Saturday, December 31, 2011


"Manitou on a rock," Clark's journal, June 5, 1804.
The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery traversed regions of the continent that are now known to possess considerable amounts of Native American rock art. Among the instructions that Lewis and Clark had received from President Thomas Jefferson in June 1803 for their exploratory expedition was to gather information on the native peoples that they met along the way. They were to gather information on a number of points of native life and customs. President Thomas Jefferson had taken great pains to contact all available scholars and savants in the United States asking them to suggest things that such an expedition should try to ascertain.

Jefferson had delivered in January 1803 a confidential message to Congress that justified the expedition on the grounds of expanding trade with the Indians. Jefferson had also solicited suggestions from scientist and knowledgeable government officials for the types of information that should be sought. He could synthesize the resulting suggestions into a final draft of instructions for the expedition. Jefferson’s instructions concerning Native Americans covered everything from language and law to trade and technology. The explorers were to record Indian foods, what the Indians wore, their technology and handcrafts, and what they believed in. Jefferson told Lewis: “You will therefore endeavor to make yourself acquainted as far as diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit, with the names of the nations and their numbers”. The captains understood that they were to do more than count natives and list languages. From the beginning of the corps of discovery virtually every diarist in it diligently recorded all sorts of information about Indian life.

 "Manitou, buffalo, and Indian." Clark's journal, June 7, 1804.

We must remember however that Lewis and Clark were very much men of their times and that they were imbued with the belief that the culture they represented was much higher and more enlightened that the cultures of the native tribes. As avocational natural historians they certainly would have agreed with modern science’s need for accuracy, but would not have understood any need for impartiality.
Their questions and observations of Native Americans predominately were intended to gather information about the economic and military strength and potential of each tribe. Can they provide raw materials for our industry, can they provide a market for our merchants and traders, are we likely to become embroiled militarily in inter tribal squabbles? Such information goals would only distantly be affected by information on the arts of Native Americans. Therefore their journals contain few references to the arts of these peoples. Likewise, there were few examples of what we would call the visual arts in the items that they collected to send back to Jefferson. One such item was a buffalo robe that they sent back after the winter of 1805, at Fort Mandan. On a large buffalo skin a Mandan artist had portrayed in vivid detail a 1797 battle between Arikara-Sioux raiders and Mandan-Hidatsa warriors. Significantly, this piece of art was most likely included not for its artistic interest but for whatever intelligence could be gained from it concerning the military power of Indian tribes.

Petroglyph, Indian Cave State Park, Nebraska.

One petroglyph that they probably saw because it is right on their path is an engraved quadruped found at Indian Cave State Park, Nebraska. William Clark also recorded in his journal a few examples of rock art that the party of exploration observed (see illustrations above). He drew rough copies in the journals of a number of these. While not the earliest known records of North American rock art, they are very early and display a significant interest in the cultures of the Native Americans they encountered. Clark labeled these images as manitoux, illustrating his assumption that they were religious images.

Tsagaglalal (she who watches), The Dalles, Washington. Photo Peter Faris, 2000.

Interestingly, their eventual route down the Columbia river led past the site of the magnificent petroglyph now named Tsagaglalal (She Who Watches) but there is no hint in their records that they actually saw it. They visited a village of the Wishram people which was named Nixluidix by its residents. The Wishram were one of the Upper Chinook people and prospered in their location on trade, specifically in large quantities of dried salmon. Tsagaglalal was apparently near the site of Nixluidix and was one or two hundred feet above the river on the flat. With its location above and back from the original river bottom Lewis and Clark apparently passed within a few hundred yards of it on both their westward journey and their return trip, although they recorded in detail their visit to the Indian village at that site.

Wm. Clark's inscription. Pompey's Pillar,
Billings, MT. Photo Peter Faris, 2009.

One inscription that was created by the expedition is William Clark’s signature with the date July 25, 1806, inscribed on the rock pinnacle known as Pompey’s Pillar, just a little east of Billings, Montana.

On the whole it is not surprising that Lewis and Clark did not record more information about the Native American rock art that they passed on the way. Given the cultural biases of the time, and their mission from Thomas Jefferson, recording all rock art was just not generally thought worthwhile. We do have to wonder what other things we could have learned about Native American art had attitudes been different.

Monday, December 26, 2011


Ute pictographs, Shield Cave, Glenwood Canyon, Eagle
County, Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1991.

