Sunday, March 29, 2015



El Morro, Cibola County, NM.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 1993.

I have formerly posted some columns on historic inscriptions found at Morro Rock, in Cibola County, New Mexico. This interesting site has a permanent water tank at its base, a huge premium in this arid landscape, and the ruins of an ancestral Puebloan village on its summit. Long known for the large number of historic inscriptions carved into the rock face which record many episodes from the history of New Mexico and the southwest, it is less well known for Native American ancestral Puebloan rock art left carved into its surface by early inhabitants. Much of this ancestral Puebloan rock art has been defaced and overcarved by later inscriptions which are now considered to be historic. Those inscriptions record much of the history of the Spanish and American periods in the American southwest by providing a ledger of who was passing by Morro Rock, and often why they were there, and they provide an interesting historic resource in their own right. But, in this posting, I intend to look at the prehistoric rock art that can still be seen at Morro Rock.

Atsinna pueblo, El Morro, Cibola County, NM.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 1993.

"Atsinna Pueblo, the largest of the pueblos atop El Morro, dates from about 1275. Its builders made use of what they had around them: flat sedimentary rock easily cut up as slabs they could pile one on top of another and cement with clay and pebbles. The pueblo was about 200 by 300 feet, and it housed between 1,000 and 1,500 people. Multiple stories of interconnected rooms - 875 have been counted -- surrounded an open courtyard. Corn and other crops were grown in irrigated fields, down on the plain; the surplus was stored in well-sealed rooms in the pueblo against times of need. The grinding bins and fire pits remain today. Cisterns on top of the mesa collected rainwater. The pool at its base was often used too, as hand-and-toe steps on the cliff face attest. An alternate trail for the residents may have followed the one that is still in use." (
Petroglyphs, El Morro, Cibola County, NM.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 1993.

 The subjects that can be seen in the remaining rock art around the base of Morro Rock seem to be fairly common ancestral Pueblo themes. Human figures, animals, hand and foot prints, concentric circles, etc.
Petroglyphs, El Morro, Cibola County, NM.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 1993.
Note the lovely row of bighorn sheep crossing the middle of this panel. Deeply carved and of excellent preservation, they are familiar to many as one of the most photographed petroglyph groups at El Morro.

Petroglyphs, El Morro, Cibola County, NM.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 1993.

And above is my favorite, a roadrunner. Note the topknot projecting from the back of his head. This is a very common animal in this environment in the desert southwest.

Petroglyphs, El Morro, Cibola County, NM.
Spread-legged human  figures that are so familiar in ancestral Puebloan rock art. The dates for occupation of Asinna on top of Morro Rock fall in the late Pueblo III to early Pueblo IV periods, and Shaafsma puts the style of rock art at El Morro as "Plateau Anasazi mixed with Rio Grande Style." (Schaafsma 1992:25)

Given the historic importance of the Spanish and American inscriptions, it is perhaps understandable that the rock art of El Morro is not better known, but it is a shame. It fully deserves as much attention as other rock art sites. Stop in if you are ever in that part of New Mexico, it is well worth a visit. 


1992      Rock Art in New Mexico, Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.


Monday, March 23, 2015


Naturalistic rattlesnake petroglyph, Brown's Park,
Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris 1987.

Naturalistic serpent petroglyphs, Galisteo Dike,
New Mexico. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1988.

One aspect of viewing rock art in the field in the West is the ever present awareness that one might run into a rattlesnake, or perhaps the proper phrase is step into a rattlesnake. Walking through an arid landscape with one eye looking up at cliff faces and boulders, you have to keep the other eye on the ground a few feet ahead of where you are stepping. It can give one a headache. What is the opposite of cross-eyed – divergent eyed? In an Internet search the most common opinion held that this term was wall-eyed, and the proper medical term for it is strabisums exotropia, although that is sort of beside the point. The point I am trying to get at here is that there is an interesting reinforcement of the concept of rattlesnake in environment as well as in rock art, and there are lots of rattlesnakes in the rock art of the Southwest and the West.

Horned serpents from caveate room. Mortendad ruin,
Los Alamos, New Mexico. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2003.

Horned Serpents, Mesa Prieta, Rio Arriba County,
New Mexico. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1997.
Now why would one portray a rattlesnake in rock art (other than the fact that they are an important fact of life in the American West)? Actually I need to differentiate here between a couple of different types of snakes portrayed in the rock art of the Southwest. One type of snake portrayal is the horned or plumed serpent so often associated with the concept of the Quetzalcoatl from Mexico and Mesoamerica. Example of these are seen from all over the American Southwest, and they are assumed to be a result of the influence of Mexican and Mesoamerican cultures upon the peoples of the American Southwest.
 Snake Clan symbol, Big Falling Snow, Yava - Hopi petition, 1894, #83.
Snake Clan symbol, Big Falling Snow, Yava - Hopi petition, 1894, #85.

The other type of snake portrayal appears as a regular snake; rattlesnake, or other, and this is the type of portrayal that I am suggesting may be associated with a symbol of identity. One of the symbols in the clan register included in the Hopi Petition of 1894 is a wavy line identified as the symbol of the Snake or Serpent Clan. This document “was signed in clan symbols by 123 principals of kiva societies, clan chiefs, and village chiefs of Walpi, Tewa Village, Sichomovi, Mishongnovi, Shongopovi, Shipaulovi and Oraibi.” (Yava 1978:167). The clan symbols illustrated in this document surely provide a useful lexicon for rock art imagery in the Southwest.  

