Monday, April 26, 2010


On March28, 2010, I posted a column concerning evidence of the creation of music as a subject of a painted panel in the Sanctuary of the cave of Le Trois Freres. Additional evidence of Paleolithic music in connection with rock art is presented by the upper Aurignacian carved relief known as the “Venus of Laussel” cave in France. This famous female figure is shown holding what appears to be a bison horn in her right hand. The horn is marked with thirteen striations down the side.

"Venus of Laussel", stone relief carving, Laussel cave, France.
p.41, Rault, Lucy, Musical Instruments, Craftsmanship
and Tradition from Prehistory to the Present

This figure actually suggests two possible musical implications. One, the horn might be played trumpet fashion. In Musical Instruments, Craftsmanship and Tradition from Prehistory to the Present, Lucy Rault (2000) provided pictures of tribal people playing animal horns trumpet fashion. In playing a trumpet the sound is provided by vibration of the player’s lips blown into the mouthpiece, in these examples a hole drilled into the side of the horn down near the pointed end. Although the Venus of Laussel does not have the horn held to her mouth we must allow the possibility.

Side-blown Kudu horn, Chad. p.198, Rault, Lucy,
Musical Instruments, Craftsmanship and Tradition
from Prehistory to the Present
, 2000.

Another possibility relates to the thirteen striations on the side of the horn. With these it is possible that the horn was played as a rhythm instrument known as a rasp. The Ute Indians of Colorado and Utah use a rasp called a morache for their annual Bear Dance in which a notched stick or bone (reportedly originally a bear jaw bone) is held against a resonator such as a basket, a drum, or a plank over a hole in the ground, and rubbed with a stick. The rubbing of the stick back and forth over the notches provides the vibration of the instrument. The sound was felt to reproduce the growling of the bear. Back in 1980 my wife Charlotte and I attended the spring Bear Dance at Ignacio in the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in southwestern Colorado. The continuing low drone of the morache is immensely compelling and quickly begins to resonate in the mind of the listeners. Rault points out that with the striations marked on the side of the horn held by the “Venus of Laussel” it could have been played as a rasp, rubbed with a stick like the Ute morache and the conical form of the horn would also provide the resonating chamber. Perhaps this sound echoing within the cave would provide a roaring or growling sound to emulate one of the great animals painted on the cave walls.

Stalactites as lithophone, South Africa. p.25, Rault, Lucy,
Musical Instruments, Craftsmanship and Tradition
from Prehistory to the Present,

Another interesting possibility for music played within a cave is provided by the presence of stalactite and stalagmite formations which can be played as a percussion instrument. Such a formation used to make music is known as a lithophone, a stone instrument. Rault stated that in some of the painted caves of Europe evidence remains as signs of impact on such stalactite and stalagmite formations that would ring like a xylophone when struck with a wooden, bone, or perhaps an antler hammer.

As I stated in my previous posting none of this is proof that there was ever any playing of music in company with rock art painted on the cave walls. We must, however, acknowledge that it could have been, and I prefer to assume that on ceremonial occasions music and other sound effects would have been included in at least some of the ceremonies.


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

Saturday, April 17, 2010


For people who live in the environment the weather is a major determinant of the exigencies of life. Especially in the availability of food, both plant, and animal, the amount of sun, rain, and storm, provide the conditions that allow the society to survive and hopefully prosper. The facets of weather that lead to this survival and prosperity are usually focal points of religious rites in those communities in the attempt to favorably affect the conditions upon which their survival depends. Thus clouds, rain, rainbows, and lightning become elements in the imagery of the people, and can often be found in their rock art as well.

The Hogback, Pinyon Canyon Maneuver Site,
southeast Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, 1997.

Elemental lightning is a force that can be dangerous, and as such is possesses great spiritual power. Places where lightning strikes tend to be seen as spiritually powerful, and items that have been struck by lightning contain strong medicine. A piece of lightning struck wood would contain tremendous spiritual power and, as such, would be prized for a medicine bundle or for use in fabricating weapons. A locale that lightning is seen to strike frequently would tend to attract other manifestations of spiritual importance such as rock art.

For large expanses of open countryside in the arid West in a lightning storm the features at greatest risk of lightning strike are the geological features that stick up the highest. These are often features such as volcanic dikes. I know of two volcanic dikes that have attracted considerable rock art and also show evidence of attracting lightning strikes.

Lightning Strike at The Hogback, Pinyon
Canyon Maneuver Site, southeastern
Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, 1997.

One is the prominent dike known as “the Hogback” on the Pinyon Canyon Maneuver Site in southeastern Colorado, so excellently recorded by Dr. Larry Loendorf. This broken basalt prominence not only shows rock art, and discolored patches caused by the heat and blast effects of lightning strikes, but, as a location of such power, it also possesses the remains of spirit quest enclosures.

Lightning and sky theme petroglyphs,
Galisteo Dike, New Mexico.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1997.

Lightning portrayals in rock art may also be expected to be found on such high positions as these. The third illustration provided came from Galisteo Dike, south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The rock art at Galisteo Dike is also found on the surfaces of a high, prominent volcanic dike, and includes a very large amount of sky symbolism including eagles, stars, sun signs, clouds, and lightning. This illustration includes an eagle (the Pueblo beast deity for the sky above), a star, and a lightning blast, combining multiple aspects of spiritual power.

Sun Symbols with possible lightning strike,
Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, New Mexico.
Photo: J & E Faris, 1988.

Another volcanic dike which possesses considerable rock art is the dike at 3-Rivers, New Mexico, where thousands of symbols and images cover the eroded surfaces of blocks of basalt. There are also instances of remaining evidence of possible lightning strikes at 3-Rivers. The illustration here shows a basalt boulder with an apparent lightning strike on the top and a pair of concentric circle sun signs on the side. The question here is did the rock apparently blasted by lightning attract the petroglyphs, or did the spiritual power of the petroglyphs attract the lightning strike?