Saturday, May 26, 2012


Duck-shaped mound, Peru.

Orca Mound with village, Peru.

We are all familiar with the marvelous geoglyphs, the Nazca Lines, in the western desert of Peru. However, a new discovery nearby proves that the Nazca Lines are not the only geoglyphs in that location.

A press release issued on March 29, 2012, by Timothy Wall, of the University of Missouri – Columbia, announced the discovery of animal-shaped effigy mounds near Nazca, in Peru. Writing of the discoveries by University of Missouri Anthropology Professor Emeritus Robert Benfer, Wall stated: “COLUMBIA, Mo. - For more than a century and a half, scientists and tourists have visited massive animal-shaped mounds, such as Serpent Mound in Ohio, created by the indigenous people of North America. But few animal effigy mounds had been found in South America until University of Missouri anthropology professor emeritus Robert Benfer identified numerous earthen animals rising above the coastal plains of Peru, a region already renowned for the Nazca lines, the ruined city of Chan Chan, and other cultural treasures.”

“Benfer identified the mounds, which range from five meters (16.5 feet) to 400 meters (1,312 feet) long in each of the six valleys he surveyed in coastal Peru. The mounds pre-date ceramics and were probably built using woven baskets to carry and pile up rock and soil. “
“Like the Nazca lines, which include a series of giant animal outlines drawn on the ground to the south, the animal mounds were best observed from a higher vantage point. Google Earth images of the mounds revealed the shapes of birds, including a giant condor, a 5,000 year-old orca, a duck, and a caiman/puma monster seen in bone and rock carvings from the area.”

Buzzard-shaped mound, Peru.

Caiman/Puma mound, Peru.

What I find particularly exciting about these animal-shaped effigy mounds is that although Benfer dates them to pre-ceramic periods, their subjects and shapes resemble later portrayals of those creatures on effigy pots, decorated ceramic pots, and even some of the famous Nazca geoglyphs. The imagery persisted over a very long period of time.
“Previously, the only other effigy mounds known from South America were a few sites in the Andes, but Benfer's discoveries may be just the beginning. "In each field season, I have found more giant mounds and more fields of smaller ones. I will go back in June and July confident of identifying more on the ground," Benfer said. Although they appear to be plentiful, researchers overlooked the animal effigies since the first days of scientific archeology in Peru.”

These images still resonate with us today. There is something about the scale of the art at Nazca, the giant geoglyphs on the rocky surface of the desert and now animal-shaped effigy mounds really capture our imaginations. It seems like every time that we relax and assume that all the big discoveries have been made, something else pops up to surprise us.

Contact: Timothy Wall,, 573-882-3346, University of Missouri-Columbia

Saturday, May 19, 2012


In looking at rock art we tend to approach the images as single, unitary works. Even in the case of exceptional images that must be classified as high quality visual portrayal we do not usually ask the obvious question; “where are his practice images?” No artist just springs up full blown onto the scene producing works of high quality. Such end results demand many years of practice to achieve.

3-Princesses, near Cub Creek, Dinosaur National
Monument, UT. Photo: Peter Faris.

In some instances we can identify multiple images created by the same hand, adding up to a body of work, something expected of a professional artist. One good example is the panel known as the 3-Princesses near Cub Creek in Dinosaur National Monument, Utah. These three Fremont anthropomorphs exhibit every indication in style and technique of having been produced by the same hand.

Three abstracted Fremont figures, Cub Creek, 
Dinosaur Nat. Mon., UT. Photo: Peter Faris.

Nearby the 3-Princesses, on the cliff face at the Cub Creek site, are a few other instances of multiple images that give every indication of having been produced by the same artist.

Fremont, McConkie Ranch,
UT. Photo: Peter Faris.

What this implies is that the artist that produced the high-quality panel that we admire must have produced many lower quality images while working up to that level of ability. So instead of a large number of creators producing the large number of images at Cub Creek, there may have actually been relatively few artists, each producing a range of images from poor to high quality while practicing their art. This question does have serious implications in the study of rock art as it goes directly to the question of who created it. Was it a large number of people, each making one, or at most a few images, or was it a small number of people, each creating a larger number of images while perfecting their art?  

Saturday, May 12, 2012


An article (p.51-57) by Will Hunt in the May, 2012, issue of Discover Magazine, entitled “Secrets of the White Shaman” attempts to explain the meaning behind one of the truly iconic panels of Pecos Style rock art in Texas. Hunt is writing about the theories of Carolyn Boyd who purports (at least according to Hunt) to be able to read the hidden messages in the panels of rock art. According to Hunt; “working like a detective, she discovered a symbolic code that reveals narratives in the paintings, which she believes can be read, almost like an ancient language (p.51).” By the end of the article we have learned that Pecos rock art can all be explained by the S-Word (Shamanism).

White Shaman, Val Verde County, TX.
Photograph Peter Faris, March 2004.

Archaeologists, she (Boyd) read, believed the paintings were related to shamanism, the common religious practice among tribes in the region. The shaman was a tribe’s liaison with the spirit world (p. 52).”  In  truth there is a broad range of opinions among archaeologists about the relationship between rock art and Shamanism. While some amateur aficionados of rock art ascribe all rock art to Shamanism, many students of rock art prefer to be much more careful with the term, and purists point out that the term Shamanism technically should only be used to describe the spiritual beliefs of Siberian tribes (where the word originated).  According to Wikipedia: The term "shaman" is a loan from the Turkic word šamán, the term for such a practitioner, which also gained currency in the wider Turko-Mongol and Tungusic cultures in ancient Siberia.  Shamans were known as "priests" in the region of where Uralic languages, Turkic, or Mongolic languages are spoken.”  To designate the beliefs of a people of a different time and culture, to say nothing of thousands of miles away from Siberia, shamanic, just seems to be too much of a stretch for me. I am much more comfortable admitting that the belief systems of the old Pecos inhabitants may have had things in common with shamanism, or may have had shamanic-like elements, especially as so little of their culture is known. I just cannot say they are the same any more than, on the basis of present cultural evidence, I could say that Baptists and Unitarians believe alike, even though they are both Protestant Christian religions. 

