Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Black Salon, Grotte de Niaux, Ariege, France. From: Rault, p. 18.

One small but interesting subset in the study of rock art concerns the acoustics of rock art sites. According to some researchers it is possible to find interesting acoustics at many rock art sites. In locales where the rock art is on cliffs they believe that the form of the cliffs often provides for a stronger echo than other nearby sections of cliff. Measurements of the strength of echoes from various surfaces in painted European caves suggest that this can indeed be the case. In 2000 Lucy Rault wrote in Musical Instruments: Craftsmanship and Tradition from Prehistory to the Present, that “comparable investigations at Niaux have similarly demonstrated that in this cave places with particularly strong echoes also have images associated with them, some if these, significantly, mark places where sounds linger for several seconds. We can therefore conclude that the choice of locations for wall figures seems to have been made largely on the basis of their acoustical value. Sometimes whole walls remain empty where the corresponding space, however vast it may be, produces no echo. On the other hand, places favorable for echoes are marked and painted, even if their location made such decoration difficult to accomplish.” (Rault 2000:22).

Bison, Grotte du Portel, Ariege,France. From: Rault, p.23.

Given the strong echoes and reverberation found in these sites in the painted caves of Europe, we have to ask ourselves what were they echoing? The most obvious guess would be the sound of the animal depicted on the wall. The call of this creature might be imitated by spiritual leaders or vocally talented members of the clan. Another possibility could be the eerie moaning sound of a bullroarer. Regarding this, John Pfeiffer wrote in 1982 (p. 180) that “oval bone and ivory objects with abstract designs carved on them and a hole at one end make a high whining hum when whirled from a string, suggesting that the sound of a bullroarer moved people in the upper Paleolithic as well as in modern times” (Pfeiffer’s “high whining hum” would have come from a smaller bullroarer on a short string, a larger model on a longer string could give a much lower roaring sound). Especially in the case of a painted bison or other animal whose vocalizations are grunting, roaring, or rumbling sounds, hearing the sound of a bullroarer echoing and reverberating through the chamber would have been startling to say the least.

Halo Shelter, Val Verde County, TX., Photo: Peter Faris, 2004.

Another effect that can often be found in caves and rock shelters is the phenomenon of the whisper channel. When the walls are of the correct shape they will often pass the frequencies of a soft voice smoothly to the other end of the chamber in such a way that they are inaudible to people standing in between. I observed this effect in a rock shelter at Val Verde county in west Texas, where I could hear a soft conversation of people standing about 20 feet away at the other end of the shelter but individuals standing between us could not discern their comments.

A number of years ago, during a visit to the Grand Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon, in Canyonlands, Utah, one visitor had lugged a tape recorder and microphone all the way from the canyon rim to the panel and had set up his sound equipment while he walked back and forth along the rock art panels tapping the surface of the rock with a little hammer made of deer or elk antler. I thought at the time that this was a pretty silly practice, but I now see that it actually may have had some validity. Although I could not really see back then what the value would be in having that sort of information available, it is now obvious that it might add to the overall metadata of cultural knowledge of the people involved, and would allow evaluations based upon a broader knowledge of their cultural concerns, and this would benefit everyone interested in the prehistory of humanity.


Pfeiffer, John E.
1982, The Creative Exlosion: An Inquiry into the Origins of Art and Religion, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

Rault, Lucy
2000, Musical Instruments: Traditions and Craftsmanship from Prehistory to the Present, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


On December 19, 2009, I posted a critical review on this site of the book In Plain Sight: Old World Records in Ancient America , by Gloria Farley, 1994, ISAC Press, Columbus, Georgia. This had originally been written for the Pleistocene Coalition News (PCN), Volume 1, Issue 2, November-December 2009, ( I was asked to write the review by the editor of PCN in order to stimulate a discussion on the subject of Old World to New World diffusion in rock art. In other words were some or many of the inscriptions on our rocks created by members of expeditions from the Old World? Their most recent issue (Volume 2, Number 1) contains some responses to my review, one of which I present below:

By Virginia Steen-McIntyre

I recommended Gloria Farley's book In Plain Sight in Issue 1 of this Newsletter, along with the 2009 book World Trade and Biological Exchanges before 1492 (Sorenson and Johannessen) because they complement one another.

