Saturday, February 22, 2014


Pictographs, Fate Bell Shelter, Val Verde 
County, Texas. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2004.

In 2004, we had the privilege to tour rock art of Val Verde County, Texas, with Teresa Weedin and a group from the Colorado Archaeological Society, guided by James Zintgraff, who had done so much to protect and study it.

Pictographs, Fate Bell Shelter, Val Verde 
County, Texas. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2004.

A large proportion of the rock art in this area is found in large rock shelters in the limestone bedrock, like Fate Bell Shelter seen here. This limestone is quite fossiliferous, begging the question, is the rock art linked to the fossils in any way? Do fossils interest you? They have always fascinated me, and I think that is the normal reaction of most people to the idea of a shell or other part of a formerly living thing now in solid stone. I would bet that the early native American inhabitants of this area felt the same way.

Ammonite fossil, Fate Bell Shelter, Val Verde 
County, Texas. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2004.

John Felix has suggested that the shapes in the earliest rock art were copied from fossils found in nature ( It is not difficult to imagine a coiled ammonite fossil inspiring the first spiral petroglyph. This is certainly a possibility, although I cannot imagine how we can prove it. We do, however, know of instances where fossils are accompanied by rock art which certainly suggests some link (although the link could just be the rock, but I believe it is more - people are fascinated by fossils).  In this part of Texas it does seem to at least the casual observer that locales with prominent fossils also tend to have rock art. That is certainly the case with some of the major sites displaying Pecos River Style rock art. Some of these sites are Fate Bell Shelter, Halo Shelter, Painted Canyon, and White Shaman.

Watercolor paintings of the pictographs in Fate Bell Shelter.
From W. W. Newcomb, The Rock Art of Texas Indians, 
Paintings by Forrest Kirkland, 1967. 

In this posting I am going to present Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Historic Park, Val Verde County, Texas. “The site was first excavated by the University of Texas between October 20 and November 18, 1932, by a crew of five men led by James E. Pearce and A. T. Jackson. The 1932 expedition was the only major excavation of the shelter. A smaller excavation was carried out by Mark Parsons in 1963 as part of the salvage operations prior to the construction of Amistad Dam. Various projects since then have documented the Indian rock art extant in Fate Bell Shelter and in the surrounding area.” (

“Fate Bell Shelter is best known for its pictographs, which are among the best documented and best preserved of the Pecos River Style. This Style, which may date between three and four thousand years before the present, is generally considered the oldest of the types found in the Lower Pecos area. This would place the art in the middle Archaic period. The Pecos River style is a polychrome style that is considered a manifestation of the shaman cult. The central characters of the pictographs are faceless anthropomorphic figures, elaborately dressed and often holding a variety of accessories such as atlatls, darts, and fending sticks. The figures are often depicted with their arms outstretched, and in later pictographs the shamans’ arms are increasingly stylized and seem to be more akin to wings than arms. At one end of the shelter there are also examples of Red Linear figures – a Late Archaic Period style characterized by very small stick figures engaged in various activities.” (

 Fossils in limestone block, Fate Bell Shelter, Val Verde
County, Texas. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2004.

The remarkable thing about the fossils in Fate Bell Shelter is that some of them are displayed prominently in a large, roughly cubical, block of limestone. This limestone block was placed in the shelter in a location that suggested it had been moved there from elsewhere (there was no corresponding void in the ceiling above suggesting to me that it had fallen). It had many fossils that I believe to be Elimia tenera (in the family Pleuroceridae) shells showing on its surface, and the upper surface was quite polished. It looked like it had been oiled and burnished, perhaps by butt polish or intentional preparation. In his 1933 report on his studies at Fate Bell, Pearce stated: “On the surface, at the outer edge of the shelter, is a boulder of limestone that evidently was used in working down and polishing bone and wood implements. The upper surface of the stone is 60 by 37 inches. The entire surface is worn exceedingly smooth and some portions, around the rims of old eroded depressions, are as slick and shiny as glass. In addition, there are several hundred grooves with sharp, well-defined edges. The depths of the grooves vary from 1/16 to ½ inch and the lengths range from ½ to 10 inches. The presence of numerous bone implements in the midden deposit explains the use of this stone.” (Pearce 1933:37-38) You can see by this that Pearce believed that the polish was caused by abrasion from sharpening awls and other artifacts. This struck me as unlikely because the smoother the boulder became the less effective as a sharpening stone it would become. I think that the job would have been abandoned long before it achieved its present state of polish. Remember too that it has sat there for many centuries, it must have been even more polished originally. More interestingly, Pearce did not mention the fossils showing on this block. Either he considered them unimportant, or perhaps he was discussing a different block of stone, but then why did he not discuss the one we saw? I can only assume that Pearce, as a traditional archaeologist, had no interest in fossils and did not bother to mention them in depth. A final point is that limestone is a soft rock and would not have been very effective as a sharpening stone.

