Sunday, January 24, 2010


Perhaps the most remarkable example of rock art I know of is the Stone Lion Shrine of Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico. Carved from the volcanic tuff so prevalent in that region, there are two recumbent mountain lions, approximately life sized, lying side by side, surrounded by a circle of boulders. These are assumed to have been a hunting shrine for Puebloan peoples of the area, and are reportedly still visited by pueblo residents periodically as offerings can still be occasionally seen there.

Bandelier Stone Lion Shrine.

I have not personally made the hike to visit the Stone Lion Shrine, but there are photographs available that show it in two incarnations. In one version the stone lions, recumbent within their circle of boulders, are surrounded by a very neatly arranged ring of deer and/or elk antlers. The other version can be found at the web site of Stephen Lee where he presents his photographs of the same Stone Lion Shrine without the ring of antlers. If I had to guess I would say I have to believe that the ring of antlers was probably added by that earlier photographer to dress up the site.

Reproduction stone lions, Bandelier

National Monument, New Mexico.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1985.

During a personal visit to Bandelier about 25 – 30 years ago I was thrilled to find a pair of reproductions of the stone lions next to the visitor’s center. Obviously some early researcher had made molds from the original stone lions and later done castings of them which were used in that display. Although they lacked the ring of surrounding boulders they show the life-sized sculptures of the two stone lions in seemingly perfect detail. The original lions are carved from volcanic tuff which is relatively soft so they have eroded somewhat, and this was faithfully reproduced in the copies. You can see the features however of very leonine heads, bodies, and tails.

I have recently been informed that these reproductions were subsequently destroyed by park officials because of complaints from Pueblo peoples that having them where tourists could see them was sacriligous. Note, these were not the real images taken from the shrine, they were reproductions. How this destruction of the reproduction stone lions differs from the Afghanistan Taliban dynamiting of the world’s two largest statues of Buddha in March 2001 totally escapes me. This was also the destruction of works of art because of and religious intolerance.

Reproduction stone lions, Bandelier
National Monument, New Mexico.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1985.

The original lions are carved from volcanic tuff which is relatively soft so they have eroded somewhat, and this was faithfully reproduced in the copies. You can see the features however of very leonine heads and bodies.

These two stone lions are arguably the pinnacle of North American rock art as the best life-sized realistic stone sculptures I know of. Not the only ones in existence however. There is another stone lion shrine associated with Cochiti pueblo and reportedly significant to the inhabitants of Zuni as well. Originally also reported with two reclining stone lions, recent photos show it with only one lion now, and this has been damaged with the tail broken off. The carving on these two was much less realistic than the Bandelier lions; indeed some observers have thought they were lizards. Photos and some information on this site can be found at the blog of Travel Schlepp.

For those who think of Native American rock art as a few crude petroglyphs or pictographs the Stone Lions of Bandelier National Monument should be a real eye opener.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


It seems to be almost universal that people writing about petroglyphs assume that they are produced by indirect percussion – the use of a hammerstone to hit some form of chisel which carves the image into the rock surface. I have even seen a number of artist’s impressions showing a Native American holding some form of chisel against the cliff with one hand and holding the hammerstone in the other hand. Just a little reasoning tells us that this cannot possibly be correct. If such a stone-age culture wanted to build a chisel they would have to use a sharpened stone blade with a bone, horn, or wood shaft, assembled with lashings and possibly low quality natural adhesives.

Newton’s second law of motion (conservation of momentum) tells us that as much or more of the force from pounding on such a chisel with the hammerstone would be absorbed by that chisel than would be transferred to the rock surface. This technique would very quickly destroy the joints in the chisel leaving the rock surface essentially untouched (if the rock surface is soft enough, a deer or elk antler tine used as a chisel, a hard, tough material which would probably be successful because it would have no joints to fail under repeated impacts).

Bird Rattle carving petroglyph,1924, Writing-on-Stone,
Blackfeet, from James Keyser,Art of the Warriors
Univ. of UT Press, Salt Lake City.

It is obvious to anyone with any firsthand experience in carving stone and the required tools, that petroglyphs must have been created with direct percussion – hitting the rock surface directly with a harder hammerstone. Indeed I have found many of the hammerstones used to create petroglyphs lying on the ground at the base of the decorated rock or cliff. People with no first-hand experience generally assume that direct percussion is extremely difficult, requiring heavy blows, and that accuracy is very hard to achieve. This is, in fact, incorrect. Moderate, easily controlled blows are best, and they can be applied with considerable accuracy.

