Tuesday, March 29, 2011


The Colorado Rock Art Association is seeking speakers for its annual meeting in Fort Collins, Colorado, on April 29 – May 1, 2011 (papers to be presented on Saturday, April 30). Paper length may be around 20 to 30 minutes and should focus on rock art of Colorado or surrounding areas, or related aspects of rock art study in general, ethnoarchaeology, educational programs, or conservation efforts. Particular attention is requested for integration of rock art into other aspects of culture such as regional or site interpretations in which rock art is a part.

Please submit abstracts of 150 words or less by April 9, 2010, to Peter Faris, archeofaris@yahoo.com. See http://www.coloradorockart.org for more information.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

E=MC2 inscription, near Los Alamos, NM. Photo. Betty Lilienthal.

At one point early in the formal study of rock art, it was assumed that much of the art addressed the question of success in the hunt and game animal fertility. This was about the same period when any artifact that an archaeologist found but could not identify specifically was listed as “ceremonial object”. Now, as I have written elsewhere, the favorite catch-phrase for rock art imagery not specifically otherwise identified is that it is “shamanic”. I doubt that this is much truer today than it was during the preceding periods of dubious assumptions in labeling rock art.

This modern inscription is illustrated in Dorothy Hoard’s book Los Alamos Outdoors (1993:75). It is assumed to have been produced by an Anglo scientist from the Los Alamos atomic project. Dorothy cites Betty Lilienthal with photo credits for that volume.

Researchers have always assumed that much of rock art consisted of inscriptions of a spiritual nature. That has apparently not changed much in our modern era. After all, what could go more deeply and directly to questions of an ethical nature, a spiritual sense, or of man’s relationship to the divine, than Einstein’s equation E=MC2. It directly addresses a view of creation and it opened up research into nuclear energy that led to the atomic bomb and much of modern science. As such, it seems to fit perfectly into the tradition of rock art as a spiritual expression. It may even be the modern version of Shamanic.

Hoard, Dorothy
1993 Los Alamos Outdoors, Los Alamos Historical Society, Los Alamos, NM. – illustration on page 75.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Parrot and mask, West Mesa, Albuquerque,
NM, Photo: Peter Faris, 1988. 

On December 15, 2010, I posted a column about petroglyphs of macaws at Hovenweep National Monument. In it I discussed them as indications of long distance trade networks between the cultures of the American Southwest and Meso-America in ancient times. I also discussed the value of their brightly colored feathers to the ancient inhabitants of the southwest. Although most of the recorded data concerning the presence of these birds comes from Mimbres and Hohokam sites, pictures of these birds in other locations (like Hovenweep) testify to their equal importance in the Ancestral Puebloan peoples of the Four-Corners area.

Parrots, star, and eagle tail headdress. Petroglyph Nat.
Mon., Albuquerque, NM. Photo: Peter Faris, 1988.

Another area with parrots or macaws pictured as petroglyphs on the rocks comes from the Petroglyph National Monument on West Mesa at Albuquerque, New Mexico. The photographs of parrot petroglyphs accompanying this posting were taken there in 1988.
Close-up of parrots, and eagle tail headdress. Petroglyph
Nat. Mon., Albuquerque, NM. Photo: Peter Faris, 1988.

Both photos include a 6” scale to give an indication of the size of the images. The first picture shows a single parrot in side view along with what I believe is intended to represent a mask. The second picture is of a pair of parrots pictured belly to belly facing each other. This second portrayal is on a boulder with other sky themes including a four-pointed star and another mask surmounted by an eagle tail fan. As can be seen the facial area of the mask is below the surface of the ground and there may be more unseen rock art down there as well.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Aurora, Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, 2010.

One of the motives often cited for the creation of rock art is territorial marking. Somewhat like a wolf or coyote scent marking his territory, the creator of the rock art is supposed to be putting a message on the rock for all to see stating “this is my territory”. As I understand it this is pretty much also the motivation for tagging (the spray painting of symbols and/or messages) in our modern society. The image I have included in this article is an example of tagging from just a little distance outside of my neighborhood in 2009. So why was this design painted on the surface of this electrical control box? While I am not sure of the reason, I suspect it was an adolescent’s cry for attention - I am here! Another possibility is that it was a territorial marker, exactly as in the theory postulated.

Fremont Indian State Park, Utah. Photo: Peter Faris, 2001.