Humans have been using naturally occurring ochre as a pigment almost as long as we can trace the human lineage. Ochre has been found in Neandertal burials, and even earlier in hominid contexts.

In its use in rock art ochre is found in a range of colors from yellow to brownish red. Yellow ochre (Fe2O3H2O) is a hydrated iron oxide, and red ochre (Fe2O3) is the anhydrate of yellow ochre, which turns red when heated because heat drives off the water. This was described by Paul Bahn (1998): “the colour of ochre is modified by heat, and Palaeolithic people very clearly knew this, since even in the Chatelperronian of Arcy there were fragments at different stages of oxidation still in the hearths. Yellow ochre, when heated beyond 250° C, passes through different shades of red as it oxidizes into haematite.” (Bahn 1998:100)

Ute hearth with fragments of red and yellow ochre.
Shield Cave, Glenwood Canyon, Eagle County,
Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1991.

An excellent example of this can be found at Shield Cave, in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado. In the back of shield cave is a vein of yellow ochre which gives every indication of having been extensively mined. In roughly the middle of the floor of the cave is a stone hearth which includes samples of not only the original yellow ochre, but deep red colored ochre apparently produced by roasting the mined yellow ochre in the fire. At the mouth of the cave are painted a number of red pictographs of shields, as well as figures on horseback produced by Ute artists. (see my 1991 photograph above of samples of ochre on one of the rocks around the fire place).

All of the natural materials for producing pictographs is present at this site. Inside the cave is the pigment and the fire pit for preparing it. At the mouth of the cave the vertical cave walls provide the surface for painting upon, and outside the cave on the slopes can be found not only the wood for the fire pit, but yucca plants to provide yucca juice for the vehicle and binder of a paint, and yucca leaves for brushes.

Fremont/Barrier Canyon style pictograph, Westwater Canyon,
Grand County, UT. Photograph: Peter Faris, Oct. 2001.

Ochre nodule in cliff face. Westwater Canyon, Grand
County, UT. Photograph: Peter Faris, Oct. 2001.

In other locations I have noticed the presence of ochre naturally in the vicinity of painted images that may have been done with the local pigment. In Westwater Canyon, Grand County, Utah, captivating painted figures can be found on the canyon walls. Ochre nodules may also be discovered in areas of the cliff face with careful search and the talus at the bottom of the cliffs might have been mined for ochre nodules already weathered from the rock.

Probable Fremont pictographs in Wild Horse Draw,
 Canyon Pintado, Rio Blanco County, CO.
 Photograph: Peter Faris, July 2005

Ochre nodule in cliff face. Wild Horse Draw,
Canyon Pintado, Rio Blanco County, CO.
Photograph: Peter Faris, July 2005.

This is also the case in Wild Horse Draw off of Canyon Pintado, in Rio Blanco County, northwestern Colorado, where painted images may be found on cliff faces that also contain ochre nodules which would serve as the pigment. They also may have been prehistorically recovered by searching the talus at the cliff bottoms for nodules which had weathered out of the rock.

In both these instances the other materials for creating the paintings are available locally as well with yucca cactus readily procured. Yucca sap or juice would make an excellent paint vehicle and binder as it contains natural latexes which would polymerize upon drying, and the leaves of the yucca can be made into effective brushes.


Bahn, Paul G., and Jean Vertut
1998    Images of the Ice Age, Facts on File, New York., p. 100

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Spotted horses, cave of Pech-Merle, France.

The panel of painted horses from the cave of Pech-Merle in France has caused considerable speculation as to its accuracy and intention. The approximately 25,000-year-old painting of The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle depicts spotted horses on the walls of a cave in France remarkably similar to a pattern of overall spot markings known as "leopard" in modern horses such as Appaloosas.

An article in by Charles Choi, and dated Tuesday, 8 November 2011, reported the discovery of genetic evidence that the Paleolithic horses of Europe had the potentiality of overall “leopard” spotting indeed. “Scientists investigated the differences in genes for coat color of 31 ancient horse fossils from Siberia, Eastern and Western Europe and the Iberian Peninsula.” To study the genetics of equine coat color, the international research team analyzed DNA from fossilized bones and teeth from 31 prehistoric horses representing over a dozen different archaeological sites.

