Saturday, December 29, 2012


Tlacuachero game board. From Games People Play, Barbara Voorhies,
p. 48, Archaeology Magazine, May-June 2012.

An article in the May/June 2012 issue of Archaeology magazine illustrated another possible use for groups of small holes. In this article Barbara Voorhies (Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara) described discoveries at the site of Tlacuachero in the Mexican state of Chiapas which was inhabited between 5,050 to 4,230 years ago. The floors of some of the huts excavated had circular or oval patterns of holes in them that she identified as game boards. Voorhies source of inspiration for this identification came from the book Games Of The North American Indians, by Stewart Culin, originally published in 1907 as the Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1902-1903, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Voorhies explained that “Culin’s book pulled together ethnographic accounts showing that board games were played by societies across the area that is now Canada, the United States, and Mexico.”

Walapai game board, Fig. 279, p. 208, From: Culin, Stewart,
Games of the North American Indians, Vol. 1, Twenty-fourth
Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology,
1902-1903, Smithsonian Institution.

White Mountain Apache game board, Fig. 86, p.88, 
From: Culin, Stewart, Games of the North American
Indians, Vol. 1, Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the
Bureau of American Ethnology1902-1903,
Smithsonian Institution.

One category of games in the system of classification developed by Culin was “race games”, such as our modern children’s game of Candyland where the winner is the first to reach the final goal. “In race games, the winner is the first player to move his or her pieces to a goal – Candyland and Snakes and Ladders are modern versions of race games. The “boards” themselves were usually improvised arrangements of small stones. In places where stones were not easily available, people made their game boards by digging small holes. The Hualapai people of Arizona used a type of game board closely resembling the oval features at Tlacuachero.” (Voorhies 2012: 50)

Pecked holes in lava flow, Puako, Hawaii, Photograph: Ellen Belef, Sept. 2012.

Pecked holes in rock, PuuLoa, Hawaii, Photograph: Joe Belef, 2007.

I shall not go into details about how these games were played referring any interested parties to go to the original publication. Suffice it to say, however, the knowledge of the existence of these features, and the reasons for them, should suggest to us that there are other possible identifications that may be considered for circular, or oval, patterns of holes. These patterns of holes can be found in many locations among the rock art. I have illustrated two examples from among the photographs of Hawaiian rock art given me by Joe and Ellen Belef, but I have seen such patterns in many places in the American west. As I stated elsewhere these are often misidentified as piko stones no matter where they are found (including the American west). All too often rock art enthusiasts parrot a line such as “holes in a stone are meant to put a newborn’s umbilical cord in,” but even in Hawaii where piko stones really exist, not all patterns of holes in a rock may be correctly identified as piko stones.

So, in the future, while pondering the true nature of a pattern of holes in a rock surface I submit that we must also keep in mind the possibility that patterns of holes may have other purposes such as counting or for use as game boards. Remember humanity’s predilection for play.

Thank you again to Ellen and Joe Belef for sharing their Hawaiian rock art photographs with us all.

Culin, Stewart
1907    Games Of The North American Indians, Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1902-1903, Smithsonian Institution.

Voorhies, Barbara
2012    GAMES PEOPLE PLAY, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2012, pages 48 – 51.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


PuuLoa, Hawaii, Photograph Joe Belef, 2007. 

PuuLoa, Hawaii, Photograph Joe Belef, 2007.

On November 17, 2012, I put up a posting about Hawaiian Piko stones. These are stones with holes pecked into them that serve as receptacles for the umbilical cords of newborn infants, the belief being that spiritual benefits will accrue to the newborn because of this. Rock surfaces with pecked holes can be found worldwide, and, because of the recorded Hawaiian purpose for such holes they are often, and usually incorrectly, also interpreted as umbilical cord receptacles, Piko stones around the world. As I have stated before we just cannot take a piece of data from one culture and simply apply it to another culture without considerable supporting evidence. We cannot even assume that similar items from within the same culture all have similar uses.

Pohaku Ka Luahine, Moanalua valley, Honolulu.
Photograph Peter Faris,10-23-2010.

