Friday, February 25, 2011


Trampled skull of Bison antiquus with arrow pointing to red painted
zigzag line. httpwww.ou.educasarchsurcountiesharper.htm .

In 1994 a candidate for the title of earliest painting in North America was discovered in northwestern Oklahoma. In 1992, Dick James, a game warden in the Cooper Wildlife Management Area, had shown Oklahoma Archaeological Survey archaeologist Lee Bement a site where large bones (which proved to be bison antiquas) were caving off a sandy bluff near the Beaver River. During that first trip, there were no signs that people had a hand in the deaths of the bison whose bones were eroding from the cliff. However, another trip to the site brought the find of a spear point, left by Folsom hunters more than 10,000 years ago. Since that discovery, a meticulous excavation of the site has uncovered three bison kill episodes.

After the first event of driving the bison into this gully, they took one of the skulls and painted a thunderbolt on it before placing it, nose-first, into the gully where bison from the second drive trampled it. That skull, possibly the oldest painted object ever found in North America, is now on exhibit at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman, OK.

Folsom points from Cooper Site. httpwww.arrowheads.

Bement subsequently described this discovery in his book Bison Hunting at Cooper Site (1999:37). “I was removing dirt from an articulated leg, the bones of which lay across the eye orbits of a skull. As the forehead of this skull was uncovered, a brilliant red zigzag line was exposed. – The zigzag of red stood in stark contrast to the bleached white skull surface and was visible from all areas of the bone bed. To say that there was an instant of incredulous awe does not quite describe that moment of discovery.”

Analysis of the paint has shown that it contains a majority of iron oxides and hydroxides (Bement 1999:51) which give it an intense red not found in the surrounding soil. Concentrations of these minerals are reported found in sandstones and shales in the area (probably in concretions) which were a possible source for the minerals in the paint.

The circumstances of the Folsom artist selecting a skull from the first bison kill, painting the red, zigzag lightning symbol on it, and placing it in a position in the arroyo prior to the bison drive that became the second kill, strongly indicates that this very early example of art played a role in some ritual thought to affect the success of the subsequent hunt. While not exactly rock art, this discovery can shine light on possible uses of early imagery which would include rock art images and symbols, and in any case it can stake a claim toward being the oldest known painting in North America. Additionally, we have to ask; if this example of paint survived more than 10,000 years should we not assume that some examples of pictographs painted in protected places might not have such great age as well?


Bement, Leland C.
1999     Bison Hunting at Cooper Site, Where Lightning Bolts Drew Thundering Herds, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Goins, Charles Robert, and Danny Goble
2006      Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, Fourth Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Group of Nalbidji Spirit Men & Women, Pam Vovola.

I was recently contacted by a remarkable artist who focuses on the subject of rock art. Pam Vovola, as a student of archaeology and art, resided for a period of time in Australia and became fascinated by the aboriginal art she saw. She saw that “many of these timeless images are being destroyed by weather, time, and vandalism and become less and less visible every year.” This developed into a passion to record and preserve that imagery. “By using these images as my “cultural inspiration”, I am hoping to bring an interest to western art connoisseurs of the prehistoric art of the past and a way of saving long forgotten and sacred images for future generations.”

Two Tasseled Bradshaws with Marsupial, Pam Vovola.

Now I have long been somewhat critical of “artists” who adopt the styles and subject matter of the art of other cultures as, all too often, this means that they cannot come up with a style and subject matter of their own, and they are cashing in on the popularity of something that is not genuine and pertinent to them, and that they will never completely understand. The second I saw Pam’s art, however, I realized that this is clearly not the case with her work. Looking through her gallery at is like looking at the photos in a text on Australian aboriginal art, but with a difference.

Bradshaw Figure, Pam Vovola.

There are rare instances when a painting or drawing can capture more than a photograph can. In part this is because Pam works with natural pigments on a highly textured surface to reproduce the feeling of the rock surface. She explains that “Much of the paint is made from natural pigments that I’ve collected from all around the world. The images are not just painted on the board; they are actually carved into it. I research each piece very thoroughly and always try to find colored pictures so they can be reproduced as close as possible to the original. Attached to each piece is a narrative and explanation of the art, its approximate age, location, meaning, etc.” The less tangible part of the more-than-photographic truth of some paintings and drawings is the humanity and empathy of the artist. The artist’s ability to mentally and emotionally understand part of the creative process that the original aboriginal artist was experiencing. This can sometimes be translated to a feeling of relevance or “rightness” in the viewer that gives them a stronger experience than the photograph.

