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.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Mortendad ruin cavates,
Pajarito plateau, NM. 2003.

Back in 2003, friends Bill and Jeanne Gibson guided us into Mortandad Canyon near Los Alamos on the Pajarito plateau, in New Mexico. Our goal was a large pueblo ruin that they call Mortandad Ruin, and the considerable rock art to be found there. The Mortandad ruin is a cavate ruin with the remains of rooms that had been carved into the soft volcanic tuff cliff. Many of these rooms had been subsequently plastered with adobe mud and decorated with pictographs.
View from cliff top, Mortendad ruin,
Pajarito plateau, NM. 2003.

We had clambered up to near the top of the cliff finding and photographing petroglyphs and I had worked my way out near the point when I looked out upon a spectacularly beautiful view of the valley below with an oncoming storm approaching from across the valley. I found myself thinking that it was an ideal spot from which to view approaching weather. Turning back to retrace my steps I found myself looking directly at the cloud altar petroglyph (illustrated). The round circle next to the cloud altar appears to be a case of defacement with a steel chisel, perhaps in an attempt to remove and collect whatever image had originally been there.
Cloud petroglyph (next to vandalism),
Mortendad ruin, Pajarito plateau, NM. 2003.
I realized that I had stumbled upon a perfect weather watching station. With its view toward the prevailing weather direction and marked by the cloud petroglyph, this seems to me to make perfect sense and could be expected from a culture that subsisted on precipitation-dependant agriculture. Indeed, weather themes are common in Ancestral Puebloan rock art of the Rio Grande area. Two examples from the Galisteo Dike in the Galisteo basin south of Santa Fe are included. With little or no irrigation for most of their agricultural Ancestral Puebloan farmers depended to a great degree on precipitation for the water to raise their crops. Much of their religion and ceremonial life was devoted to encouraging the spirit world to send the water they needed.
Cloud and rain petroglyph,
Galisteo dike, NM.
Cloud and rain petroglyph,
Galisteo dike, NM.
I can easily imagine that if I depended upon precipitation to provide the food I and my family need, I would want to know of approaching rain so I could enact the rites to bring it to my fields. And if I lived in that pueblo in Mortendad canyon, I cannot imagine a better place to watch for the approaching rain than this point of land near the top of the cliff. I cannot know if that cloud petroglyph was part of those rites, or was just put there to mark the station, or just because clouds were on someone’s mind at that location. Its position there facing the valley and the prevailing weather seems significant however, and I privately am sure of the connection.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Owl petroglyph, Sieber Canyon,
Mesa County, CO, 1981.
Photo: Peter Faris.
Sieber Canyon, off of the Uncompaghre Plateau in Mesa County, Colorado, is a pretty isolated location with some amazing rock art, much of it from the Fremont culture. In this instance I want to look at a pair of owls included in the main Fremont panel in mid-canyon. They are cleverly abstracted with simplified bodies and features, and yet are very recognizable. The first has a face consisting of two circles for the eyes and a short vertical line between them representing the beak. The owl’s feathered body is indicated by double lines of dots in a “U”- shape beneath the face.

Dancing Owl petroglyph, Sieber
Canyon, Mesa County, CO, 1987.
Photo: Peter Faris.
The second Sieber Canyon owl is my personal favorite. Its face also consists of two eyes and a vertical line again representing the beak. Below those a couple of horizontal zigzag lines represent the body feathers. Below those a horizontal line represents the bottom limit of the torso, with two legs below that. The legs are simple lines and one is raised as if the owl is fidgeting or agitated, indeed we used to refer to this as the dancing owl.

Black and white drawing of dancing owl, Sieber Canyon,
Mesa County, CO. Drawn by Sally Cole from a field sketch
by Glen Stone.

The reason for this agitation can be found in the large snake just to the right, rising up over the owl’s head. From the way this owl is portrayed with the body ending above the slender bare legs I believe that the artist was portraying a burrowing owl.