Genetic analysis indicated that eighteen of the horses had been brown and seven were black. In six of the horses researchers found the LP genetic variant that corresponds to leopard like spotting in the coats of modern horses. Additionally, among ten 14,000 year old Western European horses, four had the LP genetic marker. These results suggest that at the time of the creation of the ancient cave paintings spotted horses could well have been observed in nature and copied in the cave paintings.

Contemporary spotted horses - Appaloosas.

In the past some researchers have found the spotting of the Pech-Merle horses to be perhaps unrealistic and have suggested that these horses represented fantastic imagined horses or spiritual creatures rather than realistic animals. This genetic study proves that the beautiful spotted horses of Pech-Merle could indeed have been painted from life.


Charles Choi,  Tue, Nov 8, 2011.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Painted horse, Grotte de Niaux, Ariege, France.

Painted horse, Lascaux cave, France.

With the discovery of the magnificent painted caves of Europe people began to learn what had been lost from nature in the spread of civilization. These painted panels pictured animals that had been plentiful but were now extinct or extremely rare. Among these were the prehistoric wild horses seen painted in full color on cave walls.

Konik horses.
On December 4, 2011, I published a posting about 20th  century attempts to back breed from modern cattle to recreate the magnificent aurochs bulls illustrated on the walls of caves in Europe. Also, in the 20th century there were attempts recreate the horses illustrated in the painted caves of Europe through breeding. One attempt resulted in the horse known as the konik. In Polish, konik is used to refer to a horse showing primitive coloration and characteristics. Koniks show many primitive markings including a dun coat and dorsal stripe.
Konik horses grazing in winter.

Photo of the last remaining Tarpan, 1884.
In 1936, Professor Tadeusz Vetulani of Poznań University began attempts to breed the recently extinct tarpan back to its original state. To achieve this he used horses from the Biłgoraj area descended from wild tarpans captured in 1780 in Białowieża Forest and kept until 1808 in Zamoyski zoo. These had later been given to local peasants and crossbred with domestic horses. The Polish government commandeered all the koniks that displayed tarpan-like features. The result of this selective breeding program is that semi-wild herds of koniks can be seen today in many nature reserves and parks, and can also be seen in the last refugium in Bialowieza Forest.
Heck horses in Austria. Public domain.

Another program resulted in the Heck horse. This breed was created by the German zoologist brothers Heinz Heck and Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo, at the Tierpark Hellabrunn (Munich Zoo) in Germany in their attempt to breed back to the tarpan (equus ferus ferus), and as was the case with their attempts to breed back to the extinct aurochs from modern cattle their efforts attempting to recreate the Tarpan was supported by the Nazi party. The first foal born from the program was a colt born on May 22, 1933 at the Tierpark Hellabrunn.
The Heck brothers bred together several European small horse and pony breeds hypothesized to be descended from the tarpan. They used mares of the Konik, Icelandic horse, and Gotland breeds. These mares were bred to stallions of a wild horse type known as Przewalski's horse. The Hecks believed that the wild Przewalski blood would "help to draw out the wild characteristics" that they felt lay dormant in the domesticated pony breed mares.

Heck Horse.

Heck horses are dun or grullo (a dun variant) in color, with no white markings. The breed has primitive markings, including a dorsal stripe and sometimes zebra markings on the legs. Heck horses generally stand between 12.2 and 13.2 hands (50 and 54 inches, 127 and 137 cm) tall. The head is large, the withers low, and the legs, hindquarters, and hooves are strong.
As with the attempts by the same Heck brothers to breed back to the aurochs, we have another case where the original animal had inspired our ancestors to create their images in cave art, and the cave art later inspired modern attempts to recreate the extinct original animal. Another case of life imitating art.

Levy, Sharon, Once and Future Giants, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Extinct Aurochs, painting, Lascaux Cave,
France. This photo is in public domain.

One of the most impressive of the animals painted on the walls of certain caves in Europe is the image of bos primigenius, the aurochs. This distant ancestor of the cow was awesome in both size and strength.

Extinct Aurochs, painting, Lascaux Cave, France.
 This photo is in public domain.