How can one find evidence of New World plants and parasites in Old World archaeological sites unless there had been some form of ocean transport going on for millennia? (Example: Tobacco leaves in the body cavity of Pharaoh Rameses II's mummy, as mentioned in the preface to Farley's book.)

Peter, you are not happy with the mishmash of scripts and languages that sometimes appear on the same rock face. I see a semiliterate, polyglot crew of homesick sailors and explorers leaving their marks on a sheltered rock face in an unknown, hostile land, especially prayers to their various deities for protection and safe trip home.

Yes Virginia, there really was pre-Columbian contact. There is considerable evidence of that, above and beyond L’anse aux Meadows. I have never discounted the idea of some pre-Columbian contact between the Old World and the New World. I also do not discount the evidence of transport of organisms between them. What I discount is that the crews of ships, exploratory or trading, reached southeastern Colorado and western Oklahoma to leave inscriptions carved into the rocks. To me this question between us comes down to one of belief. I just cannot believe in that scenario and apparently you do. I honor your belief and I thank you for your reasonable response to mine.

Monday, February 15, 2010

BOOK REVIEW - World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492:

Sorenson, John L., and Carl L. Johannessen,
2009 World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492, iUniverse, Inc., New York

This very interesting book is essentially about evidence of pre-Columbian contact across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The authors find evidence in the distribution of flora and fauna found on opposite sides of the ocean. The assumption is that there had to have been a vector which caused this distribution because natural causes do not seem to be a totally satisfactory answer.

The obvious question right now would be what possible connection can that have with anything we are interested in on RockArtBlog? Well, in the study of rock art we still have to deal with the epigraphy question. Were some rock art symbols or inscriptions created by visitors from across the sea? Any information about trans-oceanic contact prehistorically potentially has bearing on this subject.

Temple sculpture holding an ear of maize, Somnathpur,
India, 11th - 13th cent., Fig. 1, p. 489,World Trade and
Exchanges Before 1492. Photo: Carl L. Johannessen.

Co-author Carl Johannessen pointed out to this writer that in their book they have recorded “13 plants that came into the Americas and 84 plants left the Americas for the Asian and other tropical and subtropical zones in the Euro-African realm.” If this is, in fact, correct that would represent thirteen opportunities for the external influences which are central to the epigrapher’s theories to come into contact with native peoples of the Americas. Indeed a larger number than this 13 could be assumed because a number of the examples that went from the Americas to the Old World could have been taken back by parties that had originated in the Old World and were returning home after a voyage that had reached the Americas.

I do not question that there was pre-Columbian contact between the Old World and the New World. Since the 1960 discovery of L'Anse aux Meadows (dated to approximately 1000 AD) on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador we have had proof of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact by the Norse. There are rumors of Eskimos paddling their kayaks into the Thames River, stories of the large Chinese exploration fleets of the early 15th century, and the recent theories of Smithsonian archaeologist Dr. Dennis Stanford who postulates trans-Atlantic contact between the prehistoric Solutrean culture of Europe and the Clovis culture in North America.

What Sorenson and Johannessen have done is provide a large body of evidence of possible trans-oceanic contact based upon the evidence of flora and fauna found on both sides of oceans, and of diseases and parasites that are likewise found on both sides of oceans but which should not have been able to pass over the Bering land bridge because of the restrictions of the cold valve which assumes that a person weakened by disease would not have survived the trek across the arctic from Siberia through Alaska to carry that disease to the population of the Americas (and if they did not walk in through Beringia they must have sailed in across the Atlantic or Pacific ocean). Other evidence toward this conclusion is provided by the facts that some of these diseases do not occur in North America (considered unlikely if the disease had been carried across North America in either direction, and that many of the parasitic organisms require residence in warm, moist soil during a portion of their life cycle prior to transferring to a new host and these conditions were not available in Northern latitudes.

What is most admirable about this volume is that instead of citing a few facts and building them into a huge theoretical edifice, the authors have given us relatively few pages (90) of explanation and conclusions, and a huge amount of data. They have not allowed themselves to be sidetracked into speculating on the “who”, they have restricted themselves to the what. They have provided 396 pages of Appendixes in which they cite thousands of sources. Perhaps the best illustration of this is their section (pages 361-78) on Zea mays – Indian corn. They include some fifty sources on facts and data pertaining to evidence on the question of pre-Columbian distribution of corn in the Old World. Instead of telling us what we should believe, they give us the data and trust us to decide for ourselves. Their very extensive bibliography fills 64 pages, and they have even included a 10 page Index of Authors, both of which will be invaluable to researchers. Their 16 illustrations show visual evidence of this distribution of flora and fauna including Figure 1 (above) showing an Indian sculpture from between the 11th and 13th centuries of an Apsara holding what can only be interpreted as an ear of corn (maize).

