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?