We must remember that much of the great stonework of the ancients was created in exactly this way. Egyptian stone for temples, pyramids, and obelisks was quarried from the bedrock by pounding with hammerstones. Mayan and Aztec architecture was created by pounding with a hammerstone, as was the cyclopean stone work of the Incas. Indeed, the multitude of Easter Island statues were quarried and carved with direct percussion of a hammerstone. With all of these marvelous examples why do we still question the ability of direct percussion to create the petroglyphs?

Hammerstone below petroglyph panel,
Wild Horse Draw, Canyon Pintado, CO.
Photo: Peter Faris.

I think it is because our image of carving stone comes from Hollywood style presentations of Michelangelo carving large blocks of marble with a swinging mallet and a chisel. Metallurgical technology has given us chisels made from tempered steel that can hold up to the repeated blows of the mallet and to the surface of the stone. Our cultural technological focus tends to carve with the indirect percussion of a hammer or mallet and a chisel. We have a cultural bias toward expecting the use of a chisel in carving a hard substance.

Native American Rock Art, Yvette La Pierre,
1994, Thomasson-Grant, Charlottsville, VA.,
illustrations by Lois Sloan, p.22

There is a marvelous book for children about rock art. Native American Rock Art, by Yvette La Pierre, 1994, illustrated by Lois Sloan, has two nicely painted illustrations in it which show the creation of petroglyphs correctly using direct percussion. The irony in this is that they have it correct while so many experts get it wrong. Perhaps La Pierre and Sloan are actually the experts in this. Well, with this book to show them correctly the children growing up to be the next generation of rock art experts may get it right.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Some rock art researchers have noted that among the rocks used as hammerstones rounded quartz pebbles are particularly commonly used in the American Southwest. This has led to speculation that there is something special about quartz that give it special meaning for this purpose.

In his 2002 book The Mind In The Cave, David Lewis Williams discussed the importance of quartz in a spiritual context (p. 176-77). He related the findings of David Whitley who wrote about a site named Sally’s Rock Shelter in the Mojave Desert where pieces of quartz which had been used as hammerstones on petroglyphs had been dropped around the site.

Quartz hammerstone on a petroglyph
boulder, Airport Hill, St. George, UT.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2002.

Williams cited a number of other connections between Southwestern Native American spiritual practices and quartz. He speculated that the reason that quartz cobbles were considered to be special was because they possess triboluminescence, when two rounded quarts cobbles are rubbed together in the dark they generate flashes of light in their interiors, an effect that I have personally confirmed many times with quartz cobbles in a dark room. Williams confirms that striking a quartz cobble against a rock surface (in other words using it as a hammerstone) does not seem to generate those interior flashes of light, but it still might be thought to possess enough spiritual significance because of that property that it is prized for use as a hammerstone.

Petroglyph on boulder, Airport
Hill, St. George, UT.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2002.

The name triboluminescence comes from the Greek tribein, meaning “to rub”. It occurs when energy is input into atoms from external sources. The electrons absorb this energy by moving to a higher state, and when the electrons return to their normal state the energy is released in the form of light.

David Whitley had previously written essentially the same as Williams in 2000 in The Art Of The Shaman, (page 102) where he said “the reason for this selective utilization of quartz lies in shamanistic beliefs about and uses of this mineral. Quartz crystals were common components of shamans’ ritual kits. Shamans also sometimes took white quartz rocks on their vision quests. They would strike them together to release their supernatural power.”

Quartzite hammerstone, Wild Horse
Draw, Canyon Pintado, CO.
Photo: Peter Faris.

At Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, New Mexico, the Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology had a pair of quartz cobbles on exhibit labeled as “lightning stones”. Ellis, an archaeologist who worked in the Southwest from the 1930s to the 1960s, had excavated them from a kiva and speculated that in the dark of the kiva they were rubbed together to generate their flashes of light that resemble internal flashes of lightning inside of clouds.

The illustrations accompanying this column show a quartz cobble that had been used as a hammerstone to create a petroglyph(s) on a boulder on Airport Hill, St. George, UT, and one of the many petroglyphs found on boulders on Airport Hill, in St. George, UT, which may have been produced with this hammerstone.

The final illustration is a hammerstone from Wild Horse Draw in Canyon Pintado, northwestern Colorado, which seems to be a quartzite cobble. It is possible that the close resemblance of quartzite to quartz confers some of the same special spiritual significance on it. I have reproduced the “lightning stone effect” with quartz cobbles many times and can personally attest to the magical effect. If it fascinates me, how much more entrancing must it have been in prehistoric situations in a pitch black kiva, proof of spiritual power at our fingertips.