Willow Springs clan register, Snake Clan symbols to right
of center. Christensen, Dickey, and Freers, Rock Art of
the Grand Canyon, 2013, Sunbelt Publishers, page 180.
On Saturday, October 4, 2014, I posted a column entitled Clan Symbol Rosters – Tallies of Not? In this I looked at the question of whether the Hopi Clan Registers at Willow Springs, Arizona, where some 40 boulders contain 2,178 images of Hopi Clan symbols, might provide a lexicon of possible meaning for similar symbols throughout the American Southwest. Both of the above sources; the clan register in the Hopi Petition of 1894, and the clan registers at Willow Springs, include the images of snakes without horns or feathers, and thus demonstrably not meant to be Quetzalcoatl. I believe that this suggests that one possible interpretation of snake or serpent portrayals in rock art of the American Southwest is as a reference to such a symbol - a clan marking. This might have been intended as sort of a "Kilroy was here" by the ancestral Native Americans that left the image.


 Christensen, Don D., Jerry Dickey, and Steven M. Freers,
2013    Rock Art of the Glen Canyon Region, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego

Yava, Albert
1978    Big Falling Snow: A Tewa-Hopi Indian’s Life and Times and the History and Traditions of His People, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Saturday, March 7, 2015



Re-imagined Piasa painted on the cliff at
Alton, IL. Public domain.

One of the early records of rock art from North America was recorded by the French explorer Father Jacques Marquette during his exploration of the Mississippi River.

"In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette saw the painting on a limestone bluff overlooking the Mississippi River while exploring the area. He recorded the following description:
"While Skirting some rocks, which by Their height and length inspired awe, We saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made Us afraid, and upon Which the boldest savages dare not Long rest their eyes. They are as large As a calf; they have Horns on their heads Like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard Like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body Covered with scales, and so Long A tail that it winds all around the Body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a Fish's tail. Green, red, and black are the three Colors composing the Picture. Moreover, these 2 monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to reach that place Conveniently to paint them. Here is approximately The shape of these monsters, As we have faithfully Copied It."" (Wikipedia)
German illustration, 1839. From Mallery,
1889, fig. 41, p.79.

Variously referring to the Piasa monster or the Piasa Bird, such reports almost tell us more about the state of mind of the western observer than they do any Native Americans who were involved in the episode. One of the earliest illustrations of the Piasa was taken from an 1839 publication in Germany and is illustrated in Mallery (1889:79)

“Unfortunately, the Alton Bluff paintings were destroyed by quarrying activities during the first half of the nineteenth century and have been replaced through the years by modern versions on a nearby bluff facade. For many years the piasa figure was painted and repainted on the bluffs. Later a painted steel plaque depicting a piasa was erected and more recently taken down and once again painted directly on the bluffs in yet another location. A piasa, or an underwater spirit much like it, was an important figure in the traditions of the region’s Native American groups.” (Diaz-Granados et al. 2005:118) 

It is necessary to keep in mind that the present representation of the Piasa is based on imagination with an eye to possibly unreliable early sketches. It is touched up periodically and exists much more as Chamber of Commerce advertising for Alton than as an artifact of previous people in that area. In fact, it is not even in the same place as the original. 

“Although destruction of the famous Piasa in Alton, Illinois makes reconstruction of that petroglyph questionable , the recent description of another petroglyph Piasa in Illinois shows bird-like wings on the back of a serpent. Unfortunately, the Piasa as a motif in the Southeast is such an unpredictable mixture of human, feline, deer, bird, serpent, and other characteristics that it is difficult to equate it with the well-known Quetzalcoatl representation. Many of the serpents, such as rattlesnakes occurring on shell gorgets, are obviously native to the Southeast. The snakes frequently have antlers, which also seems to be unique to the Southeast (Howard 1968)” (Cobb et. al. 1999:175)

 Winnebago Medicine Animal, eastern Nebraska.
Photograph: Nebraska State Hist. Soc.

Winnebago medicine animal.

Although we do not have the original to view any longer, the present reconstruction shows a creature which bears a strong resemblance to the drawings of Winnebago "medicine animals" from other sources. This creature seems to be a variation of Michi-Peshu, the "Water Panther" of the eastern Woodlands, and I would think, provides a reasonable model for our speculations of the appearance of the Piasa.
Piasa illustrated in Mallery, fig. 40,p. 78.
The modern so-called reconstruction is based upon the 1825 drawing by William Dennis and illustrated in Mallery (p. 78) with colors added imaginatively based upon the description by Marquette. One thing I am sure of is that it probably does not come close to the original pictograph. Sadly, this is often the case with older records as the portrayals are often improved upon by western observers.


Cobb, Charles R., Jeffrey Maymon, and Randall H. McGuire,
1999    Feathered, Horned, and Antlered Serpents, pages 165-181, in Great Towns and Regional Polities in the Prehistoric American Southwest and Southeast, edited by Jill E. Neitzel, An Amerind Foundation Publication, Dragoon, Arizona.

Diaz-Granados, Carol, and James R. Duncan
2005    Rock Art of the Central Mississippi River Valley, pages 114 – 130, in Discovering North American Rock Art, Loendorf, Lawrence L., Christopher Chippindale, and David S. Whitley, editors, University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Mallery, Garrick
1889    Picture Writing of the American Indians, in the Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1888-1889, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.