Saturday, February 27, 2016


Megaloceruos panel, Chauvet-Pont
d'Arc, From PLOS, January 8, 2016.

One area in which I have been deeply interested for quite some time involves trying to figure out ancient people's understanding of the world around them by their imagery of it. Here, on RockArtBlog I have posted columns about meteorology, astronomy, and even paleontology from the point of view of the ancient artists. One area that I have not yet touched on much is geology. That is now changing as I can pass on to you a report of a panel in  Chauvet-Pont D'Arc cave that has been claimed to represent a portrayal of a volcanic eruption.

Stage 1, spray-like features assumed
to represent the volcanic eruption. 
From PLOS, January 8, 2016.

"While most of the drawings in the Chauvet cave depict animals like wooly rhinoceroses, bears, and cave lions, a few drawings deep within the interior have puzzled archaeologists since the cave was discovered in 1994. The red-and-white paintings appear to be shaped like something spraying out of a nozzle, and in some cases were covered up by later drawings, Ewen Callaway writes for Nature. But according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers believe the images could depict volcanic eruptions nearly 37,000 years ago." (Lewis)

I have argued that ancient peoples certainly knew the world around them. Given that it affected them so greatly, I believe they were aware of the natural world at a level of detail that would rival the observations of our modern science. And, given that a volcanic eruption provides such a spectacular show, I would expect it to be included in any comprehensive effort to depict nature in works of art.

"The closest volcano to the Chauvet cave that was active around the time the paintings were made would have been about 22 miles northwest of the caverns, in the Bas-Viverais region, John Lichfield writes for The Independent. While volcanic eruptions can take many different forms, geologists believe that the Bas-Viverais range may had “strombolian” eruptions, which look similar to the firework-like spray depicted on Chauvet’s walls." (Lewis)
"Even so, prior to this study, researchers had only discovered evidence for eruptions in the region that long predated the arrival of our ancient ancestors on the scene. So geoscientist Sebastien Nomade gathered rock samples from three of the region’s volcanoes. By measuring the levels of radioactive isotopes of argon gas, which is released during volcanic eruptions, Nomade and his team discovered that the Bas-Viverais range had experienced several dramatic eruptions between 19,000 and 43,000 years ago." (Lewis)

Stage 2, Megaloceros added over
earlier painting. From PLOS,
January 8, 2016.

The area around the Chauvet cave was likely populated around this time and far enough away that any inhabitants would have been safe from the eruptions but still have a good view of the action, Callaway writes. “You just have to climb the small hill on top of Chauvet, and looking north you see the volcanoes. During the night you could see them glowing and you could hear the sound of the volcanic eruption,” Nomade tells Callaway." (Lewis)

Given the new dating on volcanic eruptions in the region, and the fact that they would have been visible from quite near Chauvet-Pont d'Arc, the assumption that the spray-like features could well have been meant to depict volcanic eruptions. 

These new dates fall within the range of occupation dates of Chauvet-Pont d'Arc. Human occupation of this cave has been determined by radiocarbon dating. It was occupied by humans during two distinct periods: the Aurignacian and the Gravettian. Most of the artwork dates to the earlier, Aurignacian period (30,000 to 32,000 years ago), and since the presumed volcanic eruption depictions are superimposed on by later cave art, they (the volcanos) must have been done during the Aurignacian period making them among the oldest works of art in the world, and, perhaps, the very first geological illustrations. 

At this point I must confess that I am skeptical of this claim. These marks are just too much like many, many other marks in the caves that are not being identified as volcanic eruptions. As I said above, a volcanic eruption is such an impressive event that we should expect to see it recorded in the art of the people who witnessed it. Personally, I just cannot quite go along with this being such a record.

If you are interested in more detail please refer to the article in PLOS, cited below.


Lewis, Danny
2016       Chauvet Cave Paintings Could Depict a 37,000-Year-Old Volcanic Eruption,, January 19, 2016.

Nomade, Sebastien,et al.,
2016       A 36,000-Year-Old Volcanic Eruption Depicted in the Chauvet-Pont d'Arc Cave (Ardeche, France)?, PLOS, January 8, 2016,

Saturday, February 20, 2016


Macaws, Square Tower Canyon,
Hovenweep Nat. Mon., San Juan
county, UT. Photograph:
Peter Faris, 28 May 1988.

A fascinating subject to study in rock art of the American Southwest, an arid region with much desert, is a picture of a parrot or macaw. But we know that macaws were imported into the American Southwest from their Mesoamerican home during the Ancestral Puebloan periods. On December 15, 2010, I posted a column entitled BIRDS IN ROCK ART - MACAWS, about a group of petroglyphs in Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

Macaw, West Mesa, Albuquerque,
New Mexico. Photograph: Paul
and Joy Foster.