Pohaku Ka Luahine, Moanalua valley, Honolulu.
Photograph Peter Faris,10-23-2010.

Field sketch of Pohaku Ka Luahine, Moanalua Valley,
Oahu, Ancient Sites of Oahu, Van James
Bishop Museum Press,  p. 50.

On Dec. 1, 2010, I had posted a column about a rock art site on the Hawaiian island of Oahu that has a grouping of pits in its upper surface that are considered to be a game board, not a piko stone. This site, named Pohaku Ka Luahine, is found in Moanalua valley and consists of a large round boulder. It is densly pecked with lines and figures as well as the game board. I could not really distinguish the grid of pits of the konane game board on the top of the boulder. This is a checkers-like game played with black and white pebbles by Hawaiians and examples have reportedly been found with one hundred or more pits pecked into boulders. This particular boulder is quite eroded and given the dim light under the jungle canopy there were few options for visual clues from side lighting.If there was any patina on the boulder surface it was the same color and value as the rock itself because there was virtually no color difference to go by. Details were hard to see and really did not come through well in the photos at all. I have illustrated it with an obviously incomplete field sketch from the Bishop Museum which does not include many of the lines and images visible in the photograph of the boulder. This is, however, an instance of an attributed game board in rock art.

So, what are the examples in the photographs by Joe Belef, Piko stones, game boards, or something else? Notice that on the game board boulder the pits are arranged in rows in a grid pattern. Also, there are many other petroglyphs of figures, etc., on the Pohaku Ka Luahine. Examples of actual attributed Piko stones that I have seen did not have the pits arranged in a grid, and they had no other figures on them. By comparison, these examples then have to be classified as either, or both, or something else entirely, because they have additional figures but are not arranged in grid patterns. Interesting? 

James, Van
2010    Ancient Sites of O’ahu, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, p.50

Thursday, December 20, 2012


This notice has been circulating recently, concerning vandalism to a rock art panel. Since time may be a factor in resolving this crime I am posting it immediately. If any of you in the area of Bishop, CA, can provide any information please give them a call.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


 Charcoal rhinoceros, Coliboaia cave, Romania.
From: Zorich, Zach, Drawing Paleolithic Romania,
page 14, from Archaeology Magazine, January/February 2012.

The January/February 2012 issue of Archaeology Magazine contained an article, written by Zach Zorich, about the discovery of charcoal drawings in the Romanian cave of Coliboaia. John Clottes visited the cave in the Spring of 2010 and reported “about eight images that appear to have been drawn with pieces of charcoal.” One of the images is very clearly a rhinoceros, and others are described as depicting “horses or bears.” Some of the images have been damaged by scratching from the claws of hanging bats, and in places a layer of calcite has formed over the drawings, partially obscuring them. 

Charcoal drawing of a horse, Coliboaia cave, Romania.
From: Zorich, Zach, Drawing Paleolithic Romanian, p. 14,
from Archaeology Magazine, January/February 2012.

Clottes removed a small sample of charcoal from one of the drawings as well as collecting a small piece of charcoal from a ledge below that image for radiocarbon dating. The resulting reported dates place the drawing at about 32,000 years BP and the charcoal came in at about 35,000 BP.  Clottes stated “the Coliboaia dates are important because they prove that from the earliest times of cave art in Europe, people had the same cultural practices all over the continent.”

Planned future research at this site will include precise recording of the charcoal drawings by tracing them, as well as recording an unknown number of images that have been cut or scratched into the surface. I hope that Archaeology Magazine will follow up on that and show us what they find.

Zorich, Zach, Drawing Paleolithic Romania, p. 14, from Archaeology Magazine, January/February 2012.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Petroglyph figure outlined with rocks. Waikoloa Petroglyph 
Preserve, Puako, Hawaii. Photo Ellen Belef, Sept. 2012.

Another petroglyph figure outlined with rocks. Waikoloa 
Petroglyph Preserve, Puako, Hawaii.
Photo Ellen Belef, Sept. 2012.