Burrowing owl, Douglas County,
CO, 2007. Photo: Heather Pankratz.
This identification may be reinforced by ethnographic connections between burrowing owls and rattlesnakes in the southwest. If fact the relationship includes prairie dogs as well and is built on the fact that both burrowing owls and rattlesnakes can be seen in prairie dog towns crawling in and out of the burrows. In Hamilton Tyler’s wonderful book, Pueblo Birds & Myths, he related that the Zuni call the burrowing owl “the priest of the prairie dogs” and explained that these owls live “on peaceable terms with prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, and horned toads” (p. 161). I have always personally fancied that I could see a 16th century Spanish priest in the burrowing owl, with spindly bare legs showing below the hem of his ragged cassock. Both burrowing owls and rattlesnakes are frequently seen in prairie dog towns, the burrowing owls live in abandoned burrows, and the rattlesnakes can also shelter in burrows as well as prey on the prairie dogs. Tyler went on to record many different mythological roles for owls among Pueblo peoples, there are a number of owl kachinas, and roles in fertility, hunting, and even war, are played by owls.

These owls express the magic of Sieber Canyon for me. I have hiked in to Sieber Canyon three or four times in past years, and on two of those visits I scared up an owl which flew off as I dropped down into the head of the canyon. As you might imagine, my thoughts of Sieber Canyon are inextricably tied up with those owls, indeed I think of it as Owl Canyon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


THUNDER AND HERDS: ROCK ART OF THE HIGH PLAINS, by Lawrence L. Loendorf, Left Coast Press, Inc., Walnut Creek, California, 2008.

Dr. Lawrence Loendorf is certainly one of the most important figures in North American rock art research. A former president of the American Rock Art Research Association, since the late 1980s he has focused much of his research on the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site in southeastern Colorado. Larry has run recording projects on this extension of the US Army’s Fort Carson that set an extremely high standard for rock art field work. His studies have been ambitiously multidisciplinary models of how to collect and record data in the field and interpret data in the laboratory.
In writing this book Larry has displayed his depth of knowledge, and has tackled a project that most researchers would cringe at. The rock art of southeastern Colorado covers a period of a few millennia, and an amazing range of styles and types. These are often mixed up in large sites, with thousands of images that prove to be a veritable palimpsest of styles and times. Anyone who knows it well knows how daunting the task would have been. Most rock art researchers who have experienced the rock art of southeastern Colorado have fallen back on the ploy of simply describing sites and listing images. Larry, however, is not content to have just described styles and sites. In addition he has applied to this analysis an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the pertinent ethnography of the peoples who inhabited the area during historic times.
In Thunder & Herds he has tied the catalog of types and styles of rock art to the complicated sequence of population groups that lived in southeastern Colorado, and the people who just passed through in migrations. Applying the broad range and depth of his multidisciplinary field studies and analysis, he has produced what has to be considered one of the best books about regional rock art ever written, and has set the bar very high for students of rock art in the southeastern Colorado region and surrounding areas.

I have been involved in rock art studies in the area for three decades now and was around through the bulk of the controversy involving so-called Ogam inscriptions in southeastern Colorado. Although not personally involved in the controversy, I had friends on both sides of the argument, which, at times, grew quite public and heated. In my posting of Monday, April 20, 2009, THE QUESTION OF OGAM IN NORTH AMERICA, I wrote about the controversy of so-called Ogam inscriptions. I also confessed that I am not a believer, I do not accept the idea that ancient Celtic seafarers had somehow visited southeastern Colorado to leave a number of inscriptions in a vowelless Ogam that is unknown in their homeland. I had to confess, however, that I was unable to offer any competing theories as to these markings other than the lame supposition that they were some kind of unknown tally or count. Dr. Loendorf has, in this book, provided a highly plausible explanation for many of these so-called inscriptions. In Chapter 7 he has compared them to “rib-stones” of the northern Great Plains and his comparison is exceedingly convincing.

Additionally, he has shown exceedingly good taste in reproducing one of my field drawings of Hicklin Springs (5BN7), in Bent County. This does, however, bring up one error in his book. On page 28 he credits someone else with leading the 1994 recording project at Hicklin Springs (5BN7). In fact it was I who first proposed the Hicklin Springs recording project to the Denver Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society, I organized the planning and recruiting for that project. I applied for, and received a grant for supporting funding from the Colorado State Historic Fund. And I personally supervised each and every recording session during the course of the project. I cannot, however, blame Larry for making this error since he was clearly misinformed.

All in all, this book is a marvelous addition to any rock art library. It is a must for anyone with a personal interest in rock art of this area, and should be looked at as an extremely valuable example for publishing studies of the rock art of any region.