Friday, May 29, 2009


In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which he introduced the phrase “the medium is the message”. By this he meant that understanding or perception of any message is inevitably influenced by the characteristics of the medium that the message is presented in. I take this to be his way of describing what I have called the inherent content of any message. That part of what can be learned from any expression of human creativity is to be found in the physical properties of that expression and the tools and materials used to produce it.

McLuhan was basically talking about the modern development of electronic media in his thesis, but these precepts can obviously be expanded to consider any medium used for expression. In my interest in Native American rock art we have images produced in a medium that is as opposite from McLuhan’s modern electronic media as we can get. Another of McLuhan’s ideas is that these modern electronic media will inevitably lead to the “global village”. McLuhan sees this as an intensely heightened human awareness made possible by the instantaneous availability of information everywhere at the same time. It was his hope that this would lead to a common sense of worldwide responsibility and enlightenment. The phrase global village is now used to metaphorically describe the Worldwide Web and the Internet which McLuhan prophesied. I do not know that he forsaw the exact outcome that the worldwide web has given us, but he expected computers and electronic media to develop something of that nature.

This is obviously a huge difference from the conditions of the societies that created rock art. Far from being part of a global village, most of the societies responsible for rock art were insular and saw the world in an “us against them” fashion. Also, far from resembling the instant and ephemeral nature of information on the worldwide web, rock art seems intended to be for the ages, given the durable nature of the media.

I was never completely comfortable with McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”. While I accept that the medium is certainly part of the message, the Inherent Content in the message, McLuhan seemed to ignore the Implied Content part of the message, the actual communication intended by the communicator. I have to respond to McLuhan that the medium is really only part of the message.

Marshall McCluhan's influential book is available through this link:

Friday, May 8, 2009


Back around 1980 when I first began studying Native American rock art interested students in archaeological study programs were forbidden from trying to figure out the "meaning" or content of rock art. The dogma of the time was that there were just too many variables and that looking for meaning would be a waste of time, or worse, could provide misleading or inaccurate results. Coming from a background of art history, however, I was used to the idea of trying to understand a work of art, and used to applying a number of criteria in the process of analysis.

The first criterion would be that we are all human, and that there are very many things that we have in common, irrespective of cultural differences. These commonalities give us an innate ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, sort of an application of empathy, as it were.

The second criterion is that we do have considerable knowledge of many cultures through ethnography, archaeology, mythology and history, and that this knowledge contains many of the clues necessary to approach some understanding of the meaning of a work of art. If we have ethnographic records of the mythology of a culture, and if the images at a rock art site display symbols that seem to refer to that mythology, then an attempt to understand those images by applying our knowledge of the mythology only makes sense.

The third approach to understanding a work of art is a concept that I formulated back in the 1970s, that of Implied Content vs. Inherent Content. Implied content being the intended meaning of a symbol or work of art. The message that the original artist was trying to convey, or the interpretation given to that symbol or work of art by later viewers. Inherent content is, on the other hand, the knowledge that can be extracted from the basic physical attributes of the symbol or work of art. Factual information about its location and orientation, materials, size, and other quantifiable data that can be derived by studying the image itself.

Inherent content could be found in the materials used to produce the image. If it is a painted image (pictograph) you can analyze the materials in the paint and make judgements about the artist's knowledge of the resources in his area, you can also make estimates of the amount of work required to produce the amount of paint used. By combining the figures for the amount of work required to produce the materials for that size image with an estimate for the amount of work required to actually produce the image, we can get an estimate for the total effort invested and thus, make guesses as to the depth of motivation for the effort. Similar estimates may be made for petroglyphs with measurement of the hardness of the rock and the amount of rock removed by pecking or incising the image. For this we need to assume that the originator would have been willing to go to a lot more trouble and work to create an image for an "important" reason (spiritual, etc.) than for a trivial one (doodling).

Various estimates on the amount of material removed can be hazarded by careful measurements, including depth measurements. A contour gauge can provide readings on depth, width, and shape of the groove in the rock. Hardness of rock can be easily determined by using a set of Moh's Hardness points, available at scientific supply stores. A simple mathematical action involving the figures for hardness and amount give a figure that we can relate to that motivation. Other inherent content might relate to microscopic examination which could tell us information about tool materials and use.

