Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Swelter Shelter, Dinosaur National Monument, Utah.

Some rock art contains evidence of alien visitors from outer space and UFOs? I first received this gem first hand when viewing some Fremont figures in Swelter Shelter, Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. Another party pointed to the figure illustrated above as proof of visitation by alien space travelers. This one takes a true believer to accept. If you actually believe that alien beings from outer space visit our planet in their advanced flying craft, well then I guess that this one might even make sense. The figure in this picture was pointed out as an alien visitor wearing his space suit.

Another version of this myth is that geoglyphs like the Nazca Figures in Peru must have been done so they could be viewed by people flying over in UFOs because they cannot all be completely seen at ground level.

For quite some time the leading figure in this movement has been Eric Von Daniken. He has claimed that he began studying the subject of evidence of ancient visitors from outer space in rock art as an attempt to disprove it, but that the evidence converted him to a believer. He has certainly done very well for himself as a convert.

My problem with this, aside from the problem caused by the fact that I do not believe in the reality of alien visitors at all, is the discrepancy of technologies. We are asked to believe that some alien technology exists that can bring visitors untold light years to check up on this backwater planet, and that the only way it is recorded is with rocks? Where are the talking, solid, 3-D holograms, powered by naquita generators, that they can use to explain the truth of the universe to us? Believe it or not I am a lifelong science fiction fan. I just do not want it mixed in with a field in which I am interested in searching for truths.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


The dying man and bison,
Lascaux cave, France.

Many years ago (20+) I had the priviledge of attending a lecture by the great Joseph Campbell. Arguably one of the intellectual giants of his age, his encyclopaedic knowledge in the field of mythology was unmatched. At the same time he was often careless in the application of that knowledge. Perhaps it was the case that he was so impressive that others hesitated to question his authority. In any case he threw a very wide net in his pronouncements, and often combined concepts that stretch the credulity of many serious scholars. On this particular occasion he shared with his audience a detailed analysis of the meaning of the well-known dying man composition from Lascaux cave, France. This panel combines the figures of an eviscerated bison with a prone human. The human is noticeably phallic, and is accompanied by what appears to be a stick with a bird on it plus a harpoon and broken pieces of something, perhaps another harpoon. Many viewers place a great significance upon the fact that the head of the prone human is roughly bird formed, like the head of the bird on the stick. At its simplest the panel can be assumed to illustrate a hunting tragedy wherein one or more hunters have attacked a bison and fatally wounded it. The bison has, however, also managed to kill one of his attackers. Someone must have survived to return to the cave and illustrate the incident in commemoration of the tragic event.

Campbell, however, had a very different explanation for this picture. Citing Australian Aboriginal ethnology he explained it as an illustration of a shaman's duel. He believed that the stick with a bird on the end was a shaman's staff and provided the confirmation of his interpretation. One of the shamans had shape-shifted, transformed himself magically into the figure of the bison. As the bison he had attacked and gored his opponent who lay at his feet dying. His opponent's form of attack had been killing by bone pointing (from between his legs). This was a form of murder or execution accomplished with a piece of bone that had been prayed over or otherwise ritually prepared. The executioner would then point this bone at the intended victim who would proceed to die. According to some reports the bone had to be pointed at the intended victim from between the executioner's legs. At this point the target of the spell would begin to sicken and die. The death could take a few days or even sometimes a reported few weeks but was believed to be inevitable. It also was sometimes reported that the victim had to know that this death spell had been cast at him for it to be effective.

That brings us back to Lascaux. Being able to turn oneself into a bison and goreing your opponent would certainly have been an effective tactic for the one shaman. But death by bone pointing does not seem to have worked well for the other shaman. Since it takes so long for the victim to die he had plenty of time to be killed in return by his opponent. And the bison has been eviscerated, his intestines are hanging out of a great abdominal wound. None of the ethnographic accounts mention a result like that.
Joseph Campbell was using his knowledge of world mythology to try to find the best match with the observed imagery. What I see as a phallic human figure he saw as the shaman pointing the killing bone from between his legs. The problem was that the myth and the images come from totally opposite sides of the earth, and are separated by at least 15,000 years in time. The odds against any possible connection between the myth and the imagery would be vanishingly small under those circumstances.

