Saturday, May 28, 2011


Flute-playing armadillo, on a private ranch north of Santa Fe, NM.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1994.
Field sketch of flute-playing armadillo.
Peter Faris, 1994.

I photographed this illustration on a private ranch North of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It has been interpreted as a flute-playing armadillo, which I have no argument with since it looks like that more than anything else. There are extraneous figures on the rock that confuse the image somewhat (apparently two crude anthropomorphs among others) so I have included a black and white field sketch as well.

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, New Mexico.
Photo: John and Esther Faris, 1988.

The second petroglyph is from Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico, and is often called a rabbit because of the long ears. If, however, you look at a photograph of an armadillo you will see that they have quite long ears as well. Additionally, this figure has a long, narrow, pointed tail and I cannot think that it is truly meant to be  a rabbit. It has a patterned body that might indicate the pattern of an armadillo’s scales, and indeed is also holding a stick or flute in its forepaws much like my other example.

Researching the armadillo in Native American mythology gives one a number of symbolic meanings for this creature.  According to the Legends of America website armadillo represents “Safety oriented, grounded, and has boundaries”. Support Native American Art stated that armadillo “Understands personal boundary and respects the boundaries of others; carries protection at all times; understanding of vulnerabilities; empathy; discrimination.” None of this carries any musical connotation at all.

Perhaps the most interesting result of my search, however, is the following myth from Latin America found on referring to “The Armadillo’s Song”.
Armadillo's Song, A Bolivian Legend retold by S.E. Schlosser.
There once lived an armadillo who loved music more than anything else in the world. After every rainfall, the armadillo would drag his shell over to the large pond filled with frogs and he would listen to the big green frogs singing back and forth, back and forth to each other in the most amazing voices.
"Oh," thought the armadillo, "Oh how I wish I could sing."

The armadillo would creep to the edge of the water and watch the frogs leaping and swimming in a frantic green ballet, and they would call back and forth, back and forth in beautiful, musical tones. He loved to listen to the music they made as they spoke, though he didn't understand their words; which was just as well - for the frogs were laughing at this funny animal that wanted so badly to sing like a frog.
"Don't be ridiculous," sang the frogs as they played. "Armadillos can't sing."

This experience was repeated with crickets that moved into a house near him, and they also ridiculed his desire to sing like them.
Then one day a man came down the road carrying a cage full of canaries. They were chirping and flittering and singing songs that were more beautiful even than those of the crickets and the frogs. The armadillo was entranced. He followed the man with the cage down the road as fast as his little legs would carry him, listening to the canaries singing.
"Oh," gasped the armadillo, "Oh how I wish I could sing." Inside the cage, the canaries twittered and giggled. "Don't be ridiculous," sang the canaries as they flapped about. "Armadillos can't sing."

The poor tired armadillo couldn't keep up with the man and the cage, and finally he fell exhausted at the door of the great wizard who lived in the area. Realizing where he was, the armadillo decided to beg a boon of the man.
Timidly, the armadillo approached the wizard, who was sitting in front of his house and said: "Great wizard, it is my deepest desire to learn to sing like the frogs and the crickets and the canaries."
The wizard's lips twitched a little in amusement, for who had ever heard of an armadillo that could sing. But he realized that the little animal was serious. He bent low to the ground and looked the creature in the eye. "I can make you sing, little armadillo," he said. "But you do not want to pay the price, for it will mean your death."
"You mean if I die I will be able to sing?" asked the armadillo in amazement.
"Yes, this is so," said the wizard.
"Then I want to die right now!" said the armadillo. "I would do anything to be able to sing!"

The wizard and the armadillo discussed the matter for many hours, for the wizard was reluctant to take the life of such a fine armadillo. But the creature insisted, and so the wizard finally killed the armadillo, made a wonderful musical instrument from his shell, and gave it to the finest musician in the town to play. Sometimes the musician would play his instrument by the pond where the frogs lived, and they would stare at him with big eyes and say: "Ai! Ai! The armadillo has learned to sing." Sometimes the musician would play his instrument by the house where the crickets lived, and they would creep outside to stare at him with big eyes and say: "Ai! Ai! The armadillo has learned to sing."
And often the musician would visit the home of his friend who owned the cage full of canaries - who was also a musician - and the two men would play their instruments together while the little birds watched with fluttering wings and twittered in amazement: "Ai! Ai! The armadillo has learned to sing." And so it was. The armadillo had learned to sing at last, and his voice was the finest in the land. But like the very best musicians in the world, the armadillo sacrificed his Life for his Art.

