Saturday, February 28, 2015


Mussel shell with scratch markings made by Homo erectus,
Trinil Site, Solo River, Java, Indonesia. Photograph Wim
Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam. 

No matter what your particular interest is in the field of rock art you cannot avoid questions about the art produced by early cultures. Much has been published about the cave art of Cro Magnon peoples in Europe. Even before Cro Magnon there are items from Neanderthal contexts that show the beginnings of artistic sensibility. Now that horizon has apparently been pushed back almost a half millennia. On December 4, 2014, Nature published an article on a decorated shell recovered from Homo erectus material in Java, Indonesia, and this was mirrored by a publication on the same discovery in

The shell is one that had been recovered along with fossil bones by the 19th-century Dutch physician Eugene Dubois, along the Solo River on the island of Java. Dubois named his discovery Java Man but it is now known as Homo erectus.

“Dubois collected 11 species of freshwater shells at the site, called Trinil. Most of them belong to the sub-species Pseudodon vondembuschianus trinilensis, a now extinct freshwater mussel he described in 1908.” (Thompson)  The excavated shells represented at least 166 individual Pseudodon mussels, but scientists initially were unsure that they had any connection to Homo erectus.

Now a new study of those shells at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, in Leiden, Netherlands, under the lead of Josephine Joordens from Leiden University has discovered that a number of the shells had been modified by Homo erectus.

Slash marks on mussel shell. Photograph Wim
Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam.

Archaeologist Stephen Munro, working with Joordens, first noticed the lines engraved into the one shell. The lines appear as a series of slash marks with four of them assembled into a shape like the capital letter “M.” On this carved shell the lines had originally been deeply engraved into the calcium carbonate shell. This enabled the carving to survive for so long. “The shell with the engraving, was likely carved with a sharp object, such as a shark tooth. At the time of its carving, the shell likely had a dark covering, and the marks would have appeared as white lines, Joordens said.” (Geggel) Researchers hypothesizing that the engraving on the shell had also have been done by a Homo erectus wielding a shark’s tooth to scratch the lines, tested this with a modern mussel shell and used sharks teeth to make marks on it.

“The researchers used two dating techniques on preserved sediment in the shells to determine their age: between 540,000 and 430,000 years. They team also used x-rays to examine the Homo erectus bones and confirm that they came from the same rock layer as the shells. The results suggest that the Homo erectus fossils on Java aren’t quite as old as we thought they were.” (Thompson)

Mussel shell with sharpened and polished edge.
Photograph: Francesco d’Errico, Bordeaux University. 

One of the shells has a smooth and polished edge, suggesting it may have been used as a tool for cutting or scraping. “We found at least one that was very clearly and deliberately modified so that a sharp edge was produced that could be used like a knife,” Joordens said. ”There are other shells in the collection that have this tool-like appearance.” (Geggel) 

Pierced mussel shell, presumable by opening it
for food. Photograph Henk Caspers, Naturalis.

“Additionally, a large percentage of the shells were pierced in a certain location. “About one-third of the shells have a small hole that does not appear to be made by an animal, such as an otter, rat, bird, monkey, or snail. About 80 percent of the holes are made in the same location – near the shell’s hinges, and measure about 0.2 to 0.4 inches (0.5 to 1 centimeter) across.
It’s a clever way to get a snack, “without smashing the shell, so that you have all kinds of debris and breakage in the meat of the animal.” Joordens said. Perhaps Homo erectus pierced the shells with sharp points, such as the shark teeth that were found at Trinil, the archaeological site in Java, Joordens said.” (Geggel)  Modern experimentation has shown that once a mussel is pierced there the animal loses strength in it muscle and the shell can be easily opened. This also indicated to the researchers that the mussels were eaten raw as the shell of a cooked mussel opens naturally by itself, suggesting that the Trinil site on the Solo River on the island of Java served as sort of an oyster bar for Homo erectus. But whatever their actual activities and purposes there, one of them, on one occasion, used a hard, sharp point to engrave lines into a mussel shell. A shell that survived until excavated by Eugene Dubois in 1891 and 1892, and then sat on a shelf until recently examined by Stephen Munro. What an amazing day for Munro - and for us.