During the early years of the 20th century attempts were made to recreate the magnificent extinct wild bulls of ancient Europe, the Aurochs, by breeding. The theory was that by selecting for the traits that can be identified in the painted panels in cave art the animal could be reverse engineered as it were, also known as breeding back. The bulk of the early work in this was done by the Heck brothers in Germany. Heinz Heck working at the Hellabrun Zoological Gardens in Munich began creating the Heck breed in about 1920. Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoological Gardens, began breeding programs supported by the Nazis during World War II to bring back the aurochs. The reconstructed aurochs fitted into the Nazi goal of recreating an ancient imagined Aryan nation. The Berlin breed was lost in the aftermath of World War II so modern Heck cattle are descended from the Munich breed. At the end of the 20th century, other so-called primitive breeds were crossbred with Heck cattle to come closer to the aim of creating a cattle breed that resembles the extinct aurochs in external appearance.

Skull of extinct Aurochs.

Heck's cattle, public domain.

Although there was a measure of success with matching the appearance there has been much less success to date in reaching the awesome size of the Aurochs. A typical Heck bull should be at least 1.4 m (4'5") high and a cow 1.3 m (4'3"), with weight up to 600 kg (1,300 lb). Heck cattle are twenty to thirty centimeters shorter than the aurochs they were bred to resemble. The Heck bulls were not much larger than the bull of most breeds of domestic cattle, while wild aurochs bulls are believed to have often exceeded 1000 kilograms (2,200 lb), half the size of a rhinoceros.  However, cross-breeding efforts continue to increase the size and weight of the breed, particularly in Germany.

Heck cattle. Wikipedia.

Modern efforts have been driven more by attempts to manage wild lands naturally with a full ecosystem of animals and predators. Ancient Europe had evolved with forests and steppes housing these animals and it is thought that they (or similar substitutes) would be valuable in natural management of the land.

Herd of Heck cattle in a park.

What strikes me as remarkable about this situation is that first there were the actual animals that our ancestors painted on the walls of caves, and then the rock art was used as the guide in an attempt to recreate the animals again - a marvelous example of life imitating art.



Sharon Levy, Once and Future Giants,Oxford University Press, New York, 2011.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Death Valley petroglyph boulder, California.
Photo: Richard Colman, 2011.

This photograph was sent to me by Richard Colman, who found it “in a wash in Death Valley National Park, near the Mesquite Springs campground area”. He found the combination of elements to be interesting and odd for Great Basin rock art.

Richard is the moderator for the Yahoo American Rock Art Group. Richard is also an accomplished photographer and takes spectacular photos of rock art. Visit his site to see other examples of his wonderful photography.

Thank you for sharing Richard, this is one area that I have not yet been able to visit in person - and happy trails.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


On August 5, 2009, I posted a column on Hand prints in Rock Art in which I discussed the fact that a viewer can sometimes determine the gender of a rock art creator by measuring the relative length of the first and third fingers in a hand print. Statistically more males have a longer third finger while more females have a longer first finger.
I believe it is also possible to get a suggestion of the handedness of the creator of the rock art by examining a hand print. A human normally finds one side or the other dominant and capable of finer control and dexterity.
Hand-prints, Texas. Photo: Peter Faris, 2004.

According to Wikipedia right-handedness is most common. Right-handed people are more dexterous with their right hands when performing tasks. A variety of studies suggest that 70-90% of the world population is right-handed, rather than left-handed or any other form of handedness. Left-handedness is less common than right-handedness. Left-handed people are more dexterous with their left hands when performing tasks. A variety of studies suggest that 8–15% of the world population is left-handed.

Now how would we apply this knowledge to the analysis of a hand print in rock art? It seems to me that if the hand print is actually a print of a hand – a hand covered in paint and applied flat to the rock face – the creator of the image would probably use their dominant hand out of force of habit. Therefore if it is a print of a right hand it was probably a right-handed person and if it is a print of a left hand it was probably a left-handed person.

If, on the other hand (pun intended), it is a tracing of a hand, whether painted or pecked, it is probably the opposite because the creator would be using their dominant hand to do the tracing around the less useful hand that they were holding flat against the rock face. When the outline was made permanent, either with paint or by pecking, it was a recording of the person’s subordinate hand, not the dominant one.

Applying this reasoning to the same panel of hand prints in Texas that I photographed in 2004 and used to illustrate the August 5, 2009 posting about hand-prints we see that these hand-prints were made with a paint covered right hand applied flat to the rock face. We have already seen that these prints indicated that their creator was probably a male, now we can see that he was probably a right-handed male. Not bad for a group of anonymous hand-prints.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Push-me-pull-you (right center of photo), at the mouth
of Salt Arroyo,  Purgatoire Canyon, Bent County,
Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, June 1998.

