Tuesday, July 28, 2009


One of my areas of interest for some time has been the pursuit of evidence of knowledge and awareness of fossils in the mythology of Native Americans and the art with which they illustrated those myths. Their observations of fossils in the landscape demanded explanations, and they inevitably developed a mythology that explained their existence. In fact, John Feliks* has proposed that the origins of rock art may have originally been inspired by seeeing fossils in the rock.

Block of stone with carved lines at the right end,
fossil trackways are visible on the rest of the surface
of the block. Chimney Rock Archaeological Area,
Colorado. Photo: Steven Main.

At the Colorado Rock Art Association annual symposium on May 7, 2005, Steven Main presented a paper about a rock with pecked lines found at the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area in southwestern Colorado. Markings purposely made on a movable object are referred to by the term mobiliary art.

Side view of the block of stone showing traces
of trackways on other layers. Chimney Rock
Archaeological Area, Colorado. Photo: Steven Main.

The interesting thing about this rock is that the obvious pecked parallel lines at one end of the rock are connected to a number of fainter markings meandering over the rest of that face of the rock. These fainter markings have been identified as fossilized Ophiomorpha trackways, the remaining trace left behind by an extinct crustacean on the sandy ocean bottom, preserved as the sand was consolidated into sandstone. Traces of more trackways can be seen in cross section on the side of the block of stone as well.

This block of stone displays an instance in which the natural markings of the fossilized trackways apparently inspired additional pecked markings to complete a design or pattern imagined by the prehistoric artist (again this would fit in with John Feliks’ theories of the origins of rock art having been inspired by seeing fossils in the rock). Main stated that his original impression of the rock image was its likeness to images of Tlaloc from the greater southwest, but that he had abandoned that possibility because of lack of evidence. My personal reaction to the rock is that the image resembles the foot or footprint of a bear.

Whether or not the fossil traces inspired the original idea of creating petroglyphs in general, it seems certain that these fossil trackways inspired the addition of the pecked parallel lines in this example, proving not only Native American’s awareness of fossil traces but also implying the connection between those fossils and some of their art.

I am grateful to Steven Main for allowing me to use his photos and information.

* John Feliks is an independent scholar researching early human cognition. Along with the science, he offers an inside perspective based on an extensive background in the arts. Feliks’ recent studies involve the language and mathematics capability of Homo erectus and other early people.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


About twenty years ago I was approached by the official of the Colorado Historical Society who oversaw the roadside historic marker program here in Colorado. He was interested in placing a new roadside marker in southeast Colorado along a road near the town of Springfield in Baca County to commemorate the large quantity of rock art in the area and wanted to borrow a number of pictures of rock art in the area to choose from. Since the nearest large concentration of rock art there is in Picture Canyon many of the images I submitted came from there. A number of others were generally from around southeastern Colorado.

In due course the pictures were returned to me and I was told that the project was in a planning stage and that I would learn more later. A short time later this employee left the Colorado Historical Society and I subsequently heard nothing else about the project.

Roadside historic marker rock art panel.

In 2008 the Colorado Historical Society hired a new State Historian, Mr. William Convery. I had since been elected to the board of directors of the Colorado Historical Society and I was in a Programs Committee meeting with Mr. Convery when he brought up the Roadside Marker program. I mentioned my experience and he generously offered to check the files and see what he could find out. Shortly thereafter I received the attached picture from him showing two of my photos and the text of the rock art historic marker that had, in fact, been created and emplaced.

The text about rock art that had been written for the marker reads:

“Judging from the sheer volume of rock art in this area, prehistoric Baca County was well traveled. Ancient inhabitants chalked and chiseled thousands of images on cliffs and boulders, leaving a fascinating record of the past. The petroglyphs (carved figures) and pictographs (painted ones) depict everything from humans and animals to abstract constellations of swirls, lines and dots. Rock art may have been left for any number of reasons: to mark trails, to record legends or events, to delineate hunting grounds or territorial boundaries, or to keep track of seasons. Ranging from a few thousand to a few hundred years old, the symbols are at once foreign and familiar; though their specific meaning is lost their humanity is timeless.