Red deer, White Shaman panel, Val Verde County, TX.
Photo Peter Faris, 2004.

Other examples of leaping to unwarranted conclusions can be found. On page 54 we learn that “This was a pattern: Nearly every tribe in the region envisioned a serpent as the divider between the earthly and the spiritual realms, explaining the wavy lines on the Lower Pecos rocks.”  Really? Which tribes, and what are the boundaries of the region? And on page 56; “Next to the underworld was an isolated red deer: this had to be the sacred deer that led the humans on the journey east. (Note: The red deer on the opposite page may be facing west, but the ancient rock artists always depicted west on the right side of a pictogram).” (the underline is mine). What can I say, I have studied rock art for  35 years and I missed that west is "always" on the right side of a pictograph  – how embarrassing!
Also on page 56 is one of the best quotes of the whole article.  “Retired University of Texas archaeologist Solveig Turpin, who began researching in the Lower Pecos in the 1970s believes connecting 4,000-year-old paintings to a contemporary tribe (the Huichol) is unwarranted. ‘You’re reaching across thousands of years and hundreds of miles,’ she says. ‘It just doesn’t hold up.”  Right on Solveig.
Now I actually don’t want to be too harsh on Boyd. First, I have to admit that much of her supporting data is real, some of the images are like images in Huichol art and belief, but there is little proof other than the images themselves that there is any connection. Second, I believe it’s possible that Hunt may have exaggerated Boyd’s case because of enthusiasm. This is heady stuff, translating messages from a people lost for 4,000 years, no wonder he is enthusiastic!  I would personally love to make a discovery of this magnitude, and find so much proof that I am right. Finally, the exaggerations may have come from the editors at Discover Magazine.
So I fear that I will have to remain a skeptic for the present. But by all means look up the article, if only for the pictures. There are some great photographs of some of the truly outstanding rock art in North America, if not the world. And if future study lends credence to Boyd’s theories I will happily eat my words and congratulate her. 

Also, I recommend Boyd's book Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, Carolyn E. Boyd, Texas A & M University Press, College Station, 2003. While I do not agree with some of her conclusions, I did find it full of information (and some good pictures) about the amazing rock art of the Lower Pecos, and even some of her supporting evidence is interesting and worth knowing.

NOTE:  These things come up regularly. I would like to refer readers to previous RockArtBlog postings on Ogam in North America (April 20, 2009), and A Misplaced Reliance on Statistical Analysis (January 25, 2011) which addressed a report that statistical analysis proves that symbols painted on cave walls in Europe constitute a written language.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


Face petroglyph, Lena Hara cave, East Timor, Indonesia.
Photograph: ScienceDaily.

An article in ScienceDaily, dated February. 11, 2011, announced the discovery of ancient petroglyphs in a cave in the eastern portion of the island of Timor in Indonesia.

 “Ancient stone faces carved into the walls of a well-known limestone cave in East Timor have been discovered by a team searching for fossils of extinct giant rats. The team of archaeologists and palaeontologists were working in Lene Hara Cave on the northeast tip of East Timor. – “‘Looking up from the cave floor at a colleague sitting on a ledge, my head torch shone on what seemed to be a weathered carving, CSIRO's ( The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is Australia's national science agencyDr Ken Aplin said. - I shone the torch around and saw a whole panel of engraved prehistoric human faces on the wall of the cave. - The local landowners with whom we were working were stunned by the findings. They said the faces had chosen that day to reveal themselves because they were pleased by the field work we were doing.’”
The Lene Hara carvings, or petroglyphs, are frontal, stylised faces each with eyes, a nose and a mouth. One has a circular headdress with rays that frame the face. Uranium isotope dating by colleagues at the University of Queensland revealed the 'sun ray' face to be around 10,000 to 12,000 years old, placing it in the late Pleistocene. The other faces could not be dated but are likely to be equally ancient. Lene Hara cave has been visited by archaeologists and rock art specialists since the early 1960s to study its rock paintings, which include hand stencils, boats, animals, human figures and linear decorative motifs. The age of the pigment art in Lene Hara is currently unknown but a fragment of limestone with traces of embedded red ochre was dated previously by Professor Sue O'Connor of The Australian National University to over 30,000 years ago.
Although stylised engravings of faces occur throughout Melanesia, Australia and the Pacific, the Lene Hara petroglyphs are the only examples that have been dated to the Pleistocene. No other petroglyphs of faces are known to exist anywhere on the island of Timor. Recording and dating the rock art of Timor should be a priority for future research, because of its cultural significance and value in understanding the development of art in our past," Professor O'Connor said.”

Coincidentally, the island of Timor is essentially just next door to the Indonesian island of Flores where the remains of miniature humans (referred to as the Flores Hobbits) were found. I am not suggesting any connection between those people and the East Timor petroglyphs, except that they are both in an area that has not been extensively studied by science. Isn’t it exciting and wonderful that these discoveries can still be made?