To me, it was hard to escape the conclusion that there was some sort of correspondence or connection between the pictographs and the fossils at Fate Bell Shelter. Both were prominently placed, both took a lot of work to put in place and prepare, and both are examples of things that the people would have found special and meaningful. Also seen at Fate Bell Shelter was a fossil ammonite in the bedrock. I am certain that a detailed search would have turned up many more fossils.

In his 1933 report of the excavations of Fate Bell Shelter Pearce listed two fossils found in burial contexts. However, he did not identify the type of fossils they were, and careful reading of the inventories in his burial descriptions only yielded mention of one fossil found. This example of one (or two) fossils included in grave goods seems to me to reinforce the significance of fossils and thus, the relationship of those fossils to the rock art of Fate Bell Shelter.

The 1930s excavation of Fate Bell Shelter also produced samples of the paint that were used to create the pictographs. I will take this up in a separate posting at a future date. Additionally, material items found in the rock shelters in this region often include painted pebbles, and this was certainly the case at Fate Bell Shelter. I will focus on the painted pebbles in a future posting as well.


Newcomb, W. W., Jr.
1967    The Rock Art of Texas Indians, Paintings by Forrest Kirkland, University of Texas Press, Austin and London.

Pearce, J. E., and A. T. Jackson,
1933    A Prehistoric Rock Shelter In Val Verde County, Texas, Anthropological Papers of the University of Texas, Vol. 1, No. 3, Bureau of Research in the Social Sciences, Study No. 6, University of Texas, Austin.

Friday, February 14, 2014


Seth Eastman on Dighton Rock, daguerreotype, 1853.

On February 1, 2014, I posted a column entitled "Dighton Rock - North America's Oldest Rock Art Report" about how this petroglyph boulder is the first known rock art site in America to be reported about. Dighton rock, however, holds another distinction in addition to being the subject of the first known rock art and archaeological site to be reported in writing. It may also be the subject of the first photograph taken of rock art in North America. 

On May 4, 2013, I posted a column entitled "The Oldest RockArt Photograph", in which I discussed a letter in Charles Darwin’s correspondence that mentioned an 1874 photograph of a bear pictograph from Picketwire Canyonlands that had been sent to Darwin. At that time I posited that it may be the oldest known rock art photograph, certainly in North America (although the photograph has not been located in Darwin’s correspondence).

                           Seth Eastman on Dighton Rock,
                               daguerreotype, 1853.

Now, I have another candidate for the title of oldest North American rock art photograph. In his 1991 book Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia) Stephen Williams showed an 1853 daguerreotype of Dighton Rock in Berkley, Massachusetts. Williams described it as follows: “I believe that it (Dighton Rock) is the first American archaeological artifact to be captured by photographic means. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, whom we encountered some pages ago with reference to the Grave Creek Stone, had as his major artist for his monumental six-volume work a young West Pointer named Seth Eastman. His busy army career took him from Minnesota to Texas and finally to the Seminole Wars in Florida.
Eastman, a talented artist, carefully documented Indian life on the frontier while on these military travels between 1829 and 1849. Though much of his work for Schoolcraft was studio-done on artifacts and the like, he did travel to New England, where he drew both the Dighton Rock and the Newport Tower. These drawings are all fine and good, but Eastman made archaeological history in 1853 when he sat atop Dighton Rock on shirtsleeves and a silk vest, with the inscription “enhanced” by chalk, and had a daguerreotype image made of the scene. What a way to be immortalized.
Schoolcraft used Eastman’s drawing of the Rock in his 1854 work.” (Williams 1991:215-6)

Online searching has turned up two versions of the photo; in one Eastman wears a top hat, and in the other version he is bare-headed. There are also variations that have the image reversed. In any case the early date of 1853 makes these daguerreotypes an excellent candidate for the title of Earliest Rock Art Photo!


Williams, Stephen
1991    Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


Near Craig, Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2007.

You know how sometimes you see a rock art panel, or image, or something that you do not understand, but just cannot get out of your mind? One of mine is this boulder from northwestern Colorado, visited on one of the field trips after the 2007 Colorado Rock Art Association Rock Art Symposium and Annual Meeting in Craig, Colorado.

Near Craig, Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2007.

Our guide led us to a site that looked down on this large boulder with a series of apparently perfect holes abraded or drilled into it in roughly two concentric circles. To the best of my memory there were 28 holes, roughly a lunar cycle. Additionally, many of the holes had round stones placed in them although obviously that could have been done at any time. To the best of our ability to judge the holes had smooth walls and showed no overt sign of pecking so they appeared drilled or abraded, and they were a number of inches deep.

Near Craig, Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2007.

The obvious suggestion was the connection to the lunar cycle; a stone could be moved from hole to hole each day to keep track of the cycle. There are a number of problems with that beginning with you do not have to move stones in holes to track the lunar cycle, you only have to look up at the moon. Another problem with that theory is the large scale of the panel, it would be very difficult to reach the holes at the top without a scaffold or a ladder, a smaller scale panel would have worked much better.