This myth refers to the creation of the Latin American musical instrument known as the charanga, and it is most definitely not prehistoric. According to Wikipediathe charango is a small South American stringed instrument of the lute family traditionally made with the shell of the back of an armadillo. It typically has 10 strings in five courses of 2 strings each, though other variations exist. The instrument was invented in the early 18th century in the Vice-Royalty of Peru (nowadays Perú and Bolivia).” Are we entitled to conjecture that there may have been prehistoric roots linking armadillos with music that later were manifested in this myth? In other words where could the origins of the singing armadillo be?

We know of myths and legends in the American southwest that seem to have been adopted as a result of influences from Central America. So could this myth from 18th century Central America explain these prehistoric petroglyphs? No, of course not. Are these animals actually even armadillos, well perhaps.  If any of my readers have a suggestion I am very interested in hearing it, but until then it is an interesting story and a charming myth.


Sunday, May 22, 2011


Fremont Indian State Park, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1992.

Back in the 1980s I was invited to speak about rock art at a meeting being held in the town of Springfield in southeastern Colorado. As part of the presentation I was talking about bighorn sheep petroglyphs which are very common in that area. I don’t honestly remember exactly what I was saying about them, but I was rudely interrupted from the floor by someone who stood up and loudly proclaimed that LaVan Martineau had solved the question of bighorn sheep petroglyphs. “They are a metaphor for travel.  The clues needed to understand their meaning are that the length of the legs represents the distance to be traveled, and the contour of the belly of the sheep represents how rough the country to be crossed is. Bighorn sheep petroglyphs with a deeply rounded belly show the contour of the country to consist of deep valleys, in other words rough country with plenty of mountains and valleys to cross”(Martineau 1973).  
The photograph of petroglyphs from Fremont Indian State Park in Utah includes two bighorn petroglyphs. According to Martineau that would refer to two trips, presumably taken by the maker of the images. Also, their bodies are shaped differently so that means that the country they passed through varied on those trips.

From The Rocks Begin to Speak, LaVan Martineau, 1976, p.122.

In his book, The Rocks Begin To Speak, Martineau illustrates a mountain sheep (which he calls a goat) and his analysis says that the “symbol – of a goat with four legs signifies travel”. Martineau proceeded to read this image as the story of Major John Wesley Powell’s exploratory voyage through the Grand Canyon in 1869. “The horn incorporates with the goat’s back to form a V on its side, meaning open, or an opening – in this case the opening of a canyon, the Grand Canyon itself. This highest horn is also crooked, denoting the crookedness of the canyon, it also forms the goat’s head to denote going into a crooked canyon’’ (Martineau 1973:122).

Martineau went on to explain that “the other horn traversing the full length of this goat’s back indicates a journey the full length, or from one end to the other of this canyon. This lower horn is a single one, a doubled horn would indicate a safe journey. This was obviously not the case , since the Paiutes killed three of Major Powell’s men who had left the expedition, supposedly near Separation Rapids”. As I have previously written, Martineau claimed that he learned to read the symbols in rock art during training for the US Army Intelligence Corps. Well, I also went through the US Army Intelligence Corps training and served in the US Army Intelligence Corps, and I can testify that there was nothing in that training that had any relevance to rock art.
Wounded bighorn sheep, Three Rivers Petroglyph Park,
New Mexico. Photo: Jack and Esther Faris, 1988.

In fact the illustration of the bighorn sheep from Three Rivers Petroglyph Park in New Mexico with three arrows sticking in him provides strong evidence that at least some bighorn sheep rock art represents groceries.
Flint blade from Baca County, Colorado.
Drawn by Peter Faris, 1994.

Shortly after the episode in Springfield, I had the opportunity to view a cache of large blade tools that had been discovered in a rock shelter in that same area by the wife of the rancher that owned that particular parcel of land. These impressive blades had been struck out of Alibates flint. I borrowed one of the blade tools which was chipped into an effective knife blade, and turned it over to Dr. Richard Marlar, who was at that time perfecting his techniques for detecting and identifying blood protein residues on stone tools. He had discovered the amazing durability of blood protein residues which last for surprisingly long periods of time on a stone surface. Dr. Marlar ran his tests on this blade and found positive signs of bison, deer, sheep, and rabbit blood on that blade. In other words, back before it was cached prehistorically this blade had been used as a knife to cut up those animals, or at least had come into contact with blood from those animals. From this we can probably deduce that the ancient inhabitants of southeastern Colorado had hunted and butchered bighorn sheep, probably the desert bighorn variety.