Of all the many portrayals of animals (zoomorphs) in rock art some of the most fascinating are the double ended animals known lightheartedly as “Push-Me-Pull-You’s”. On May 1, 2010, I published a posting entitled Sisiutl – The 2-Headed Serpent. Sisiutl, a snake with a head at each end, represents one form of the “Push-Me-Pull-You”.

Push-me-pull-you (lower left of photo), Carizzo Canyon,
Baca County, Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, 1993.

The more common form that these creatures take however is that of a quadruped, a four legged animal with a head at each end. What these Push-Me-Pull-You’s actually represented to their creators I do not know. I can show a few examples to illustrate the general form of this creature, but except for Sisiutl (mentioned above) I have no idea as to what they were intended to mean.

Push-me-pull-you, Rochester Creek,
Utah. Photo: Peter Faris, 1993.

Alex Patterson (1992:202) suggested that the two-headed animals “zoomorphs with a head at both ends” is an animal birth scene representing the “invariable head-first appearance of many animals at birth.” Can this be the meaning of these enigmatic creature? Well, it is a very clever idea and may, in fact, actually be applicable in some instances. However, many of the Push-Me-Pull-You’s are shown with what appear to be horned heads on both ends, and no animal I know of is born with a set of adult horns in place. An example is the Push-Me-Pull-You from Rochester Creek in Utah which has a set of Bighorn Sheep horns on the head at each end. 


So, this brings me back to the question what do they represent? I really have no idea, but I would like to hear your suggestions.


Patterson, Alex
1992 A Field Guide To Rock Art Symbols Of The Greater Southwest, Johnson Books, Boulder.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Veteran readers of RockArtBlog may remember that I have published postings on the subject of mammoths in North American rock art in the past. On May 4, 2009, I posted A Possible Mastodon Petroglyph in Southeastern Colorado, and on April 16, 2011, I posted a column entitled The Earliest Art in North America, The Vero Beach Mammoth. Additionally, on November 25, 2009, I posted Elephantids in North American Rock Art – The Moab Mastodon, in which I explained my disbelief in the identification of what has been called the Moab Mastodon.

Petroglyph panel with images highlighted, San Juan
River, Utah,upstream from Sand Island. Photograph
used by permission of Ekkehart Malotki.

Behind all of this, however, I have always felt a strong conviction that there should be examples of mammoths and mastodons in North American rock art. We know people in North America coexisted with these Pleistocene giants, we know that they preyed on them, there should be examples of mammoths and mastodons in rock art, but, of all the candidates suggested so far only the Vero Beach mammoth has supposedly been scientifically authenticated (and I say supposedly because I do not believe that test results have been fully proven yet).
Mammoth petroglyph from the right side of the panel.
The mammoth image on the left side of the picture is
partially superimposed by a large bison. Photograph
used by permission of Ekkehart Malotki.

Mammoth 1 - close up of proposed mammoth petroglyph.
Photograph used by permission of Ekkehart Malotki.

Now from the great rock art site of Sand Island on the San Juan River, near Bluff, Utah, internationally known author and rock art researcher Ekkehart Malotki, and H. D. Wallace, have put forth a new candidate (I should say candidates) in the search for elephantids in rock art. Malotki is emeritus professor of modern languages at Northern Arizona University, while Wallace is an archaeologist from Tucson, Arizona. They have described a couple of petroglyphs from that site that they have identified as representations of mammoths dating to the Pleistocene/Holocene transitional period. Malotki was originally introduced to the possible mammoth by Joe Pachak, an artist from nearby Bluff, Utah. This identification is based upon details such as the bifurcated trunk tip of the mammoth which Malotki suggests a forger would not know about, and their height (approx. 5 meters) above the present day ground level and weathered condition.

Mammoth 2 - close up of proposed mammoth petroglyph
from the left side of the panel. Photograph used by
permission of Ekkehart Malotki.

As I have not yet seen the petroglyphs in person I will refrain from cluttering up the discussion with my own speculation other than to say that I truly hope that Malotki and Wallace are correct. I want there to be petroglyphs of mammoths and mastodons in North American – there should be petroglyphs of mammoths and mastodons in North America. People were here while the great beasts were still alive, and people make marks and pictures.

Ekkehart Malotki. Photograph used by
permission of Ekkehart Malotki.