Geggel, Laura
2014    540,000-Year-Old Shell Carvings May Be Human Ancestor’s Oldest Art, on December 3,

Thompson, Helen
2014    Zigzags on a Shell From Java Are the Oldest Human Engravings, on December 3,

Saturday, February 21, 2015


Westwater Creek, Grand County, Utah.
Photograph Peter Faris, October 8, 2001.

In considering who made the rock art we tend to avoid one inconvenient truth. No matter how beautiful some of our favorite panels are the artist who created them had to start somewhere. Nobody can accomplish a high quality work of art without considerable practice and experience. Back in my early days of art teaching we used to say that a student must make a requisite number of mistakes before they can count on getting it right. As students of rock art I think we all too often ascribe poorly done images to someone rushing, not taking the required time to get it right, instead of admitting that many images were done very poorly because of inexperience, and perhaps youth.

On  February 15, 2015 , I addressed one aspect of this question in a posting entitled A Beginner's Mistake which discussed a petroglyph on McConkie Ranch near Vernal, Utah, which showed drastic changes in scale from top to bottom based on an inexperienced artist's overlooking of the problem of fitting the scale of his image to the size of the available surface (originally posted on June 30, 2013)

Westwater Creek, Grand County, Utah.
Photograph Peter Faris, October 8, 2001.

The illustrations above, from upper Westwater Creek, in eastern Utah, show some examples of imagery that may have been produced by inexperienced artists. The white equestrian figures in the illustration at top were created by a Ute artist that I assume was quite young, or inexperienced, or both. Equally, the horsemen in the grouping in the second illustration are so crudely done that we may be justified in assuming that their creator was just learning the trade.

Guthrie, in The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2005), presented many examples of Paleolithic art from the caves of Europe that he identified as beginner’s mistakes, and while he may be right or wrong on specific examples he certainly had a great point. Nobody gets to start at the top; you start at the bottom, make your mistakes, and work your way up.

Paleolithic art, perhaps drawn by inexperienced
artists. Guthrie, R. Dale Guthrie, 2005,
The Nature of Paleolithic Art, p. 8.

“Paleolithic art contains the work of many inexperienced artists. Throughout this book I’ll show you quite a few works by artists who are developing their drawing facility. Such works are usually bypassed in popular books on this subject. And they are not easily integrated into most theories explaining Paleolithic art.” (Guthrie 2005:8) This is self-selection bias, they are overlooked and so our whole picture of ancient art is skewed toward what we see as a high level of quality and professionalism.

Paleolithic art, perhaps drawn by inexperienced
artists. Guthrie, R. Dale Guthrie, 2005,
The Nature of Paleolithic Art, p. 12.

“Rather scribbly works by inexperienced Paleolithic drawers who did a lot of redrawing. A, Ibex, Espelugues, Fr. B-C, Horses, Lascaux, Fr. D, Wild cattle or aurochs, Limeuil, Fr. E, A mix of images from Les Combarelles, Fr. Horses in B and C are speared; the one in C is penetrated by a spear in the gut and bleeding profusely (this portrays a botched killing job, as a spear-hunter must hit the thorax for a clean kill).” (Guthrie 2005:12)

As I said above, while Guthrie may be right or wrong on any specific example I believe that he has put his finger on a serious oversight that still affects rock art studies. Instead of looking at what we can learn from all images (including the crudest or least aesthetic), we ignore some to focus on the best and most beautiful. This adds a measure of self-selection bias to our supposedly objective investigations. In the end we may have a one-sided or biased viewpoint on all rock art because of this.


Guthrie, R. Dale
2005    The Nature of Paleolithic Art, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Among the marvelous Fremont culture rock art at McConkie Ranch outside Vernal, Utah is the figure known as Bigfoot Man. Done in what Polly Schaafsma called the Classic Fremont Style this figure presents us with an example of a beginner’s mistake. I started my working career by teaching art at a few colleges and my curriculum responsibilities usually included life or figure drawing. Anyone who has actually taught art will recognize this panel immediately as a common error made by beginning students in figure drawing. What it represents is someone starting to draw the figure on a scale that is too large for the surface. Depending upon where the student started the head may be too big for the rest of the body, or some other portion may be seen as outsized. Then they recognize that they have to change the scale to fit the rest of the figure onto the surface. In the case of Bigfoot Man the artist ambitiously began with a pair of large feet and quickly realized that he had to reduce the scale of the rest of the figure to fit onto the chosen rock face.