I have friends who believe passionately in this theory of territorial marking, who see a pattern in the placement of rock art images on geographical features near the edges of territorial boundaries which they interpret as boundary markers to warn other groups that they have reached the land of our group. Even if we accept the reality of this pattern of symbol placement at territorial boundaries there is another possible motivation for this effect that they totally overlook. The boundaries of our territory are not only the part of our land first contacted by foreigners; they are also often the farthest places in our territory from our residential centers. In other words they would also be the best locations to place something that we do not want our own people to have unrestricted access to. Whether we are trying to keep something secret or trying to keep something of spiritual significance undefiled by our profane eyes, a spot as far as possible from where our people live would tend to fall on the boundaries of our territory.

Is this at all possible? There are examples, at least in the religions of peoples of the Great Plains, where items of great spiritual significance are supposed to be concealed from the eyes of others. The design on the shield of a Plains Indian warrior was considered so sacred that it had to be concealed from prying eyes, and the shield was kept hidden in a decorated cover except when opened to carry into combat. There are also instances of objects that are sacred to the tribe or group being kept wrapped up in a so-called “medicine bundle” and concealed in the care of a specially appointed keeper, only to be opened and viewed by the few select people who are considered qualified, on the occasion of special rites or ceremonies. In light of these examples, hiding images of sacred significance as far from the prying eyes of the rest of the group could make sense.

So what is it; boundary marker, scent marking, or sacred imagery? I do not yet know any way we could differentiate. I guess that we will probably individually continue to apply the interpretation that makes the most sense to us personally. I must admit however that I enjoy speculating that the creation of many of the abstract symbols in rock art was done by adolescent prehistoric taggers, and that their parents could be seen shaking their heads in dismay over such vandalism to the neighborhood.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Bird-headed figure, Kiva Point, Ute Mountain Ute
Reservation, CO. Photo: Peter Faris, 1981

Bird-headed figure, Kiva Point, Ute Mountain Ute
Reservation, CO. Photo: Peter Faris, 1981.
Arrow is pointing to bird on the anthropomorph's head.

One of the more enigmatic, and interesting, themes in the rock art of the 4-corners and the Colorado Plateau, is the bird-headed figure. Many of these figures have a bird standing on the head of an anthropomorphic figure; others have the head of the anthropomorph replaced by a bird.

Tule reed duck decoy, from Marsha C. Bol, ed. (1998, 104).

In 1998, Sandra L. Olsen wrote in Animals in American Indian Life: An Overview “Several north American tribes made duck decoys. Remarkable preservation at Lovelock Cave, Nevada, has led to the recovery of 3,000-year-old decoys - - - that were made by stretching a bird skin over a tule reed form. Many ethnographic reports describe hunters putting duck skins – on their heads as they swam right up to live ducks. They captured the ducks by grabbing their feet and pulling them underwater, so as not to disturb other nearby fowl” (Bol, 1998:104).

Back during that period the American southwest was considerably wetter than it is today. In parts of what is now desert, people were swimming and duck hunting. Lovelock Cave was named after Lovelock in Humboldt County, Nevada. Then the area had a large lake and extensive tule reed marshes. Excavations in that cave as well as others in the area prove that the people of 3,500 to 1,000 years BP lived a life of relative plenty with large numbers of waterfowl included in their diet. Although this is not part of the Colorado Plateau we can assume that similar conditions must have existed there leading to the bird-headed anthropomorphs in the rock art.

Bird-Headed figures, from Alex Patterson, (1992: 49).

It seems probable that the presence of bird-headed figures on rock art panels had some influence on the later development of the kachina beliefs of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples. I can picture later people inspired by those images, making headdresses and masks to imitate the images with birds on (or replacing) their heads. This might be supported by the important place that ducks take in the kachina religion.

At Zuni it is believed that when the kachinas return home they do so in the form of ducks. Ducks are addressed not only in invocation of rain, but of seeds as well, and thus for plentiful crops. The Salimobia kachinas were guardians, messengers to the spirits, and seed bearers from the directions. They arise from the waters of the lake under which the kiva of the kachinas is located. Salimobia are like ducks, and their kachinas are associated with ducks. The duck kachina is called Pawik and his mask is equipped with a duck’s bill.

So the bird-headed figures may have been originally depictions of hunters wearing duck decoys on their heads, and later became involved with the kachina cults of Ancestral Pueblo peoples. These figures today provide us with clues to the ancient history of the area, and charming figures in their own right.

Bol, Marsha C., editor
1998   Stars Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Niwot, CO.

Patterson, Alex
1992   A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest, Johnson Books, Boulder.