I also want to congratulate Malotki and Wallace on having the courage and dedication to stand up and say what they believe they have, especially knowing that stating this opinion may invite considerable controversy, and sometimes personal attacks. I hope that this debate can stay civilized. In any case this will be fun to watch as it plays out in the arena of scientific opinion.

See the full paper at

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Petroglyph of a River Monster along the Cimarron River
in Northeastern New Mexico. Photo: Bill McGlone.

This remarkable photo was taken by Bill McGlone a couple of decades ago along the Cimarron River in northeastern New Mexico.  It appears to be a portrayal of the head and foreparts of a large creature and incorporates considerable work as well as an example of incorporating a natural projection of the cliff face for the head. My first reaction upon seeing this image was that it is a portrayal of the Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. It certainly bears what appears to be a ruff of feathers on top of the head. What might represent a fin can be seen projecting downward from behind the head.
Drawing of the river monster petroglyph, Cimarron
River, New Mexico. Drawn by Peter Faris.

Virtually all of the peoples of the American Great Plains believed in underwater monsters living in the lakes and rivers. I have written elsewhere that I assume that such beliefs were originally inspired by the erosion of the large bones of prehistoric mammals (mammoths, mastodons, etc.) out of the river banks during the spring runoff. Given the location of this large, complex petroglyph near the Cimarron River in northeastern New Mexico I believe we are justified in assuming that it represents one of these great underwater monsters.
Of the people who occupied that area during prehistoric and protohistoric times, we can identify the Southern Cheyenne, the Comanche, and the Kiowa. The area that the Kiowa claimed as their homeland lay in the southwestern plains adjacent to the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado and western Kansas and the Red River drainage of the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma.
Zemoguani, painted lodge, collected by James Mooney,
1891-1904. National Anthropological Archives.

The Kiowa version of the great underwater monster was the zemoguani. Portrayals of zemoguani were collected by the anthropologist James Mooney in 1904 from the Kiowa. These include a painted model tipi with zemoguani on its side and a hide painting of a Kiowa camp circle showing the painted zemoguani tipi erected in its place in the camp circle.

Kiowa Model Painted Tipi with Zemoguani, National Cowboy
& Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK.

As I said above the first reaction of many viewers to this remarkable petroglyph is that it is Quetzalcoatl, but given the location of the image on the cliff in the area claimed by the Kiowa, and given its resemblance to zemoguani, I personally feel that this identification is more reasonable.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Tool sharpening grooves in a boulder.
Freezeout Canyon, Baca County,
Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, 1996.

There are certain types of rock markings that really should not be called rock art. One of these is the tool sharpening groove. These are created by the act of sharpening a bone or antler-tine awl on the rock surface. As the tool is sharpened it also wears away the surface of the rock. As the point becomes sharper the groove it wears is also narrower, eventually becoming a “v-shaped” groove abraded into the rock.  Another type of tool mark on the surface of the rock is a wider, shallow smoothed area that is created by sharpening the edge of a stone tool such as an axe.  Many examples of these can be seen in the illustration of the site from the Picketwire Canyonlands. Another example often lumped in with rock art (or at least recorded with the rock art at a site) is the bedrock metate, a shallow hollow in a horizontal rock surface that was used for grinding plant materials with a hand held stone called a mano.

Tool sharpening grooves in cliff,
Picketwire Canyon, Bent County,
CO. Photo: Peter Faris, 1997.

Linea Sundstrom has pointed out that tool grooves can be helpful in roughly estimating dates. Tool sharpening grooves essentially ceased being made when trade with Anglos, whether European or American, began to trade goods for furs, because among early essential items for such trade were metal awls and needles. This suggests that any rock markings that can be identified as tool grooves were basically prehistoric. The presence of tool grooves also suggests either a habitation site or, at least, a site where preparations for domestic chores were conducted. I believe we got into the habit of including these indications of industrial practices in with rock art because when rock art is being recorded it is considered important to record all features on the surface of the rock, including tool grooves, axe sharpening hollows, and bedrock mutates.
Some examples can be found where tool-sharpening grooves have been incorporated into rock art images.  I have seen tool sharpening grooves that had been turned into lizards by the addition of four legs paired on both sides of the groove by pecking or abrasion.
If the tool groove is somehow incorporated into a rock art image as in the lizards mentioned above, then I would classify the modified tool groove as rock art. If the tool groove, however, is not modified, or demonstrably incorporated into rock art elements, I will have to classify it as another element of the rock surface that needs to be recorded, but not as rock art.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Katherine Wells with rock art panel.
Photo: Peter Faris, September 2011.