Another petroglyph figure outlined with rocks. Waikoloa 
Petroglyph Preserve, Puako, Hawaii.
Photo Ellen Belef, Sept. 2012..

An interesting phenomenon is found at Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve, Puako, Hawaii. Some of the petroglyph figures are fenced or outlined with a circle of small rocks. I must admit that I do not know the reason for this although a few possibilities come readily to mind. The ring of rocks could represent a kind of a fence that sets that particular image apart from the others. This could have been done by someone who identifies his or her own lineage with that particular figure. Or it could be intended to point out an important individual by separating his image from the general figures. Another possibility is that it is intended as a sort of memorial, a gift to the deceased, or as an offering as is sometimes seen in our culture by placing a small stone on a grave or sifting a handful of dirt on a grave. I also think that this has to be assumed to have been done from positive intentions (acts done from negative motivations would have been destructive such as spray painting or some other form of defacing or vandalism).

In any case, whatever the motive for this outlining of the petroglyph, this provides evidence that these figures are still relevant to at least some individuals. That someone is interacting positively with them. In other words, instead of being a mere historical curiosity, they are actually still a living part of the life of someone or someones. They should be respected and preserved for that, even if for no other reason.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Vision quest site and petroglyphs, Horsethief Lake State
Park, Washington. Photo: Peter Faris, 2000. Notice the
chipped edge of the rock face with the pictographs.

In the summer of 2000 I had the good luck and great privilege to be guided around Horsethief Lake State Park, in Washington State, by Dr. James Keyser, one of the great names in North American Rock Art studies. There is considerable Yakima polychrome painted style rock art in this area and it is also the site of numerous petroglyphs including the marvelous petroglyph known as Tsagaglalal, “She who watches”, which originally probably also included some paint.

Vision quest site and petroglyphs, Horsethief Lake State
Park, Washington. Photo: Peter Faris, 2000. Notice
the chipped edge of the rock face with the petroglyphs.

Along with considerable rock art, the vicinity of Tsagaglalal also contains some small rock shelters which seem to have been used as vision quest sites. The rock floors of these shelters show a considerable degree of butt-polish apparently acquired by frequent sliding in and out of place accompanied by long periods of sitting. The rock here is volcanic, apparently basalt, and naturally fractures in angular blocks. The rock shelters are located in low cliff and are the result of large blocks cracking loose and falling away leaving small, roughly rectangular openings. Many of the nearly right angled edges of the rock around these shelters have been chipped away in small flakes. Keyser suggested that the rock might have been chipped away for medicinal purposes because of the spiritual nature of the site (so near to Tsagaglalal). Additionally, the supposed vision quest shelters also usually contain petroglyphs as well.

Tsagaglalal (She Who Watches), Horsethief Lake
State Park, Washington. Photo: Peter Faris, 2000.
Native American beliefs in animism attributed a spirit presence to many of the physical features around them. According to Wikipedia animism “is a philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans and animals but also in plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder and lightning, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment.” The presence of Tsagaglalal would have added a strong spiritual attraction to the environment as well. I can picture that a young Native American undergoing a successful vision quest in this environment might well have wanted to take a chip of the rock with him, to include its power in his medicine bundle.

A pebble wedged into a crack on the cliff by a petroglyph.
Vision quest site and petroglyphs, Horsethief Lake State
Park, Washington. Photo: Peter Faris, 2000.

Another interesting phenomenon found in these rock shelters is the placement of small pebbles of stone into cracks in the rock face at these shelters, perhaps as some sort of offering. I think of this as the “Kilroy was here” motivation, the human urge to make some sort of visible change, to leave some record of their existence. Alternatively, the pebbles may have originally been jammed into the crack to hold some sort of organic offering in place that has since been lost to the elements.

Perhaps any study of a rock art location should include a much more detailed study of surrounding rock surfaces for such modifications as further clues toward the later interpretation of the purpose and significance of the rock art.

Note: I am deeply grateful to my friend Jim Keyser for taking the time and effort to guide me to these locations.