So what do I think it really is? Well, for me as for Joseph Campbell, the bird on the stick is perhaps the telling clue. It is not, however, a shaman's staff. It represents a spear thrower or atlatl and it was the hunter's weapon used to launch the harpoon that has wounded the bison. Numerous examples of spear throwers carved from reindeer antler with a decorative bird end have been found in excavations in the cave deposits of western Europe. I am convinced that the spear thrower and harpoon represent the hunting tools of the fallen hunter on the ground and were used to wound the dying bison. In other words I believe it is just what was originally assumed, a record of a tragic hunting accident. And the hunter's bird like head? No meaning at all, it is a very simple and almost stick-figure like portrayal with a quickly and simply formed head. Any resemblence is simply coincidental. Sometimes we need to be careful not to over-analyze.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


You cannot attend a rock art symposium, or take a tour with a group of people to visit a rock art site without hearing a whole load of strange interpretations about what they mean. I have already written about my skepticism toward the presence of ogam in North America, and my strong conviction that there are no maps in rock art panels. Under this category I will discuss a number of other popular interpretations that I have varying stages of skepticism about.
1. Frontal figures with their arms extended horizontally are all shaman figures: I was absolutely astounded to learn this when, viewing a rock art panel which included such a figure, one member of our party passed this learned statement on to the rest of the group. This is a prime example of the kind of gullibility that I am concerned with. On an earlier occasion someone had told this lady that gem of wisdom, and she, a true rock art enthusiast, believed it wholeheartedly. I have no doubt that some frontal figures with extended arms could be shaman figures, perhaps even the one she saw when she was originally told this, but all? Since rock art as we see it today was created by various unrelated peoples in different parts of the continent over many hundreds or even thousands of years, to believe that all images of one certain thing (standing frontal figures with arms extended, for example) all have inherently the same meaning, strikes me as preposterous.
2. LeVan Martineau could read rock art panel's meanings because he had deciphered the code: I find this one to be silly, although I must admit that a number of researchers whom I respect seem to treat the idea with varying degrees of belief. As I read his explanation of this ability which he possessed he had learned to read the imagery and symbolism of rock art panels during his training in codes and cryptography in the United States Army Intelligence Corps. Well, I too was in the United States Army Intelligence Corps and I can attest that they had no training that would have any bearing at all on rock art panels. Not only was most cryptography the province of the CIA and the National Security Agency, it was a generally mathematic process that dealt with letters and numbers, and had nothing to do with meanings of pictures.
3. Maps in Rock Art: As I mentioned above I do not believe in these so I will not go further into this one here, see my previous post of April 18, 2009, for my comments on this one.
One of my favorite stories about gullibility in respect to the meaning of rock art came from M. Jane Young in her book Signs from the Ancestors, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1988. Ms. Young overheard a guided tour for anglo tourists at a rock art site near Zuni and the Zuni guide gave the tourists his standard discussion for that particular site. One of the tourists told the guide that he had heard that all spiral petroglyphs represented the super-nova explosion of 1054 AD that created the Crab Nebula. Young then relates that she was back at that location the next year and heard the same guide explain to a group of tourists that the panel represented the supernova of 1054 AD that created the crab nebula. So who is this a commentary on, the Zuni guide or the tourists?
In approaching the question of rock art interpretation I recommend that a person adopt the attitude which I first heard explained by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway reportedly stated that an artist "needs to have a built-in crap detector." I recommend that for rock art researchers as well, although it would probably be more politically correct today to call it a healthy dose of skepticism.


3-Kings Panel, McConkey Ranch, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1989.

Central figure of 3-Kings
panel, McConkie Ranch, Utah.

