Sunday, December 27, 2009


It is unavoidable that students of rock art try to connect the images that they see with specifics such as who made it, when, and why? As we approach the historic period another goal is to attempt to connect the rock art images with specific historic instances. Historic period rock art has a fascination all of its own as we can often know considerably more about what we see painted or carved into the rock. Inevitably when considering rock art connected to specific identifiable historic events the subject will eventually come around to the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, one of the most momentous events to the Anglo society of the time of conflict between Native American societies and the new culture of Americans. While there are numerous examples of Native American art about the battle they have been found in ledger books on painted robes for the most part. There has seemed to be little rock art on the subject of the battle of the Little Bighorn.

I know of a couple of rock art panels that can be associated with the Little Bighorn battle. Linea Sundstrom has published a petroglyph panel in her 2004 book Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art of the Black Hills Country, that she speculated can be directly associated with the famous battle.

Petroglyph panel 39FA79, from p.111,
Linea Sundstrom, Storied Stone,
Indian Rock Art of the Black
Hills Country
, 2004.
Panel 39FA79 in South Dakota appears to have a coup counting record at the top showing the deeds of a warrior with “a large plume atop his head and a round-headed war club” (p. 110-11). She suggests that the whole panel might illustrate the events of one individual’s life, and it shows a number of heroic deeds and hand-to-hand combat. In two of the instances illustrated he is shown next to a feathered staff. “This indicates membership in a warrior society, perhaps the Strong Heart Society”.

Sundstrom continues to describe the lower portion of the panel. “At the bottom of the panel are four long rows of sketchy human figures. Their position indicates that they were “taken,” that is, killed. Because part of the panel is missing, it is impossible to make an exact count, but more than 200 must have been in the drawing before weathering erased some figures.” Rows of guns are included in the composition suggesting a large number of captured weapons as part of the same event. “At the left end of the top row of corpses is an eagle like that seen on U.S. Army insignia. Because no single Indian ever killed that many U.S. soldiers, this count must represent a collective event of killing – probably the battle of the Little Bighorn.”

Historic Inscription,
G. Crook, 1876, drawn by
Laurie White, 09-20-09
The second instance that I have of rock art that might be considered to have been connected to the battle of the Little Bighorn was described in a posting I published on this site on October 8, 2009, a historic inscription that appears to be of Brigadier General George Crook. Crook was commanding the column from the south that left Fort Fetterman on May 29th toward what was hoped to be the final solution to the Plains Indian problem. Crook commanded ten companies (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, I, L, and M) of the 3rd Cavalry, five companies (A, B, D, E, and I) of the 2nd Cavalry, two companies (D and F) of the 4th Infantry, and three companies (C, G, and H) of the 9th Infantry, marching toward the Powder River area.

On June 17 Crook’s column had been surprised by Crazy Horse and 500 warriors on the Rosebud River and turned back, forcing them to retreat. Thus, they were not in a position to support Custer and the 7th cavalry on June 25 when they attacked the combined tribes’ large village on the Little Bighorn. Larry Loendorf has recorded an inscription that reads “G. Crook, 1876” and he reports that it is in a location that Crook can be assumed to have had access to on this expedition. Loendorf will be very interested in any information that might be provided about other historic inscriptions of General George Crook, and in addition, we will be eager to see any other rock art that might seriously be considered to be somehow connected to the events of June 25, 1876.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


In Plain Sight: Old World Records in Ancient America , Gloria Farley, 1994, ISAC Press, Columbus, Georgia.

This ambitious book recounts a lifetime of work by Gloria Farley, an influential proponent of North American epigraphy, the discovery and decipherment of petroglyphic inscriptions in languages from the Old World here in the New World. Believers are convinced that evidence exists for untold numbers of visitors prehistorically to North America from many different parts of the world including Europe, the Mediterranean, and Africa. Beginning with a fascination with the Kensington Rune Stone, Farley went on to discover and record petroglyph inscriptions in western Oklahoma, northeastern New Mexico, and southeastern Colorado, that she believed proved prehistoric visitation by parties of explorers. Reading this book really brought me a sense for her passion for the search, and her excitement at new discoveries and inscriptions. I came away with a strong feeling for her dedication to the importance of her quest.

The inscriptions discovered by Farley were, for the most part, deciphered by Barry Fell. Fell’s work is considered by most professional archaeologists to be seriously flawed, he worked almost entirely from drawings, photographs, and latex peels that his many followers (including Farley) sent him. It has also been proven that in many instances he (or the original site recorder) altered the images to improve his results. I have visited a number of the sites deciphered by Fell (and some of the sites recorded by Farley) and can attest to examples of inaccuracies and alterations in the images. It would be unfair to Farley, however, to blame her for all of Fell’s flaws. Unfortunately she believed in him implicitly.

Evaluating the claims in her book is really the only fair way to deal with her work. According to my notes, in her book Farley claims discoveries of inscriptions in 31 various Old World languages and/or scripts. I say languages and/or scripts because in many cases the inscription as deciphered is claimed to be a inscription in one language, but written in a different script. So for instance, an inscription might be read in the language of Phoenicia, but written in Numidian script. Also, there are a couple variants of Ogam found, and deciphered, which do not exist in the Old World (where most linguists insist the only real Ogam is found). As for subject matter, inscriptions cited in her book made references to at least 28 Old World deities from Scandinavia, through Europe and the Mediterranean, to Africa. Perhaps the hardest part for me to accept is the unbelievable proliferation of supposed evidence based upon the slenderest of influences. In case after case finding a petroglyph that looks like a symbol from some Euro/African script is later referred to with “we now know that travelers from (wherever) were here”. In one example a stone from Oklahoma that was carved with a horizontal line and three symbols was declared to actually be a Lybian boundary marker with a four-word sentence on it in the Egyptian language, but written in Numidian script. One rock shelter near the Colorado/Oklahoma border was found to have inscriptions in it written in Iberic, Numidian, Egyptian, and Ogam.