This is all to point out that there is much that we can learn from rock art without any clues at all to its content, and if we can apply ethnographic knowledge of its creators to the analysis we can often learn a surprising amount about its "content" as well. We just might be smarter than we think we are.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


November 12, 1833, meteor
storm over Pennsylvania,
contemporary woodblock print.

On the night of November 12-13, 1833, the skies were lit by a storm of meteors. This entered the records of Anglo astronomers as an extreme manifestation of the annual Leonid meteor shower, but was remembered by Native American observers as the "Night the Stars Fell". The Leonid meteor shower is an annual display, which occurs in, mid-November and is usually a rather sedate display (Moore 1965:209). This annual show is caused by material from comet Tempel-Tuttle. Roughly every thirty-three years, however, the display is extreme.

Estimates of the frequency of meteors in this storm run in the neighborhood of tens of thousands per hour. Among the preponderance of people who did not expect this occurrence the range of responses would have run the gamut from wonder to terror. Among Native Americans the night the stars fell has been remembered in historical records, especially in the winter counts produced as records by the tribes of the Great Plains.

Lone Dog Winter Count,
Lone Dog, Yankton Lakota,
collected in 1876.
The pictogram for 1833-4 is low
in the picture, to the left of center, comprising
a crescent moon surrounded by stars.

The first Winter Count known to Anglos was Lone Dog’s Winter Count, which started with the year A.D. 1800-01. Lone Dog was a Yankton Lakota who painted his record on a buffalo robe, starting in the middle and spiraling counterclockwise outward. His Dakota name was Shunka-ishnala, which translates as dog-lone. Lone Dog was not of sufficient age in 1800 to have started painting this count. Either he inherited this project from a predecessor or he gathered his earlier traditions from tribal elders and worked back. Lone Dog’s record for the winter of 1833-34 shows a cluster of red spots around a black crescent moon (seen in the lower left quarter of the illustration) and represents the meteor storm of November 12, 1833. The Lone Dog calendar was collected in the fall of 1876 by Lt. H. T. Reed of the First U. S. Infantry, while he was stationed at Fort Sully in Dakota Territory, just North of present Pierre, South Dakota. “Reed used black and red ink to trace the pictographs onto a square of cotton cloth, working from a duplicate of the buffalo hide calendar of Lone Dog. The cloth copy traced by Reed was used as the basis for the image of Lone Dog’s calendar seen in Mallery’s “A Calendar of the Dakota Nation”. The cloth was photographed and then superimposed onto a buffalo robe, thus re-creating the original winter count kept by Lone Dog. The present location of Reed’s copy is not known, and the photograph in Mallery’s papers is the only known image of it." Many various copies of Lone Dog’s Winter Count are know in various media, on hide, cloth, and paper.

This event turned out to be a boon for students of Native American art because it was such a significant event that it was used to portray that year in almost every known winter count. This means that there is a single, known fixed point that can be used to align other winter counts and allow students to extend the scale in both directions.

So, what does this have to do with rock art? I cannot believe that an event which had such an impact on the Native American cultures would only have been pictured in winter counts. Polly Schaafsma believes that only half of the Navajo star ceiling panels were created before the date of the Night the Stars Fell. This means that the other half would have been created later. Given its impact is it not reasonable to assume that many of the latter star ceilings would represent that amazing night?

Star panel, Picture Canyon,
Baca County, Colorado.
Photo: Mike Maselli.

Beyond that, as we know the interpretation of rock art records from the past can be modified or changed by later cultures, according to their interests or needs. After the night of November 12-13, 1833, I am pretty sure that anyone who saw a rock art panel with recognizable star images would have associated it with The Night the Stars Fell. So that might not have been the original intended meaning of the rock art panel, but it could well have been believed to be the meaning of the panel when interpreted by later cultures.

So now we have the question of what does a rock art panel really mean, and to whom? If a petroglyph that had been created with a specific intended meaning by an early culture, but was generally understood by a later culture to have a different meaning, what does it mean? Does it carry the old meaning, the new meaning, neither, or both? I believe that in total, it has to be considered as to now carry both meanings.

A very interesting book on this subject is The Year the Stars Fell: Lakota Winter Counts at the Smithsonian.

Another interesting book on the astronomical knowledge and beliefs of Native Americans is Stars of the First People: Native American Star Myths and Constellations.