So what have I decided for myself? As I said above I did not deny the fact of pre-Columbian contact, I just discounted it. I assume that some pre-Columbian contact beyond L’anse aux Meadows took place between the old and new worlds. My doubt has centered more on questions of transfer of culture in amounts that could lead to large numbers of inscriptions in foreign languages on the rocks in the interior of North America.

After reading World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 no-one should be able to categorically deny the possibility of such pre-Columbian cross-ocean contact without disproving or explaining away literally thousands of pieces of data assembled by the authors, a daunting task indeed!

Monday, February 8, 2010


Paleontologist George R. Wieland and 11-foot-tall
Archelon ischyros, 1895, from South Dakota,
Peabody Museum of Nat. Hist.

In Native American mythology the world is known as Turtle Island. They see the world as existing on the back of a great turtle swimming in an endless ocean. This could seem to be quite a stretch of the imagination, where could the idea of such a gigantic turtle come from? One could well suppose that very large turtles such as snapping turtles could have influenced this belief. Another possibility however, is that it was suggested by a Native American finding the exposed fossils of one of the prehistoric giant turtles like the eleven foot skeleton illustrated. Once you have proof of a turtle of that scale, turtles of almost any size seem possible.

Turtle Island, Seri Indian, p.134, People
of the Desert, Time-Life, 1993.

This picture was painted by a Mexican Seri Indian portraying his homeland on the back of Turtle Island and illustrating the concept clearly.

Turtle petroglyph, Purgatoire Canyon, CO.
Photo: 1999, Peter Faris.

Legend Rock, WY.
Photo: 1998, Peter Faris.

The presence of turtle imagery in rock art is well documented with examples found all over North America. The examples I have included come from Legend Rock in northwestern Wyoming, and from the Purgatoire River canyon in southeast Colorado.

Fossilized mud cracks, Painted Canyon, TX.
Photo: 2002, Peter Faris.

Once while on a field trip in western Texas visiting rock art sites I came across a horizontal outcropping of stone which was patterned with fossilized mud cracks. At the time I immediately thought of the pattern of plates or scutes on a turtle’s shell, and I realized that I was seeing the real surface of Turtle Island. Here in the eroded Texas landscape the earth had washed and/or blown away , down to the surface of the rocky shell of Turtle Island. No wonder the turtle became such a symbol of strength and endurance.

Monday, February 1, 2010


The petroglyph illustrated at the center of the picture is to be found in the Picketwire Canyon, the canyon of the Purgatoire River in southeastern Colorado near La Junta. It is appears to be an image of a decorated shield in what has been designated as the Rio Grande Style. I think of these decorated shield images as sort of a portrait of someone. Native American shield decoration was not like the heraldry displayed on medieval shields in Europe. A group of warriors who followed a military leader in medieval Europe might carry identical shields to show their allegiance and common identity. The imagery on a Native American shield tended to be unique to that individual and was likely to illustrate the vision in which he received his spiritual and military power. Given this, I think of a rock art image of an illustrated shield as a sort of portrait of the owner, a portrayal of an object that is unique to one individual. This portrayal would also be recognizable to other people who knew the owner, and would represent him as a form of portrait.

Purgatoire canyon, southeast Colorado.
Photo: Peter Faris.

Among Native American cultures the owl was a spiritually powerful being, and was often believed to have martial attributes. The owl was often believed to bring messages concerning enemy activities to someone with a sacred connection to them, someone who had perhaps received “owl power” during a vision quest. I feel safe then in assuming that the Picketwire Owl Shield represented a particular individual, someone whose vision had gifted him with military ability and spiritual power. I think of this individual as a warrior named Owl Shield.

It is also very interesting that above the owl shield petroglyph, another round image seems to contain a cruder imitation, or at least a variation of the image. Does this represent the same warrior, or someone else, perhaps Owl Shield Jr.? Finally, the Picketwire owl shield was adopted by the Colorado Rock Art Association about four years ago as its logo. This represents quite a legacy and memorial to our unknown warrior Owl Shield, and also his legacy to us.