Considering this question we have to define a portrait. To recognize what I call portraits in rock art I am looking for uniquely recognizable individual details in the portrayal that would have been recognized by that individual's friends and tribe or band members. In a world in which everything you own was hand made, one at a time, you would recognize a particular headdress, piece of jewelry, or shield, and you would know who that picture represented. This is not an attempted photographic likeness as we think of in portraiture, it is rather a picture of a figure that includes recognizable personal details as clues to the subject of the picture. The best example I have seen is the central figure in the 3-Kings panel, at McConkie Ranch in the Dry Fork Valley outside of Vernal, Utah. It represents the apex of artistic realism of the Fremont people of central and northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado. It is located high on a pinnacle of rock overlooking Dry Fork valley.

This marvelous figure has a number of these identifiable details. The most obvious is his shield, the design of which has been carefully delineated and would have been instantly recognizable to anyone who knew the subject. In fact, a Fremont shield was found in a cave in Utah with a very similar design to the one on this figure. The actual shield and its two companions are known as the Pectol shields after the name of their discoverer. The second individual detail
that would have been recognizable to his friends is the flicker feather headdress he wears on his head. An actual example of one of these headdresses was recovered archaeologically in nearby Dinosaur National Monument.

Other individually identifiable traits of this figure include the details of his clothing and jewelry which, like the aspects mentioned above, would have been individually hand made and unlike anyone else's.

Many cases of portraiture are known of course in Plains Indian ledger book art. These images, created by warriors to record their deeds and those of their companions often use name glyphs to identify a particular individual. One possible example of this in rock art is a spotted cat petroglyph found in conjunction with an equestrian warrior on a cliff in southeastern Colorado (my comments on this panel will be a future post).

Other interesting elements are the anatomical details portrayed in his legs such as the patella and identifiable muscle masses. Putting all of this together I cannot think of this figure other than as an intentional portrait of someone known very well to the artist.

This figure also displays another interesting detail. When seen from the ground below the figure appears in normal proportion. When observed from a vantage point near its height the figure is seen to be vertically elongated out of proportion (as seen in the photo above). This suggests that the hand that produced the work was guided by instructions from someone down below at ground level. I enjoy imagining a Fremont Indian artist and his young apprentice creating the portrait of an important man of the band or tribe. The young apprentice forced to climb the rocky crag with his tools and materials where he took direction from the master who stayed down on the ground below shouting to him to "make that line higher, no, a little down from there." The result appears in realistic proportion from below on the ground, but is elongated vertically when viewed from a raised viewpoint.

The key to the importance of the subject portrayed can be seen, not only in the high quality of the portrait, but in the fact that it is both petroglyph and pictograph. It was pecked into the rock and then painted as well and remaining traces of the paint can still be seen in the image, especially on his shield.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Supposed Ogam inscription in Crack
Cave, Baca County, Colorado.

Yes Virginia, in spite of all the skepticism, doubt, and confusion, there is such a thing as Ogam. Originally a Celtic alphabet it was used from perhaps the 4th to 10th centuries A.D. in Britain, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. A few hundred inscriptions survive there on stone monuments, mostly comprising personal names. As a script ogam consists of clusters of lines related to a vertical or horizontal ground line, longer and shorter, perpendicular or angled, above, below, or all the way through the ground line. These clusters or groupings of lines serve as the symbols of the alphabet, thus any language could be written in ogam although the language used in the known authentic inscriptions is Celtic.

Is there ogam in North America however? Theories about ogam inscriptions in North America are usually based upon the "voyages of St. Brendan", an Irish monk who supposedly crossed the sea to visit a "paradise" with a group of brother monks from Ireland in the 6th century A.D. St. Brendan, who was born in 484 A.D. and died in 577 A.D., and his companions were believed to have made a seven year voyage to the west from Ireland. Theories that the "paradise" they found was North America have been expounded to account for the presence of ogam inscriptions in North America. Some inscriptions in the eastern United States have been explained as the work of St. Brendan and his party, while inscriptions in the western U.S. are attributed to diffusion of this method of writing to native peoples from the party of Irish monks.

The main problem is that the inscriptions found in North America appear to be a variant of ogam that was not used in the British Isles. It appears to consist only of consonants and to contain no vowels. Archaeologists point out that there are no traces of that ancient celtic presence in North America (although the true believers have a couple of sites on the east coast of stone arrangements that they claim are celtic). This is countered by the true believers that the inscription panels are themselves identifiable artifacts of the truth of the theory.