In my opinion Gloria Farley was a victim of the thrill of discovery, which can be quite addictive. The adrenaline rush of a good discovery on the scale of these supposed discoveries leads one to really want to repeat the experience. In the real world, however, scientific and historical discoveries are expected to live up to certain standards of proof. If you don’t subject your supposed discoveries to these standards of proof you don’t have to worry about being wrong. One really good rule of thumb to apply is “Occam’s Razor”, the dictum that states that the simplest, and easiest interpretation is most likely to be the correct interpretation. So we have to ask ourselves, what is easier to believe? Either an anonymous Native American carved an abstract symbol (or a doodle) on a rock face in southeastern Colorado, or a party of ancient Celts were in western Oklahoma and southeastern Colorado and they left proof by carving an inscription into a cliff in the language of the Numidians written in the script of ancient Carthage. Why Champollion’s decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in the 1820s is beggared by comparison! I know how I have to interpret this, how do you?

This book review was originally written for the Nov./Dec. online newsletter of the Pleistocene Coalition and can be seen with minor editing changes on that organization's website.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Back in 1982 I had the privilege of meeting H. Marie Wormington on a few occasions. During the course of one conversation we discussed her theory of why so many 6-toed footprints (and 6-fingered hand prints) can be found in rock art.

The doyenne of 4-corners archaeology, Marie had joined the Denver Museum of Natural History staff in 1935 as an archaeologist, and was the curator of archeology there from 1937 to 1968. Her knowledge and opinions were extremely influential in early studies of prehistoric cultures of the 4-corners and Great Plains.

She explained to me that her theory had been based upon the circumstances of a Fremont culture burial that she had excavated many years before. This particular male skeleton was found with valuable grave goods suggesting a VIP, and she found that this person had displayed polydactylism - the man had six fingers. She had put those two facts together and theorized that perhaps the presence of the polydactylism had contributed to the person’s status. We frequently hear that among Native American cultures physical and mental differences were looked upon as marking a person as special instead of being a cause for discrimination against them. Following this thought it only made sense that a person born with six fingers might have gravitated to a position of influence in the society, perhaps a shaman or medicine man. And then, to expand on that thought we have to ask who was most likely to have been commemorated in rock art?

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

It is often assumed that a hand print in rock art represents a person’s signature or identity and, if this is indeed the case, the six-fingered hand print or footprint represents a particular important individual who possessed that trait. At Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, at the base of the cliff behind the magnificent ruin of Pueblo Bonito, traces of a small room can be found with a series of six-toed footprints carved into the cliff face which served as the back wall of the room. These footprints were carved up the cliff face as if emerging from the ground. This might possibly represent the residence of some powerful shaman, a member of the group but residing somewhat separately, identified as someone with great spiritual power by polydactylism, and thought of as emerging from the underworld to the fourth world in which we all reside.

Room behind Pueblo Bonito, Chaco
Canyon, NM. Photo: 1994, Peter Faris.
6-toed footprints behind Pueblo
Bonito, Chaco Canyon, NM.
Photo: 1994, Peter Faris.

Given the separateness of the residence, the polydactylism, and the footprints shown as if walking up the cliff from underground, it is a possibility that we should consider.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Flying head petroglyph, Leo Petroglyph Site,
Leo, Ohio. Photo: 1985, Peter Faris.

Among the mythology of many Native American tribes can be found an unlikely monster consisting of a gigantic flying head with large horns or antlers.

An Assiniboine version of this myth mentions two travelers (brothers) who were exploring the new land and after a long while came to the Rocky Mountains. From there they were carried eastward by a whirlwind to the seashore. They met an old woman who fed them. She sacrificed some corn to the water and invoked the appearance of the Wan-wan-kah. Immediately afar off appeared an object moving over the surface of the water, approaching with great rapidity, which soon arrived at the place where the travelers stood. The being thus conjured up had the head of a man, though of monstrous size, and out of which projected two horns as large as the largest trees.

This Assiniboine legend of a monstrous flying creature with an emphasis on the gigantic horned head echoes the flying head mythology of other peoples. A petroglyph has been reported at Paint Lick Mountain in Tazwell County, Virginia, consisting of a shape “with two feetlike appendages”. This petroglyph has been connected with the Flying Head myth of the Cherokee, Iroquois, and others.

At the Leo Petroglyph site in southern Ohio one of the petroglyphs on the horizontal ground level rock surface is a round head with horns and other appendages. It is easily identified as a head by facial features including two eyes with eyebrows and a mouth. The head wears two large curved bison-like horns with another pair of spike horns between them. Under the head appears an apparent dewlap under the chin (directly below the mouth) as from an old bison bull of great power and dominance. The suggestion of flying ability is given by the presence of a pair of small bird feet appended under the head (remember the feet mentioned in the Flying Head myth). Normally one would assume that flying ability would have been indicated by wings but as the myths of the flying head do not mention wings the image would be incorrect if equipped with them. After wings, however, perhaps the second most identifiable feature of a bird may be its feet and adding them to the head image confers bird-like powers on the head – the ability to fly. Given its particular features this figure would seem to be an unequivocal representation of the mythical flying head.

The petroglyphs at the Leo Petroglyph site in southern Ohio are carved on a ground level flat rock surface of what appears to be gray limestone. A large kiosk-like roof has been erected over them to protect them from weathering but there were no provisions for lighting when I visited there. To make the petroglyphs more visible in the dim light someone had painted them in with black paint, a terrible practice to those concerned with rock art conservation, but in this case it was what made photographic recording possible.