Monday, May 4, 2009


One perennial question in the study of rock art in North America is the possible presence of images of extinct paleolithic megafauna. Various suggested images of mammoths and mastodons have been publicised but none of these have been accepted by the field. In 2002 a discovery in southeastern Colorado added another potential contender to the field.
Possible mastodon petroglyph,
southeast Colorado, Photo:
Mike Maselli.

In March, 2002, a previously unknown petroglyph was discovered by Mike Maselli and a companion while visiting a large petroglyph site in southeast Colorado. Located on a detached boulder about ten feet from the cliff face that holds all of the other known images at the site, it is obscured by vegetation growing around it.

Possible mastodon petroglyph,
southeast Colorado.
Photo by the author.

In a visit to the site in May, 2002, the author rephotographed the image which he located with the help of directions from Mike Maselli. On this visit later in the spring the vegetation had come out and shaded and partially obscured the image. The image itself measures a few inches wide and appears to be completely repatinated suggesting considerable age.

Possible mastodon petroglyph,
southeast Colorado, rotated
90° clockwise, and enhanced on photo.

This image is not portrayed on the cliff like the others at this site, but sits on a separate block of stone, out away from, but facing the cliff. It is pretty much surrounded by a tree which has grown in close around it. As it is oriented now the image would be described as looking upward at the sky. It is, however, quite easy to imagine a scenario in which erosion and/or the pressure of growth from a small tree could have turned it the 90° counter-clockwise out of proper orientation.

If it is an elephantid portrayal, it shows the beast's head from a large ear forward. The facial details are somewhat problematical suggesting that if there is a trunk, then the beast has no tusks. Paleolithic elephantid expert Larry Agenbroad could find no traits in this image that would convince him that it was a mastodon or mammoth. At the same time it is almost harder for many to see it as something else. The question must be considered open for now.

Friday, May 1, 2009


Spotted cat petroglyph in context
with equestrian warrior, and close-up of
spotted cat petroglyph.

This spotted cat image is found at a wonderful petroglyph site in southeastern Colorado. Pecked into the cliff apparently in conjunction with an equestrian warrior it may represent that warrior's name glyph. My personal interest in the image, however, is in the speculation of the identity of the cat itself. The cat is definitely phallic (and thus I assume a full-grown adult) and has a long tail. Historically, the possibilities for spotted cats in this area are limited to bobcat or lynx, and baby mountain lions. The phallic nature of this cat seems to indicate that it must be an adult which should rule out the baby mountain lion. Its long tail and lack of ear tufts rule out the bobcat and lynx.

Spotted cat on model tipi, Little Rock, Southern
Cheyenne, 1904, collected by James Mooney,
owned by the Field Museum, Chicago.
Photographed at the Buffalo Bill Historical
Center, Cody, Wyoming.

So what kind of cat is this? Other examples of spotted cat imagery can be located in Native American art. One that can be pointed to is the image on the painted model tipi (above), owned by the Field Museum, Chicago, which was collected in 1904 by Smithsonian ethnologist James Mooney and was displayed at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center at Cody, Wyoming, when the photograph above was taken. Another example I have seen is a carved stone pipe shaped as a spotted cat, attributed to the Mississippian culture. That carved stone pipe has been identified as an ocelot, which is one of the possibilities for identity of the spotted cat. The closest report of an ocelot sighting that I have been able to locate was somewhere along the Texas/Oklahoma border which might fall within about 100 miles from the petroglyph site. The other possibility for a long-tailed spotted cat is the jaguar, sightings of which are still reported irregularly throughout the southwest. In either case (ocelot or jaguar), they are now extinct through much of their former range in the southwest, and even in prehistoric times were probably quite rare. This suggests that the sighting of one of these animals was a significant event, worthy of reproducing on your tipi, your pipe, or on the cliff.

The possibility that the spotted cat on the cliff in southeast Colorado being the equestrian warrior's name glyph also makes a certain sense. If one were seen by a young warrior on a vision quest it would certainly be commemorated. It might be commemorated by becoming part of his name, and it might be commemorated by recording on his tipi or other belongings, or on a cliff. All in all, it seems reasonable to assume that this spotted cat, ocelot or jaguar, was placed here as this lucky warrior's special name glyph.