There is one other aspect of this question that needs to be considered; what about all the panels of groupings of lines that are not readable by proponents of North American ogam? I believe that the believers would answer this with the position that the unreadable panels were made later, after the period during which the "real" ogam inscriptions were made, and that they represent Native American attempts to capture the magic of writing by imitating it.

What is my position on this? Well, I for one do not believe in the Celtic connection or North American ogam. I turn out to be one of the skeptics who just need a whole lot more concrete evidence before that theory will look plausible. So what do I believe that these panels of arrangements of lines actually are? I do not have the faintest idea other than probably some sort of count or tally. I have tried to compare some of them to natural cycles such as days, weeks, or months that would indicate recording the passage of time but I have had absolutely no success in this. My best personal guess is that they must be a count or tally. Perhaps they are the number of buffalo killed in a tribal hunt?

A good and close friend of mine, Bill McGlone (now deceased), was one of the primary proponents of the theory of North American ogam inscriptions. He had the faith that I do not, and Bill could believe in it because he could read it. As some other proponents have done Bill had learned enough ogam and a little basic Celtic and could find words (without vowels remember) in some of the inscriptions. In a couple of instances he and his co-researchers actually found inscriptions that they could translate, and then use that to make a prediction that could be checked against their translation. At one location known as Crack Cave in Baca county, near Springfield, Colorado, Bill read one inscription that he said predicted a significant alignment of light at sunrise on the day of the equinox (illustration above). At dawn on one spring equinox I sat deep in Crack Cave and saw a spot of light from the rising sun hit and illuminate a symbol carved into the cave wall that can be appears to be part of a sun disk.

Did this prove the accuracy of his theories, or was it just a coincidence? Many people see proof, I fear I still find it to be a coincidence that light hit that spot at that time. I will admit, however, that was a coincidence that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I saw it. The basic difference in believing or not believing in this theory, as in so much of the study of rock art, seems to be based upon faith. You are either a believer or a skeptic. I am a skeptic. On many occasions Bill and I would sit up until late at night (early in the morning) debating all sides of these questions.
No, I am not a believer in the presence of authentic ogam in North America. I am, however, totally grateful for all of the people with more imaginative theories in the interpretation of rock art. They keep the field from being too staid and academic and add interest to the study, just like all the spice adds interest to the pan of lamb and sets a good vindaloo apart from a pan of sauted mutton. So keep those theories coming in folks, I, for one, am grateful.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


This question refers to the ethics of appropriating rock art images to one's own credit or profit. I have absolutely no qualms concerning profiting from publishing a book or paper about rock art as long as the originator does not take personal credit for the rock art. My criticism concerns someone painting rock art images or otherwise producing these images for decorative purposes and acting as if they were their own original creations. I first observed this about twenty-five years back with a painter who painted rock art images and presented them as her original creations. While her paintings were very well done and displayed a considerable degree of care and skill, her subject matter bothered me.

In one respect I think this might be considered a question of plagiarism which we all decry in contemporary original art and literature. There is no problem with citing other material, but it is unethical (even somtimes illegal) to present this material as your own creations. The American Rock Art Research Association has addressed this question by adopting a set of Guidelines for Artists Using (Rock Art) Images

The other aspect that bothers me is based upon the fact that we do not know the original "meaning" of so much of the rock art. Most people would not support the use of our religious images out of context. Think back to the many examples of public outcry of blasphemy against so-called art exhibits that use christian or other religious symbolism out of context. (The recent example of a political cartoon that included an image of Mohammed with a turban that morphed into a nuclear bomb. That image provoked public outcry throughout the Islamic world including rioting and destruction). While some rock art images are recognizably religious images, many of them are simply unknown as to the intention or the creator. Not knowing the "meaning" of a rock art image to its original creator how can we know that we are not committing the same offense in our use of it?