By sorting rock art images according to age and style, archaeologists can speculate about migration patterns, religious beliefs, and lifeways of ancient Coloradoans. The oldest etchings, dating to about 2,500 B.C., are nearly unreadable patterns of dots and dashes. Later glyphs contain more recognizable forms, though their meanings remain uncertain. According to local legend, some figures (including one in Picture Canyon) were used to mark the equinoxes. Unfortunately, Colorado’s rock art has degraded over time because of weathering and vandalism. Even well-intentioned visitors often damage images by touching them or taking rubbings. Though various measures have been explored to protect this fragile heritage, much of the rock art in southern Colorado has seriously deteriorated, not only greatly decreasing the odds of conclusive interpretation, but also of their survival”.
. . . . Text by Larry Borosky.

The dust bowl panel.

A second panel on the marker was devoted to the area’s history during the dust bowl and was illustrated with Colorado Historical Society file photographs.

I now think of this as my own personal monument to rock art. I have yet to actually see it in person, but it is highly satisfying to know it is there.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Grooves worn in the cliff by a tree,
Signature Rock, Boise City, OK,
May 12, 2006. Photo: Peter Faris.

On some occasions you will find wide, smooth abraded areas on a vertical rock surface that looks vaguely reminiscent of the ground-out basin of a bedrock metate, or a wide tool mark. These markings, however, were not always created by people. One natural phenomenon that sometimes produces these markings is rubbing by a tree trunk or limb that has grown in contact with the rock face and is moved by the wind. The most appropriate term for these would be dendroglyphs, from the Greek dendro (tree) but this term has already been applied to symbols carved into the bark of a tree. As a substitute I suggest using the Latin word arbor (tree) so these could be termed arborglyphs. Of course, if you are one of the people who calls the symbols carved into tree bark arborglyphs, then maybe they should be called dendroglyphs. In either case they are markings on the rock that were created by trees.

Grooves worn in the cliff by a tree,
Signature Rock, Boise City, OK,
May 12, 2006. Photo: Peter Faris.

I have seen examples of this phenomenon in a number of places. Although easily spotted while the tree that created them is still alive and in place, they can be much harder to recognize when the tree is gone. I have seen them on a number of surfaces with no sign of a tree within present reach. In one instance the mark was considerably higher on the cliff than the tops of the contemporary trees. A tree had produced the mark on the cliff so long ago that the valley bottom had eroded down a number of feet since that mark had been created. The species of trees that grew in that environment were not tall enough to reach that mark from the present valley bottom. So if you are viewing what looks like a metate or a large, wide tool mark on a cliff or other vertical rock surface, keep this in mind, it just might be a natural phenomenon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Front view, sculptured stone knob,
southeastern Colorado.
Photo: Peter Faris.

On a private ranch in Baca county in southeast Colorado there is a remarkable sculptured stone knob protruding from the cliff face. The oval stone knob is narrower at the bottom than at the top and it shows signs of being worked around the neck. Its location is pretty much directly below a small cave-like opening in the cliff. There are some visible striations in the worked area at the upper part of this knob which could have been caused by abrasion of pulling a rope back and forth or may have resulted from the process of reducing the size of the neck. Some lines engraved into the cliff to the left of this knob may be intended to indicate a body for the head-shaped knob. This is in an area where there is a large quantity of prehistoric rock art as well as historic inscriptions and the remains of homesteads so its age cannot be estimated by association. To the best of my knowledge there have been no archaeological excavations at this site to shed light on the question.

View of the stone knob from 45° to the side,
southeastern Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris.

Although I have absolutely no factual data to support this, my immediate reaction upon seeing this was to visualize it as a taxidermy form, picturing it with a deer head stretched over it, antlers projecting upward. It would probably also be sized properly for an antelope head and a desert bighorn as well, but it appears too small to be used with a bison head. In this imagined scenario I picture it in the flidkering light of a bonfire at some sort of nocturnal ceremony with the deer’s head mounted over it, appearing as if the animal were somehow emerging from the cave-like opening immediately behind it. This scenario is obviously influenced by Lakota mythology in which the animals are introduced to the world from underground by a divine being.

It would be fascinating to take a sample from the rock surface to submit to protein residue analysis for traces of contact with such animal hides. It would also be of great interest to see the results of archaeological investigation of the ground around it. While imagination is certainly no substitute for factual scientific knowledge, imagination is a very large part of what makes rock art so fascinating. Let’s remember to leave a little room for it.