Some other points to note in this panel; the figure has been given knobby knees which I interpret as an attempt to realistically portray the patella, or knee-cap, and he is shown with six fingers on his hand (polydactylism again). Finally, notice that not only is this panel pecked, but paint has then been added as well, particularly in his headdress. It is an example of mixed-media. Many of the students in my former classes would actually have been happy to have done so well in their initial attempts. This figure is portrayed with details of clothing and headdress as well as weapons. He has a spear or something on his back projecting up above his right shoulder, and he holds a club or axe in his left hand.

Funny looking - yes? This is, however, diagnostic of a situation in which the creation of rock art was actually being taught to someone, and probably critiqued by the teacher. In our culture we call that an art school and it suggests a high degree of sophistication in the Fremont culture as well as providing clues as to how their rock art was produced.

NOTE: This material had originally been posted a couple of years ago but I deleted it in order to update it and add  additional information.

Saturday, February 14, 2015


Drive line, Rollins Pass, Grand County, CO.
Photograph Peter Faris, 25 July 1987. 

Over the years I have discussed features that we classify as geoglyphs a few times. Under our western cultural classifications of art we have always included architecture so I feel that I can properly include rock constructions under the classification of rock art. In this posting I want to mention the amazing rock alignments and constructions on the top of Rollins Pass in Grand County, Colorado at 11,671’ altitude in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I have had the opportunity to visit there a couple of times, the first in 1987 with Dr. James Benedict who researched high altitude archaeology for many years and was certainly the expert on the Rollins Pass alignments.

A section of the drive line, Rollins Pass, Grand County,
CO. Photograph Peter Faris, 25 July 1987.

These comprise 12 game drives and associated stone hunting blinds and other features. “Several drives are small, perhaps single construction episode walls containing less than 150 meters of rock alignments, while others are large, likely aggraded drives, which contain over 1500 meters of drive features much like other game drives in the Indian Peaks such as Sawtooth Mountain and the Arapaho Pass System.” (Pelton 2012:55)

Close-up of stone construction, Rollins Pass, Grand
County, CO. Photograph Peter Faris, 25 July 1987.

At the time of my first visit to the area in 1987, Dr. Benedict gave a rough estimate of over 1 mi. of fence, 174 pit blinds, and 184 cairns, and gave his date estimates as from ca. 6,000 - 3,000 BC. Obviously people had expended a great deal of time and energy to create these features in the thin air of nearly 12,000 feet above sea level.

“Six of the 12 sites contain less than 500 meters of rock alignments, three contain between 500 meters and one kilometer, two contain between one and two kilometers of rock alignments, and one contains over two kilometers (2,041 meters) of rock alignments. In terms of the total number of pit or hunting blind features, seven sites contain one to ten, two sites contain 11 to 20, two contain between 30 and 40, and one contains over 40.” (Pelton 2012:55)

 Hunting blind, Rollins Pass, Grand County, CO.
Photograph Peter Faris, 25 July 1987.

The hunting blinds may have been partially excavated pit features which were then surrounded by a rock wall that the hunter could conceal behind as the animals were driven toward them. Excavations in hunting blinds have proven that people were indeed in them, at least on occasion, as dropped items and tool sharpening flakes have been reported.

We can only surmise how exactly they were used, but I can easily imagine a group of hunters gathering in some of the blinds on top of the pass while the rest of the clan hikes down to lower altitude in the forest. There they could spread out in a long line and begin a noisy drive up towards the pass on top, driving any animals ahead of them and funneling them toward where the hunters waited. In such a scenario the Rollins Pass complex would function as sort of the reverse of a buffalo jump. In this case instead of driving the game to fall down, they were driving them to climb up, but the results would have been much the same.

A view of the summit of Rollins Pass and the modern road across it seen from within one of the hunting blinds shows a section of drive line couple of the cairns visible as longer rocks standing on end. The landscape in the back ground gives a good idea of the altitude and the conditions found here.

View from within a stone blind of the drive line, Rollins Pass,
Grand County, CO.photograph Peter Faris, 25 July 1987.
Cairns represented by vertical rocks in right center.