Wandjina mythological beings, Pam Vovola.

Pam now says she is expanding into Egyptian and Mayan art and I expect to see great things in this. As long as she sticks to her standards she will be producing works of art that will add to the public’s knowledge of  underappreciated art of other peoples and cultures. Pam Vovola’s work can be seen on her web site and you can find some newer examples that have not yet made it to her site by visiting her Facebook page. Thank you Pam for enhancing the rock art experience for us all.

Pam Vovola's website:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Close-up of giant lizard panel, Cub
Creek, Dinosaur National Monument,
Utah. Photo: Peter Faris, 2005.

One location in Utah where extensive rock art is associated with abundant fossil remains is found at Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado. Fossil dinosaur bones there first appear in our history with the 1909 discovery of what is now called the Douglass or Carnegie Quarry by Earl Douglass. From 1909 to 1924 thousands of fossil bones were removed for museum collections. It does not seem likely that such deposits of fossil bone would have been overlooked by Native Peoples who lived there before the arrival of Euro-American explorers and exploiters. A large number of rock art sites are also found in what is now named Dinosaur National Monument. A few miles from the Douglass/Carnegie Quarry is an extensive collection of Fremont petroglyphs at the location named Cub Creek.

Giant Lizard panel, Cub Creek, Dinosaur National
Monument, Utah. The top arrow points to the small Fremont
figure and the lower arrow points to the six foot lizard.
Photo: Peter Faris, 2005.

The Fremont people were proto-agriculturalists who lived on the northern and western peripheries of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples planting some maize and hunting and gathering to make up the balance of the year’s food needs (sort of like the country cousins of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples of the Colorado Plateau). The Fremont culture may have developed from the Desert Archaic Culture by AD 500 in eastern Utah and western Colorado. Abandonment of the region by Fremont people falls at ca. AD 1300. They manufactured some ceramic vessels and built permanent dwellings in villages. The Fremont group occupying the area of Dinosaur National Monument has been designated Uintah Fremont. They created the marvelous rock art of the area which has been designated the Classic Vernal Style by Polly Schaafsma. The dates of Classic Vernal Style rock art has been estimated as between AD 600 and AD 1000 by Sally Cole.

A large concentration of Classic Vernal Style anthropomorphs are found on the cliff along a trail up the mesa at Cub Creek in Dinosaur National Monument, a few miles from the location of the Douglass/Carnegie quarry. In this case however, the images of interest are a group of solidly pecked petroglyphs of very large lizards (eight in total) seemingly focused on a small human figure (arrow). The human figure measures perhaps 12”, the largest lizard is about six feet long, and some of the lizards are very obviously focused on the anthropomorph. Other lizards at the site are not focused on the human figure but seem associated with the ones that are in the main group. Given a reasonable estimate of the minimum height of a Fremont male at just a little over five feet the creator of this petroglyph panel was picturing lizards that would approach thirty feet in length correspondingly. Such a juxtaposition of small human and large reptiles is, of course, tremendously suggestive. The most common form of animal life seen there today (other than tourists, of course) are small lizards and, since the climate in that region was similar in the time of the Fremonts to that of today there is no reason to assume that lizards were any less common then.

Therapod dinosaur track, Cub Creek dinosaur track site.
Photo: John Mayers, BLM, Vernal, UT, 2005.

One hundred and eleven Chinle formation dinosaur track sites in and around the Dinosaur National Monument have been recorded to date. One of these is located at Cub Creek, approximately 2.5 km. from the Cub Creek lizard petroglyphs. “It has produced the trackways of more than fifty individual vertebrates from five stratigraphic levels.”(Lockley 1995:97) The track site is up the watershed of Cub Creek itself from the petroglyph panel which was the natural thoroughfare for native peoples who would have followed the water course. The tracks are located in a rock shelter which is found over a saddle from Cub Creek above an adjoining drainage, but again in the reasonable route for passing from the Cub Creek drainage to the next canyon. Most of the visible tracks are casts in the ceiling of the rock shelter but one fallen boulder has many tracks on its face. This location suggests that the dinosaur tracks are certainly within a reasonable distance and position for influencing the creation of the petroglyphs.