To me this fact provides a strong piece of evidence that the ancient images of bighorn sheep are more likely to have represented hunting records and food resources, than they are to have represented metaphors for travel. Which brings us back to the original question, are bighorn sheep petroglyphs statements about hunting a food source (groceries), or are they a metaphor for travel? In my view the Alibates flint blade that had butchered bighorn sheep also butchered the idea of the bighorn being a metaphor for travel, but I do not expect that this reasoning will affect true believers.
On the other hand, if we want to make up a meaning that satisfies both possibilities it would be that the bighorn sheep petroglyph represents the food needed for the trip – groceries and travel metaphor in one! However, our making it up has no bearing on the truth of the situation. The risk here is in believing our own pronouncements too seriously. Remember, we are trying to figure out what the ancient peoples who produced the rock art meant by it, not trying to figure out what we think it might mean. There is often a big difference

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Double Kokopelli, from Dorothy Hoard, 1995,
Sentinels on Stone, the Petroglyphs of Los Alamos,
Los Alamos Historical Society, Los Alamos, p. 11,
   photograph by Betty Lilienthal.

Double Kokopelli reversed, from Dorothy Hoard, 1995,
Sentinels on Stone, the Petroglyphs of Los Alamos,
Los Alamos Historical Society, Los Alamos, p. 11,
photograph by Betty Lilienthal.

This photograph is found in the book Sentinels on Stone by Dorothy Hoard (1995:11), with photographs by Betty Lilienthal. It shows a remarkable image of a kokopelli or flute player with some extra features. The remarkable thing about this flute player is that he works both ways, right side up and upside down. He is a twinned figure containing two images in one. This is, perhaps, analogous to the optical illustion of a rabbit's head that can also be a duck's head, and the drawing of the face of an old woman that can also be seen as a 3/4 rear view of a young woman. It also seems to be related to the phenomenon of the “ambigram”, a word written in such a font that it reads the same either side up. As the flute player image is the product of a pre-literate culture the term “ambigram” does not fit well, but in order to preserve the concept perhaps we can use the variation ambiglyph to describe this petroglyph. In any cased it is a remarkable example, purposely created to work as an image of kokopelli, the flute player, that can be recognized either way up.


Dorothy Hoard,
1995    Sentinels on Stone, the Petroglyphs of Los Alamos, Los Alamos Historical Society, Los Alamos,   photography by Betty Lilienthal, p.11.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Reviewing James Lowen’s book, SUNDOWN TOWNS: A HIDDEN DIMENSION OF AMERICAN RACISM, The New Press, New York, 2005.

Sundown Towns is the descriptive name applied to many American towns that had posted signs at the city limits warning African/American people to be out of the town limits before dark. The inscription was generally some variation of a warning to “get your black ass out of town before dark”. How does this historical racist phenomenon possibly impinge upon the world of rock art? Well, if painted on rock the message qualifies as a shameful but historical inscription.

This writer can testify to the presence of a wooden sign on the outskirts of one small town in east Tennessee in the late-1960s that said “N - - - - -r, don’t let the sun set on you in this town”. As convenient shorthand for the “get your black ass out of town” version many locales reportedly simply sported a painting of a black donkey (ass) on a convenient cliff or rock near the town limits, with its head pointed away from town. Those for whom the message was intended understood the message all too well.

The slightly blurry version pictured was copied from James Loewen’s 2005 book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism, published by The New Press, in New York. Loewen credits this picture to one Margaret Alam who snapped the slightly blurred image outside of a Liberty, Tennessee, in 2003. Loewen gave no indication of when the image might have originally been painted, hopefully it is a holdover from an earlier time of more overt racism, although it seems significant that no one had removed it by 2003.
Why bring such an unpleasant thing up at all, wouldn’t it be better to just ignore this? I believe that if we are serious about trying to understand rock art we have to take the bad with the good. This most certainly qualifies as a historic inscription casting light upon a part of American history that still has not been completely resolved, and as such it has as much or more relevance to our field of study than does William Clark’s signature on Pompey’s Pillar outside of Billings, Montana, although it is much less pleasant to contemplate. Indeed this particular historic inscription implies events and ideas that still resonate in our society and our daily lives.