutation”. I have discussed elsewhere my opinion that in a culture that endows all of nature with spirit power, the sighting of a unique animal - a sport - would be interpreted as a spiritual occurrence by the witness.

Carrizo Creek, Baca County, CO.

Along Carrizo Creek in southeastern Colorado there is a remarkable petroglyph panel that includes three very strange animals. On the right side is a deer with a head of antlers that has 27 or 28 points depending on how you count it – definitely a sport. The topmost animal of the three appears to be a desert bighorn sheep with partially curled set of horns, and another set of horns growing out of the first set, and another set growing out of that set, etc., etc., etc. These stacked sets of horns climb up the rock face and disappear over the top. Between those two animals is the third which can be interpreted as a Push-me-pull-you, a quadruped with an antlered head at each end. This animal has a fairly normal head on the left side, and what appears to be another head with large, looping horns at the other end. There are a couple of other quadrupeds on this panel but they seem essentially normal.
Carrizo Creek (close up), Baca County, CO.
I had wondered for many years at the possible meanings of the animal with the 28-point antlers. Not unrealistic enough to be dismissed as a whole fantasy, but certainly not totally accurate and realistic it seemed. Then one day, while in the waiting room at my dentist’s office, I was browsing through an outdoor magazine and ran across an article about deer hunting which told about a deer hunt that had bagged a non-typical buck. This article mentioned that the Boone and Crockett Club, which maintains the list of records for animals taken by hunters has a category for non-typical (or sport) deer. Indeed, visiting the page for non-typical Mule or Blacktail deer on their website, you will find a picture of a set of deer antlers with 28 points, just like the deer on Carrizo Creek. Linea Sundstrom has mentioned the possibility that such an image might be a record of an unusual animal. Could the petroglyph actually be a picture of a real deer seen, or even bagged, by a Native American hunter – could this panel be a prehistoric Boone and Crocket register? And even if that explains the deer with the 28-point antlers, it does not address the other two figures.

In his book Thunder and Herds: Rock Art of the High Plains, Lawrence Loendorf has proposed (p. 138) that some figures with outsized or exceedingly complicated antlers have shamanic purpose. Loendorf stated; “The antlers of a number of quadruped figures resemble nets as much as they do antlers and, on some figures, the net-like antlers have replaced the figure’s head entirely. Since, in reality, the antlers of deer captured by net hunting are invariably entangled in those nets, it is easy to appreciate why antlers and nets might have become combined in the hunter’s mind and substituted for each other in an instructional rock art panel.” This also seems to be a possibility. In addition to these there will be a certain number of people who will want to credit hallucinogenic plants, and the entoptic images crowd as well.

One other possible motive for these sorts of exaggerations would be to emphasize the trait of the animal that the exaggerated organ is believed to represent. In the case of phallic figures, whether human or animal, if the phallus is exaggerated we have absolutely no trouble in crediting that to an intended emphasis on fecundity and sexuality. If the example is a bear with an emphasis on its claws or teeth we automatically assume that the meaning has something to do with the fierceness and danger represented by that animal. Well, just like the bear’s claws and teeth are its weapons, the antlers of the deer, and the horns of the bighorn sheep, are their weapons. Perhaps these are just an attempt to portray the greatest and most macho of each of these species, perhaps with spiritual meanings.

As for the Push-me-pull-you, other than vague hints of trying to show more than one aspect of a creature in a single image, such as its physical presence and its spiritual meaning at the same time, I haven’t the faintest idea - do you?

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Rock art researcher and expert Dr. Lawrence Loendorf has recently recorded a historic inscription which reads “G Crook 1876” from a location in an area where Crook was known to have been that year. He reports that “it may be legitimate and represent General George Crook the famous western Indian fighter”. Larry is very interested in trying to find other examples of inscriptions of General Crook “to see if there are matching attributes”.

"G Crook 1876" inscription field sketch.

General Crook was figure of great importance in the history of the later years of the Indian Wars in the West. A petroglyph panel in Canyon Pintado in Moffat County, Colorado, has been identified by locals as “General Crook’s Horse” (see below). According to local historian Hartley Bloomfield, the petroglyph was created by a Ute Indian who had scouted for General Crook and commemorated it with this image. Also, according to Mr. Bloomfield, the markings on the side of the horse had been confirmed as a horse brand which would be consistent with General Crook’s time and situation.

"General Crook's Horse",
Canyon Pintado, Colorado.

If you know of any other inscriptions (or maybe have heard rumors of them) from regions where General George Crook could have campaigned or passed through on his travels please respond in the comment box below, and be sure to include contact information so Dr. Loendorf can contact you personally. This is your opportunity to play a part in recovering information from an important era in the history of the West, and to collaborate with a bona fide rock art expert in this study. Send us your comments.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009



Heiligenschein, or holy light, is a subtle, yet amazing phenomenon in which observers facing away from the sun see their shadows with a lighter glow around their head than the basic background tone.

Dew heiligenschein, photo by the author. Victoria, B.C., 1995.