The Navajo people of northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico reportedly recognize petrified dinosaur tracks as the tracks of monsters described in their creation story. An article in the Arizona Republic newspaper stated that “Navajos call the fossilized footprints ”Naasho’illbahitsho Biikee’,” which means “big lizard tracks.” (Anonymous 2004) This article cited 16-year old Stephanie Haskie who works part-time as a tourist guide to show people the trackways near Tuba City. “Fifty years ago, Haskie’s grandparent, while herding sheep home, stumbled across the tracks. They believed that the tracks must have been made by the monsters described in the Navaho creation story. All of the details fit – the muddy imprints, the three toes of a lizardlike animal.” This is tangible evidence that fossil dinosaur footprints were believed by Native American peoples to have been made by giant lizards.

People who had witnessed the gigantic bones of animals weathering from the rocks around them needed to explain their presence and, in this instance, I assume that explanation included mythological accounts of gigantic creatures. The presence of nearby lizard-like footprints measuring eight inches in length would certainly reinforce such an interpretation and would have also suggested that the creatures were giant lizards. Unfortunately this assumption cannot at present be tested because anthropologists are still uncertain of the fate of the Uintah Fremont people. They may have eventually migrated away to become one of the historic period groups of the southwest, or they may have stayed in place and evolved into the Ute and Paiute peoples of the proto-historic period. Indeed it may be possible to throw some light on the question of the eventual fate of the Uintah Fremont people by looking for mythologies of giant lizards among the extant peoples of the southwest.
Until such a time we can only assume such a connection based upon available evidence, but I suggest that the evidence available may well be strong enough to warrant such an assumption.

Lockley, Martin, and Adrienne P. Hunt
1995      Dinosaur Tracks and Other Fossils of the Western United States, Columbia University
              Press, New York.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


9-Mile Canyon, Utah. Photo: Peter Faris, Aug. 1993.

In the art history of our western culture we are used to art that portrays time data. Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters" is very obviously a night scene, and bright noontime sun was a favorite subject of many Impressionist painters. During the Renaissance allegories of various seasons became stock in trade for painters as well. These are all examples of art that includes clues that convey time information.
In some rock art one can find clues that convey time information as well. This might be seen either as “intended content”, a part of the message intentionally conveyed in the rock art, or as “inherent content”, information conveyed unintentionally as part of the composition or subject matter. An example of time information conveyed as inherent content would be a possible estimate of the time it took to create a petroglyph panel based on the hardness of the rock surface it was created on, or perhaps the possibility of estimating the time of its creation by subject matter.

One good example of this is found in the so-called “Cottonwood Panel” in Nine Mile Canyon, UT. Matheny, et al (2004) point out that this panel seems to be a hunt scene with a “hunt boss” who wears a horned headdress, with a large group of bighorn sheep. This grouping of animals appears to consist of mixed rams, ewes, and lambs, which they suggest would only be found together during the rut in late fall or early winter. If true this panel was either intentionally created to represent that time of year, or was created in the late fall or early winter when the mix of animals seen would have naturally included the rams, ewes, and lambs seen in this grouping.

There must be a number of other rock art images that can be interpreted in this way, that represent something that would only happen at a certain time of the year. For instance petroglyphs of maize plants with ears formed, like examples found in New Mexico, certainly represent late summer or fall, if they are intended to represent a time of year.


Matheny, Ray T., Deanne G. Matheny, Pamela W. Miller, and Blaine Miller,
2004   Hunting Strategies and Winter Economy of the Fremont as Revealed in the Rock Art of Nine Mile Canyon, p. 145 to 193, in New Dimensions in Rock Art Studies, edited by Ray T. Matheny, Museum of Peoples and Cultures Occasional Papers No. 9, Joel C. Janetski, series editor, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.