A similar situation (although not including rock art imagery) can be seen in the events following the rediscovery of the sunken Titanic. While the original expedition that located it took only photographs and attempted to maintain secrecy of the location out of respect to it as a grave site, subsequent expeditions to visit the site did take artifacts (which is grave robbing). This led to the exhibition of those artifacts which is presently touring museums. The latest outrage is an announced "Ghost Hunters" program on cable television which will spend a night in the Titanic Exhibition to discover the ghosts that accompany the artifacts. We can see that for each step in the process standards have been relaxed to another degree, often with good intentions, but the result has led to desecration and disrespect of the dead.

So how do we judge the ethical position of an artist using rock art imagery? I do not think that there is an easy answer because so much of it depends upon the actual intention of the person recreating the rock art image, as well as the intention of the person recreating it. For artists and artisans who are sincerely passing along the imagery that they love and respect I feel there is no problem at all. For those who are somehow taking credit for imagery that they only copied I am much less comfortable.

There is another form that has become ubiquitous in the modern west. The popularity of Kokopelli has led to the creation of millions of little knick-knacks using the form in cute little images; images of Kokopelli on a bicycle, Kokopelli as a skier, you know the kind I mean. I have even been given a few examples by friends as gifts myself. Since Kokopelli is a sacred figure to the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest these cute little knick-knacks are irreverent to say the least, and perhaps blasphemy to their eyes (although perhaps, from another viewpoint, there might be an analogy between Bicycle Kokopelli and their Mickey Mouse kachina).

So, is it ethical to profit from rock art? If you have taken the best photographs of a particular panel I believe you deserve to profit from them. If you have written the definitive report of a rock art location, style, etc., I believe you deserve to profit from that. If you have created a text that broadens knowledge of rock art and leads to increased sensitivity and understanding, I believe you deserve to profit from it. As we begin to stray closer to a situation where the artist is taking creative credit for the material, I begin to experience discomfort in that situation.

Rather than making unilateral declarations of how things ought to be, I would hope that we who are fascinated by rock art can promote comment and discussion which might serve as a forum for these matters.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Petroglyph identified as a "map of the
area" in southeastern Colorado.

This question first manifested itself to me as I stood in front of an archaic abstract petroglyph panel in southeastern Colorado a number of years ago. The landowner identified the collection of connected wavy lines as a representation of the canyon we were in and its adjoining canyons. This did not seem wholly acceptable to me then although it took me some time to have my thoughts come together on the subject. As they did there turned out to be three basic reasons why the idea of a petroglyph map does not make sense to me:

1. The Native Americans who occupied this land were an oral culture, accustomed to pass on learning vocally. There are examples in ethnographic literature of Native Americans drawing maps, but only at the prompting of anglos. Reports do tell us, however, of many examples of knowledge about an upcoming trip being passed on as a verbal description, even with marks scratched on the ground, but never as a permanent record. It has been stated that Australian Aboriginals actually encoded knowledge of the locations of resources in their mythology.

2. The residents of any specific area need no maps. They know their land as well as I know my own back yard. They know intimately where to find water, where and when food resources are likely to be available, and where natural resources can be found.

3. You do not give your maps to potential enemies. As I said above our people need no maps, and anyone else is a potential enemy and invader. It makes absolutely no sense at all to place a permenent map where they can find it and profit from it.

This is not to say that there are not geographical factors involved in the meaning and placement of some rock art. Just that I do not believe there are any examples of maps as we define them, a visual image intended to convey information of the relative placement of features in the landscape, and to help the viewer locate them.

(These reasons also apply equally to the question of often identified "water marks" that many anglo enthusiasts feel passionately about. You know where your water supplies are, and it makes no sense to mark them for others who might be potential enemies. )

Careful analysis of examples of rock art maps published in the past have tended to bear this out. One example I have seen consists of a pattern of pecked dots which the writer stated that by marking them on a transparent overlay one could then orient it on top of a contour map and the spots marked springs in the surrounding area. One has to ask how the Native American who pecked the dots got his copy of the contour map in the same scale to correctly place the marks. Another example of a paper published about a map of a stretch of river in Utah had to actually overlook the main tributary of that stretch of river in order to reach that definition.

Although I have yet to see personally a convincing example that meets the strict definition of a map I am open to further consideration on this question. I do accept that by modifying your definition of a map one might be able to squeeze in a few of the examples that have been so defined.