Saturday, April 27, 2013


Puako owl, Hawaii, Ellen Belef, Sept. 2012.

At the Puako petroglyph site on the island of Hawaii, this figure on the right is called the Puako Owl. If this identification is correct that means that it is a representation of the Pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis), a subspecies of the Short-eared owl that is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. The Pueo also represents an ancestor spirit (na’aumakua) in Hawaiian culture.

Figure on right is called the Puako owl, Joe Belef, 2012.
Inhabiting forests and grasslands throughout the islands, their numbers are now in decline, especially on the island of Oahu, and they are now listed as an endangered species.The Pueo was first named Strix sandwichensis in 1825, by Andrew Bloxam, a naturalist aboard the british ship HMS Bonde. It is now classified as a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus. The Pueo nests on the ground which leaves their eggs and young vulnerable to predators such as the mongoose and cats, as well as by bulldozers (Wikipedia).

Hawaiian Pueo owl, Asio flammeus sandwichensisWikipedia. 
In mythology, as an amakua, the owl is specifically skilled in battle.
“The most famous legend, "The Battle of the Owls" underscores the aumakua's force. It relates the story of an Oahu man who robbed an owl's nest: After he slung the coveted bounty in his knapsack, the owl-parent shrieked with grief and complaint. The man felt sorry and quickly returned the eggs unharmed to the nest. Not only that, he took the owl as his god and built a temple in its honor. Naturally, the ruling chief thought this an act of rebellion against the prevalent gods, and ordered the man's execution. The weapon was poised, the man feared his last breath, and the owls gathered, darkening the skies with their wings. Any further action of the king's soldiers became impossible. The man walked free. Pueo-hulu-nui near Moanalua on Oahu is one of the alleged places where the awesome battle took place.”

“Much further back in time, it is said that Hina, the mother of the god Maui, gave birth to a second child, in the form of the pueo. Later, when the brave Maui was taken as prisoner by enemies and held for sacrifice, brother owl rescued him and led him to safety.”

“Another old story of rescue tells of a warrior who fought under King Kamehameha the First. Cornered by the enemy, he was about to plunge over a dangerous cliff. Right at that moment an owl flew up in his face, so that he was able to thrust out his spear into the earth, saving himself from the suicidal leap.” (

The image does also bear a marked resemblance to a figure wearing a traditional Hawaiian gourd headdress/mask or helmet. However, although one cannot completely discount identifications of rock art images made by the descendants of the original creators, but we can question the original meaning, or assign multiple references to such an image. So, until we know better, based upon its identification by Hawaiian peoples, this figure represents Pueo, the Hawaiian short-eared owl, and I like him that way.



Sunday, April 14, 2013


Circle-and-line petroglyph. From: Discovering South Carolina's 
Rock Art, Tommy Charles, 2010, fig. 65, p.73.

Circle-and-line petroglyph in position to process pine tar. 
From: Discovering South Carolina's Rock Art
Tommy Charles, 2010, fig. 66, p.74.

This book, published in 2010 by the University of South Carolina Press in Columbia, includes a very interesting set of petroglyphs in South Carolina under the stylistic designation of “circle-and-line petroglyphs.” These can best be described as a good sized circle, deeply pecked on a horizontal rock face with a line running from the edge of the rock to within the circle. Within the circle the line either branches out or intersects one or more concentric circles. What I find fascinating about these images is that they are documented to have been used by Anglo inhabitants of the area for a couple of different household chores.

Kettle full of pine wood ready for processing. From: Discovering
South Carolina's Rock Art, Tommy Charles, 2010, fig. 68, p.76.

Set up for pine tar extraction. From: Discovering South Carolina's 
Rock Art, Tommy Charles, 2010, fig. 69, p.76.

One use of the design was in the extraction of pine tar from pine roots and rich sapwood. In order to accomplish that a metal pot was filled with the pine wood and upended over the petroglyph which left only the channel to the edge of the rock exposed. This channel was covered by a piece of sheet metal when possible. Any gap around the rim of the pot was then sealed with clay or mud, and a fire was built around and on top of the pot. Heat from this fire would distill the pine tar from the wood which would drip down and be caught in the channels in the rock, to run out the channel to the edge of the rock and drip down into a second container as seen below.

Pine tar distillation runoff. From: Discovering South Carolina's 
Rock Art, Tommy Charles, 2010, fig. 70, p.77.

The other purpose to which these images were turned was in the leaching of lye from wood ashes for soap making. To accomplish this, a container with small holes in the bottom was filled with wood ashes and set on top of the circle and line design. Water was then poured into the top of the container full of wood ashes and the lye leached out through the holes in the bottom, again to be caught by the channels pecked into the rock and to run out the main channel to the edge of the rock and drip down into a container. (Charles 2010:73-78) This lye could then be used with animal fat to make soap, a process that I remember watching my maternal grandmother go through, although not with a petroglyph involved. 
Set up to process lye from wood ashes. From: Discovering South
Carolina's Rock Art, Tommy Charles, 2010, fig. 71, p.78.

Not all of the circle and line petroglyphs recorded in South Carolina and reported in this book would have been usable for these processes. Some were on vertical or angled rock faces and others on rocks that were shaped such that it would be impractical to attempt these activities. Charles wrote: “As circle-and-line petroglyphs were recorded in South Carolina, their individual characteristics were noted in detail: their placement on the host rock, the size and shape of the glyph, the configuration of the drip groove (which determined its ability or inability to transport an extracted liquid to a container), and wear patterns created by use. Any circle-and-line glyph that could possibly have functioned as a tar-burner or lye-leaching stone was accepted as such. The majority of those we recorded conform to these historic, utilitarian categories. However, there are others whose attributes or placement eliminate them from consideration as tar-extraction or lye-leaching rocks – or at least make them unlikely candidates – and offer the possibility of their being prehistoric.” (Charles 2010: 77&78)

Also, since these processes really are not used today, the recognition of these uses of petroglyphs would seem to have depended on the memory of elder citizens who still remember such things. Had this not been recognized and recorded now, would people have known about it a decade or so in the future? Would the true purpose of these images have been lost? Or would they have automatically been recorded as Native American designs? It gives us pause to think, and to thank Mr. Charles for a great piece of detective work and for giving us this fascinating record.