Near Craig, Colorado (quarter for scale).
Photograph: Peter Faris, 2007.

Thinking about the total amount of rock removed from all the holes I am tempted to think that modern machinery had to be involved in its creation, but for what reason? All in all I am mystified about this panel – any suggestions? 

Saturday, February 1, 2014


Dighton Rock at mid-tide, in its original location.

When was the first report of a rock art inscription filed? Well, the first one to be reported that I know of was done in 1680 A.D. about Dighton Rock, in Berkley, Massachusetts. Kenneth Feder, in his Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology, From Atlantis to the Walam Olum (2010:80-81) explained it as follows:

Rev. Danforth's drawing, 1680. British Museum.

“The earliest extant record of the petroglyph-covered boulder dates to 1680, when an English settler Rev. John Danforth, produced a drawing of the images. Unfortunately for those who believe that the marks on Dighton Rock represent the equivalent of graffiti left by ancient European (or African or Asian) seafaring visitors to America’s shores, it should be pointed out that Danforth’s drawing of the markings he saw look virtually nothing like what can currently be seen there today.” (Feder 2010:80)

Dighton rock,, public domain.

The Dighton rock is described in Wikipedia as - “ a 40-ton boulder, originally located in the riverbed of the Taunton River at Berkley, Massachusetts (formerly part of the town of Dighton). The rock is noted for its petroglyphs ("primarily lines, geometric shapes, and schematic drawings of people, along with writing, both verified and not."), carved designs of ancient and uncertain origin, and the controversy about their creators. In 1963, during construction of a coffer dam, state officials removed the rock from the river for preservation. It was installed in a museum in a nearby park, Dighton Rock State Park. In 1980 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).
The boulder has the form of a slanted, six-sided block, approximately 5 feet (1.5 m) high, 9.5 feet (2.9 m) wide, and 11 feet (3.4 m) long. It is gray-brown crystalline sandstone of medium to coarse texture. The surface with the inscriptions has a trapezoidal face and is inclined 70 degrees to the northwest. It was found facing the water of the bay.” (Wikipedia)
Reverend Danforth produced a drawing of the petroglyphs in 1680, which still exists in the British Museum, although his drawing is considerably different from others that followed, and from what can today be seen on the rock. (Wikipedia)

“Ten years after Danforth drew the markings, the famed Rev. Cotton Mather noted the existence of the marked stone and said about the petroglyphs:
“Among the other Curiosities of New-England, one is that of a mighty Rock, on a perpendicular side whereof by a River, which at High Tide covers part of it, there are very deeply Engraved, no man alive knows How or When about half a score Lines, near Ten Foot Long, and a foot and half broad, filled with strange Characters: which would suggest as odd Thoughts about them that were here before us, as there are odd Shapes in that Elaborate Monument.”” (Feder 2010:80)

We all know that much of what is seen in rock art depends upon the sympathies of the viewer. In the case of Dighton Rock, however, the range of what is seen reached the extreme.
Sewell's drawing, 1764.

“Several other sources for the Dighton Rock petroglyphs have been cited, all of which depend on the assertion that European, Asian, or African explorers were present in New England at some point before the arrival of English settlers in the seventeenth century. A long-standing suggestion is that the markings were left by the Portuguese explorers Gaspar and Miguel Corte Real. Brown University professor Edmund Burke Delabarre became convinced that among the admitted hodgepodge of scratches, X’s, lines, circles, geometric shapes, and whatnot, there was an actual written message in Portuguese: “Miguel Cortereal by will of God, here Chief of the Indians.” - -
Others look at the same rock and see completely different messages in completely different languages. Danish writer Carl Rafn saw the name of Thorfinn Karlsefni, whose name also shows up in the Norse sagas about the discovery of Newfoundland.
Gavin Menzies (2002, 333-35) looks at exactly the same series of markings and proposes that they were left by Chinese world explorers.” (Feder 2010:81)

Rhode Island Historical Society drawing, 1830.

Now Feder’s inclusion of Dighton Rock in his Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology has nothing to do with questioning its authenticity, he was writing about the many outlandish interpretations it has inspired. I previously had read Cotton Mather’s account of Dighton Rock, but did not know of Rev. Danforth’s record until reading this book. We all know that much of what is seen in rock art depends upon the sympathies of the viewer, and we often see what we expect to see. Perhaps people should expect less, and study the facts more! In any case, until I see an earlier record of North American rock art I will list Reverend Danforth's drawing as the earliest North American rock art record.

NOTE: Dighton Rock has been moved into a small museum built for the purpose, and is now Dighton Rock State Park, at Berkley, Massachusetts.


Feder, Kenneth L.
2010    Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walam Olum, Greenwood, Santa Barbara, Denver, and Oxford.