In addition to recording the rock art and working for its preservation the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project has a major focus on educational programming. One facet of this is providing docent-led tours of rock art, including tours for a 4th grade level curriculum they have developed for local public and Pueblo schools as a adjunct to the study of New Mexico history in the 4th grade social studies curriculum. These classes complete at least six classroom activities before visiting the Wells Petroglyph Preserve on Mesa Prieta for a field work day. In the field these students participate with adult volunteer docents in discovery hikes and identify petroglyph themes and elements and compare relative patina or rock varnish to estimate relative age.  Such field trips give the students a real sense of the history and cultural significance of the rock art. Many of these students are descendants of the people who created the images centuries ago and they can experience a personal identification with the imagery and what they have learned about its creators.
In addition to helping these children develop a sense of identity with the creators of the rock art it is very hard to imagine that any of these students in later years will participate in vandalism against rock art sites. Such a program seems like a win-win situation for all concerned and could serve as a model for other rock art sites. It certainly deserves support and encouragement.
Donations may be mailed to:  Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project, P.O. Box 407, Velarde, NM, 87582.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Eagle head, Three Rivers, New Mexico. Photo
November 1988, John and Esther Faris.
One category of images commonly seen in rock art in almost all areas of North America represents sky themes. This is especially true in the American Southwest where climatic conditions are generally dry and desert-like, and people relied upon regular rain for their food supplies. In the southwest numerous petroglyphs and pictographs of birds (especially eagles who are the beast deities of above) can be found, and one is a kachina figure seen in Puebloan Kachina dance rituals representing Kwahu, the eagle kachina. The eagle ruled the sky, and was thus in charge of the source of the rain needed for crops. Eagle petroglyphs are particularly common in areas near the region of the upper Rio Grande where dense populations of Pueblo peoples relied heavily on agriculture for subsistence.
The first illustration (above) is a grand naturalistic eagle head from the large petroglyph site at Three Rivers, New Mexico.

Eagle, star, and lightning. Galisteo dike,
New Mexico. Photo: Peter Faris.
The petroglyph of the eagle with a star and lightning is from Galisteo dike. This combination of sky themes in one composition covers all the bases toward the source of rain. The mixture of eagle and star themes is very common in Galisteo, and also at Petroglyph Park west of Albuquerque. Adding the lightning in this example reinforces the water connection as lightning usually occurs in conjunction with rain.
As a kachina, Kwahu wears a case mask painted blue-green although older examples were sometimes brown. It possesses an eagle-shaped beak with a black inverted “V” or chevron above it. Occasionally, in one of the night ceremonies in March or during the Powamu, one may have the satisfaction of seeing a performance of the Eagle Kachina. Usually the performer imitates the step or motion and cry of the eagle to absolute perfection. Eagle Kachinas will sometimes appear with Mudheads at night ceremonies in March.

Eagle (Kwahu) kachina mask, Three Rivers,
New Mexico. Photo: Peter Faris.
This petroglyph from Three Rivers, New Mexico, appears to represent an eagle mask seen from the side. It shows the hooked beak of the eagle pointing to the left, with a large eye, and a double diagonal line beneath the eye like the common tear motif which can be related to the inverted “V” or chevron seen above the beak of the eagle kachina illustrated. Given the location of Three Rivers there are basically three birds that have this natural marking and that this petroglyph might represent. The three are Prairie Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, and the American Kestral, all of which can be seen in the area and which have the natural “tear marking” below their eye as seen in the petroglyph. This feature is, however, also an attribute of the mask representing Kwahu, and has probably become a generic symbol for the raptors in general, thus its use on the Eagle kachina.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


This photograph was provided by Vecinos del Rio.

In August, 2011, we traveled to northern New Mexico to visit friends Jeanne and Bill in Los Alamos and see as much rock art and as many adobe churches as possible. The rock art part was easy, they just took us back to Black Mesa (aka Mesa Prieta).

Mesa Prieta covers 36 square miles and has an estimated 20,000 petroglyphs. Most of the land is privately owned and not open to unrestricted public access. There is, however, a way to possibly earn access.  A tax-exempt non-profit organization, the Vecinos del Rio Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project records petroglyphs, has educational programs about them, and works to preserve rock art on the mesa. All recorded information is being put into a GIS database.  For those who are lucky enough to live in the area they need volunteer docents (I understand that they will also accept cash donations, and as they are a 501(c)3 such donations are tax-deductible).