Wikipedia describes it as an “optical phenomenon which creates a bright spot around the shadow of the viewer's head. It is created when the surface on which the shadow falls has special optical characteristics. Dewy grass is known to exhibit these characteristics, and creates a Heiligenschein. Nearly spherical dew droplets act as lenses to focus the light on the surface beneath them. Some of this light 'backscatters’ in the direction of the sunlight as it passes back through the dew droplet. This makes the antisolar point appear the brightest."

Opposition effect halo in dead grass,
photographed by author, Aurora, CO,
February 2009.

"The opposition effect creates a similar halo effect, a bright spot of light around the viewer's head when the viewer is looking in the opposite direction of the sun, but is instead caused by shadows being hidden by the objects casting them.”

Figures with rayed headdresses, or
heiligenschein. Vantage, WA,
photographed by the author, 1983.

These phenomena are believed to be the cross-cultural cause of commonly portraying holy figures with a halo or spiritual glow around their heads so commonly found in the history of western art. If this was true for a number of religious beliefs world-wide why would we not assume that Native Americans would have also noticed this phenomenon and also portrayed it in their art. Rock art images that show figures with arcs or rays around their heads are usually identified as wearing headdresses, and I am sure that this is usually correct – but always? Would not an effect as striking as heiligenschein be just the sort of thing that we might expect to be recorded as a miraculous or spiritual event? If I were a Native American on my vision quest, and suddenly one morning I saw my shadow, cast by the rising sun and outlined by the bright glow of heiligenschein, might I not be justified in assuming that something powerfully spiritual had happened to me? And would I not want to record that marvelous event?

Heads with rayed headdresses, Yakima,
WA, photographed by the author, 1983.

As I said above we see reports of rock art figures with full headdresses, but we do not always know whether those cultures wore full headdresses. Some of our more psychically inclined colleagues see those same figures as displaying auras but this is a phenomenon that I have yet to see evidence for. I do think it that it is time that we try to explain the various features of rock art imagery based upon scientific truth when we can find it, and both heiligenshein and the opposition effect are scientific phenomena that I have both seen and photographed. I believe we need to keep it in mind as a possibility.

A beautiful book on atmospheric phenomena, optical and otherwise, is Robert Greenler, Rainbows, Halos, and Glories, 1980, Cambridge University Press, London, New York. Illustrated with many photos and with explanations of the optics behind them, it may have insights into some rock art imagery otherwise unexplained.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Chimney Rock (left) and Companion Rock
(right), Colorado. Photo: 2009, Peter Faris.

Companion Rock (left) and Chimney Rock
(right), Colorado. Photo: 2002, Peter Faris.

High on a ridge above southwestern Colorado are the rock towers of Chimney Rock (on the left) and Companion Rock (on the right) at Chimney Rock Archaeological Area. On July 28, 2009, I published a post about a pecked rock from Chimney Rock which incorporates what have been identified as fossil trackways. Chimney Rock is itself a fascinating location with a fascinating story behind it. Archaeoastronomers have recorded a number of astronomical connections here, including a lunar alignment that takes place on the 18.6-year lunar standstill cycle.
Chacoan great house at Chimney Rock
Archaeological Area, Colorado. Photo:
2002, Peter Faris.

That this was an important location in prehistory is indicated by the presence of a Chacoan great house located a little below the top of the bluff. It has been suggested that this was built to house priests from Chaco Canyon who had moved here because of the astronomical alignments, and who dominated the ancestral pueblo inhabitants of the area through their religious monopoly and perhaps military power as well.

University of Colorado astronomer J. McKim Malville obtained tree-ring dates from the Chimney Rock pueblo that showed that the two major episodes of construction there clustered around two northern lunar standstills that occurred around AD 1076 and AD 1093. Malville has proposed that Chacoans had noticed this effect at Chimney Rock at the earlier lunar standstill in AD 1057. That sighting would have been only three years after the Crab nebula supernova of AD 1054 which according to Malville might have first stimulated Chacoan focus on astronomical phenomena. He believes that they built the Chimney Rock pueblo primarily for astronomical observations and their related ceremonies.
Poqangawhoya, eldest twin war god.

Palongahoya, younger twin war god.

According to mythology these towers serve as the homes of the Hopi Twin War Gods (Poqangwhoya and Palongahoya), and through history (and probably prehistory) they have been ceremonially called forth by their people whenever needed. Park interpretive staff members tell of an occasion in 1941, just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when a group of Hopi elders and religious leaders showed up at Chimney Rock and performed the rites to call the Twin War Gods forth to assist the United States during World War II. These twin gods are also important to the Navajo people who know them as Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water.

Offering at Chimney Rock, Colorado.
Photo: 2002, Peter Faris.

During the prehistoric Pueblo period this location was near the northern border of their sphere of influence. During the Chacoan period it was also a northeastern colony of Chaco Canyon as can be seen from the construction of Chacoan style masonry. Later, after the coming of the Navajo this was part of the area known as Dinetah, the Navajo homeland.

Both the Ancestral Pueblo peoples and the Navajos had mythology concerning the significance of Twin Heroes who killed monsters and made this world safe for their people. Their continuing relevance is attested to by the offerings that still appear tied to trees in the forest near the ridge that bears the twin pinnacles and the ruin.