Charles, Tommy
2010    Discovering South Carolina’s Rock Art, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


Extraordinary Engraved Bird Track from North
Australia, Ouzman, et. al., 2002, Cambridge
Arch. Journal, Vol. 12, 2002, p. 103-112.

In 2002, a fascinating article published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal (Ouzman et. al., Vol. 12, p. 103-112) described and illustrated a petroglyph in Australia of a large three toed footprint that they interpreted as a representation of the track of Genyornis newtoni.
 “Genyornis was a large flightless bird, considerably taller and heavier than the modern ostrich or emu. It had powerful legs and tiny wings, and probably most closely resembled its living relatives, ducks and geese. But instead of having webbed feet and a duckbill, Genyornis had large hoof-like claws on its toes and a big beak, with which it ate fruit and nuts, and perhaps small prey. Like modern birds, it had no teeth, but relied on gizzard stones to assist its digestion.
Genyornis lived in the dry grasslands and woodlands of southern and eastern Australia. Fossils have been found in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, especially on the surface of the dry Lake Callabonna. The bones of a number of birds have been found in one place, suggesting that they lived in flocks. Fossil eggs and footprints have also been found. 
Genyornis illustration, artist: Peter Trussler.

Genyornis was the last of the dromornithids, and was small compared to other species. This family of giant birds is known by a variety of names, including ‘thunder birds’, ‘demon ducks’ and ‘mihirungs’. Humans almost certainly lived alongside these birds, and some scientists think that hunting may have contributed to their extinction. Other scientists think the extinction of Australian megafauna was linked to the continent becoming drier during the last Ice Age. (”
Pictographs identified as Genyornis. 
A dating study of more than 700 fragments of Genyornis eggshells demonstrated that the birds declined and became extinct over a short period at about 50k ±5k years BP – too short for climate change. This suggested that the extinction event had been due to human activity. (
Then, in May 2010, an Aboriginal rock painting at least a possible 40,000 years old, was discovered at the Nawarla Gabarnmung rock art site in the Northern Territory that depicts two of the birds. This suggested late survival of the species in southwest Victoria which is reinforced by Aboriginal traditions. (


Ouzman, Sven, Paul S.C. Tacon, Ken Mulvaney, and Richard Fullagar
2002    Extraordinary Engraved Bird Track from North Australia: Extinct Fauna, Dreaming Being, and/or Aesthetic Masterpiece, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Vol. 12, p. 103-112.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Kaneikokala, in Bishop Museum, Honolulu.
Photograph: Peter Faris, 10/21/2010.

An example of Hawaiian large scale stone carving is this figure of Kaneikokala in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Kaneikokala represents a shark deity. It appears to be a rock slab in pretty much natural form with limited pecking to accentuate features of the deity. It was probably originally erected in a productive fishing site or by fish ponds as an entreaty to the shark spirit.

Explanatory text from the museum label explains, “Kaneikokala, a stone image of Ki'i pohaku made of vesicular basalt, was uncovered by Wahinenui, a kama'aina (native born) of Kawaihae, Hawai'i. Wahinenui was guided to the buried location by his dreams, claiming the ki'i had pleaded constantly to be taken from the cold in which it lay. Kaneikokala was brought to Bishop Museum in 1906, and not long afterward set permanently into cement in the floor of Hawaiian Hall. In spite of well intentioned efforts to relocate Kane to a suitable site outside the Hall, the image has steadfastly held its ground and refused to be moved.”

 I love this approach to the subject. Having many years of museum work in my career this sort of light hearted handling of the story allows us to see a contemporary relevance to the subject of such past beliefs. The figure of the deity seems to like to be standing in the Hawaiian Hall of the Bishop Museum and refuses to be moved. It would have been just as easy to have said that the concrete that he was set in was of such high quality that it has resisted contemporary attempts to move the statue without the risk of damage, but would that have been half as interesting? I think not.

Monday, April 1, 2013


Petroglyph, Leo, Jackson County, Ohio. 
Photograph: Peter Faris, July 1985.

The discovery of a rare Native American petroglyph at the Leo petroglyph site, near Leo, Ohio, has confirmed the presence of penguins in ancient Ohio. A careful examination will reveal the flipper wings held somewhat out from the sides of the bird, and some sort of plumage on the head. This plumage suggests that the image is from an ancestor to today's Macaroni Penguin, Eudyptes chrysolophus.

Macaroni Penguin, Eudyptes chrysolophus,

In a time of climatic uncertainty this discovery has scientists rushing to re-evaluate the effects of climate change on the ecosystem and human societies. The penguin petroglyph indicates that the climate was quite cold within the period of time that humans occupied southern Ohio. Was there a population of Eskimos here at the time, or had the local tribes learned to cope with lower temperatures? Answers to those questions will take considerable research and time to evaluate the evidence.

Penguins. Photograph: Katy Dreifuss, November, 2012.

The penguin petroglyph can be seen at the Leo Petroglyph site, near Leo, Ohio, and it will force scientists to reevaluate their theories about Native American history and populations, as well as what they thought they knew about the climatic history of North America – or perhaps they just need to look at their calendars. Happy April first!