To receive information about the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project and Vecinos del Rio contact them at:
Vecinos del Rio
P.O. Box 407
Velarde, NM  87582

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Antoine Robidoux inscription,
Westwater canyon, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2001. 

On the wall of what is now named Westwater Canyon in the Bookcliffs of Grand County in eastern Utah (about 5 miles west of the Utah-Colorado border) there is a concentration of rock art. Ranging from Archaic to historic the pictographs and petroglyphs include painted Barrier Canyon style figures, pecked Archaic and Uncompaghre Style petroglyphs, painted Ute Indian figures and symbols, and some historic imagery. On the west wall of the canyon a surface approximately 9 feet high and 4½ feet wide bears a prehistoric painted red shield with an inscription carved above it that reads Antoine Robidoux passé ici le 13 Novembre 1837 pour etablire maison traitte a la Rv. Vert ou wiyte. Translated from the French, this means: “Antoine Robidoux passed here 13 November 1837 to establish a trading post at the Green River or White.”

Antoine Robidoux, 1843,
Museum of New Mexico.

Antoine Robidoux had been born in 1794, one of the sons of Joseph Robidoux, Sr., French-Canadian owner of a St. Louis-based fur trading company. In early 1824, Antoine and his brother Louis rode 800 miles to Santa Fe where they visited with an old family friend and close ally, Auguste Choteau. In the late summer of 1824 Antoine had joined a party of trappers led by Etienne Provost from Santa Fe into the wilderness of what would later become eastern Utah and western Colorado to explore the trapping and trading potential of new beaver country. They found streams filled with beaver and the resident Ute Indians friendly and eager to trade.

Antoine and his brother Louis became Mexican citizens and in 1827 Antoine was elected to the Santa Fe City Council. He had also been courting the Mexican Governor’s adopted daughter, Carmel Benevides. Antoine received the governor’s permission to marry Carmel in 1828. As the son-in-law of Santa Fe’s most powerful official, doors opened for Antoine that might otherwise have remained closed. Within weeks he received what amounted to an exclusive license to trade and trap in the mountain territory that would someday become western Colorado and eastern Utah. Antoine shortly organized an expedition into that area. Antoine took his pack animals north out of Taos, traveled into the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and then took an old Indian track over the continental divide at Cochetopa Pass. From there he descended down into the Gunnison Valley, passed south of what is now the Blue Mesa Reservoir, crossed Cerro Summit and dropped into the Uncompaghre Valley where he built his first trading post.

Fort Uncompaghre was erected in 1828 and trading began that year. It was built on the south bank of the Gunnison River. Antoine selected a site two miles below the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompaghre rivers, convenient also because it was a short distance from a natural fording place.

Reconstructed Fort Robidoux, in Delta, CO, from
Antoine Robidoux and Fort Uncompaghre, Ken Reyher,
1998, Western Reflections Inc., Ouray, CO.

In September 1844, warring Utes killed the employees of Fort Uncompaghre and took the trade goods. They also killed more than 100 settlers from Abique to the San Luis Valley before attacking the fort.  A new governor in Santa Fe placed part of the blame for the uprising on Robidoux and ordered an investigation of his sale of firearms to the Utes. Facing threatened legal action Carmel closed their Santa Fe home and returned to St. Joseph with her daughter. Antoine, who possibly spent several months in the Wyoming area, also returned east according to a story in the September 17, 1845, Missouri Democrat. After the 1844 destruction of Fort Uncompaghre, and with the trapping business in decline, Antoine spent the next few years as a guiding immigrant parties, and as an army interpreter.

Essentially starting over in 1849-50, Robidoux amassed another fortune outfitting immigrants at St. Joseph and then re-outfitting them at the only blacksmith and supply station in western Nebraska. An 1851 immigrant described "an old man nearly blind" wintering at the post. This was probably Antoine, who died in 1860 in St. Louis.

Although the inscription panel shows numerous bullet holes acquired during the historic period, actually primarily aimed at the Native American shield image, it presents us with a record of a fascinating piece of the history of the American West, an inscription from the latter years of the fur trappers and mountain men and the beginning of written history in the central intermountain area.