“The number of cairns per site is most often related to a specific design element of certain game drives - in which cairn alignments are utilized in the place of rock wall alignments, a construction technique that requires far less labor investment and exhibits no discernible pattern, in terms of cairn quantity, between sites. Based on the numbers from the 12 previously recorded game drives, the “average” game drive at Rollins Pass contains around 670 meters of rock alignments, between 15 to 16 pit or hunting blind features, and between 9 to 10 cairns.” (Pelton 2012:55-56)

These cairns most probably were similar to the inuksuk built by Inuit hunters to help guide the reindeer to a desired hunting ground. How effective could such a complex be? Dr. Benedict stated that one day during one of his recording trips to the site he watched a deer or elk wandering up the slope stop and divert to the side when it came to one of the drive lines, even in there modern broken down and aggraded condition.

As rock alignments, and very impressive ones at that, these drive line complexes certainly classify as a category of geoglyphs, and as we consider architecture to be one component of the arts, I feel completely justified in including these in RockArtBlog.


Pelton, Spencer R.
2012    Putting Rollins Pass on the Map: Revitalizing the Research of a High Altitude Archaeological Landscape, pages 54-57, Colorado Archaeology, Spring 2012, Vol. 78, No. 1, Colorado Archaeological Society and Colorado Council of Professional Archaeologists.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


Bighorn maze, Three-Rivers Petroglyph Site, New Mexico.
Photograph: December 1988, Jack and Esther Faris.

This intriguing petroglyph is from the great Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico. More than 21,000 glyphs of birds, humans, animals, fish, insects and plants, as well as numerous geometric and abstract designs are scattered over 50 acres of New Mexico's northern Chihuahuan Desert. The petroglyphs at Three Rivers, dating back to between about 900 and 1400 AD, were created by Jornada Mogollon people.

It shows a complicated design of desert bighorn sheep heads at the ends of lines. These are often referred to in the literature as Bighorn staffs (like a walking stick). One problem with the identification as staffs is that the lines are not straight; after extending a short distance below the bighorn head they bend off at an extreme angle, even shooting straight up. Also, as far as I can tell, Mogollon artifacts recovered to date do not include bighorn-sheep-headed staffs (although I do not pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of Mogollon collections on museum shelves). So they are probably not staffs. This design has also been referred to as a bighorn maze which might make a little more sense, but, of course, we have no real idea as to its intention. No-one can seemingly come up with a suggestion as to why they felt the need to create a maze with bighorn sheep heads on it – other than the catchall “for ritualistic purposes” which we all too often fall back on when we don’t really have an idea at all.

Mimbres bowl, cover photo from Brody, J. J., Catherine J. Scott,
and Steven A. LeBlanc,1983, Mimbres Pottery: Ancient Art of the
American Southwest, Hudson Hills Press, New York. 

My fascination with this design is partly founded in its resemblance to the design on a classic Mimbres pottery bowl from the Mattocks site, now in the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, The University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. The bowl measures H. 4 ⅛ in. (10.5 cm), diam. 9 ¼ in. (23.5 cm). (Brody et al. 1983:15) Mimbres pottery dates from a period of about six hundred years (AD 550 – 1150). “ Gila River  Rio Grande Valley and it western tributaries in southwest New Mexico. Differentiation between the Mimbres branch and other areas of the Mogollon culture area is most apparent during the Three Circle (AD 825-1000 roughly) and Classic Mimbres (AD 1000-1150) phases, when architectural construction and black and white painted pottery assume locally distinctive forms and styles” (Wikipedia). The design on this bowl has two mountain sheep heads on the ends of lines, which take off at angles much like the design of the petroglyph. I find the resemblance striking.

General Mogollon culture area. Three Rivers Petroglyph
Site is the star at the upper right, and the bowl came
from roughly the location of the star on the left.

So, is there any real connection, or just a coincidence? Mimbres pottery was produced within a portion of the Mogollon cultural area so geographically we can say they may be connected. Thematically they are obviously similar. The dates of Classic Mimbres pottery (AD 1000 – 1150) fall easily within the span of the production of petroglyphs at Three Rivers. Although I still have to admit that I do not know the significance of the design of the bighorn sheep head on the end of lines like this I do think that both the Mimbres bowl in question, and the petroglyph at Three Rivers, may well have some motivation in common, perhaps they refer to a commonly held belief, or a material item generally recognized throughout the Mogollon territory, so yes, I say they are certainly connected - at least in my mind. What do you think?


Brody, J. J., Catherine J. Scott, and Steven A. LeBlanc
1983    Mimbres Pottery: Ancient Art of the American Southwest, Hudson Hills Press, New York.