On March 20, 2011, I posted another column entitled BIRDS IN ROCK ART -PARROTS, about images found in Petroglyph National Monument in West Mesa, Albuquerque, New Mexico. These are birds we think of as jungle creatures from a wetter and more verdant area, one thousand miles away from where the petroglyphs are found.

Two macaws, West Mesa, Albuquerque,
New Mexico. Photograph: Paul
and Joy Foster.

Stephen Lekson (2015) discussed the presence of macaws in this area in terms of logistics (importing/breeding/trading). He relegated to them a function of display and ceremony, almost conspicuous consumption, among upper class rulers at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, in the twelfth century, and Aztec, New Mexico, in the thirteenth century.

Scarlet macaw. Archaeology,
Vol. 68, No. 5, September/October
                           2015 p. 16.
"Chaco was a conspicuous eleventh century consumer of macaws. Paquime was a fourteenth-century producer. Aztec . . . well, Aztec had three macaws - two actual macaws (Lori Pendelton, personal communication, 1997) and one macaw feather (Morris 1919:64). Aztec Ruins and its region have not produced many foreign curios.
But, of course, Aztec West is only one of the half dozen large buildings at Aztec. What a different picture we would have of Chaco had only Chetro Ketl and not Pueblo Bonito been excavated! With the current data, however, it appears that long-range exchange - spectacularly evident at Chaco in the twelfth century and Paquime in the fourteenth century - was greatly reduced at Aztec during the thirteenth century." (Lekson 2015:91)

"Macaws were important to Chaco; thirty-four were found at the canyon, and a few were found at Aztec. Paquime had hundreds and bred the birds, probably supplying feathers - needed for developing kachina ceremonialism - to all the Pueblos (Hargrave 1970). "The people wished to go south, and raise parrots," according to the Acoma and Zuni stories; and that's exactly what they did." (Lekson 2015:147)

Now, according to an article in Archaeology magazine (Vol. 68, No. 5, September/October 2015, p.16) by Eric A. Powell, we have a hard date for the presence of those birds in the area. 

Macaw skull, Chaco Canyon, New
Mexico. Archaeology, Vol. 68, No. 5,
September/October 2015, p. 16.

"In the prehistoric American Southwest, trade with distant Mesoamerica was a source of power and prestige that could make or break a ruler. Within the massive multistory buildings at New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, for instance, archaeologists have discovered exotic goods from Mexico, such as cacao and the remains of 33 scarlet macaws, whose natural habitat is 1,000 miles away on the Gulf of Mexico. Scholars had assumed that long-distance trade became important only during the period when Chaco's power was greatest, from A.D. 1040 to 1110. But now a team has dated the macaw bones and found that some were imported as early as A. D. 900. "I was very much surprised," says American Museum of Natural History archaeologist Adam Watson, who helped organize the dating. "I, along with everyone else, assumed the trade networks with Mexico didn't become important until Chaco expanded. Now we have evidence that control over trade and political power were being consolidated long before then." (Powell 2015:16)

It turns out that the presence of macaws/parrots in the American Southwest dates from almost a century earlier than previously assumed. This carries strong implications on the scale of trade between the American Southwest and Mesoamerica, as well as Chacoan societal development. I imagine the impact that a creature like a scarlet macaw would have had on the people of Chacoan society, their presence would seem almost magical. It is this mental and emotional picture that gives these petroglyphs their impact on modern viewers.


Lekson, Stephen H.
2015    The Chaco Meridian: One Thousand Years Of Political And Religious Power In The Ancient Southwest, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.

Powell, Eric A.

2015    Early Parrots in the Southwest, page 16, Archaeology, Vol. 68, No. 5, September/October 2015.

Saturday, February 13, 2016


Fremont pictograph, great blue heron, Rabbit Valley, CO.
Photograph: Peter Faris, 1981.

Close-up of great blue heron pictograph, Rabbit
Valley, CO. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1981.

The painted bird in this panel is found in Rabbit Valley, the McDonald Creek drainage, in western Colorado, and is attributed to the Fremont Culture. I first visited it and took photographs in 1981. From the size and confirmation of the beak I have always thought of this bird as a great blue heron, although there are other possible identifications of it as well. In his book, Odyssey of the Pueblo Indians, William M. Eaton, designated it a Puebloan calendar, based upon the numbers and patterns of dots on the chest of the bird.

Figure 11.1.2, page 150, William M. Eaton,
1999, Odyssey of the Pueblo Indians.

"It is a calendar that utilizes dot patterns for a year (of 12 or 13 months) and is based upon a 28 day lunar month. The total of days (13 x 28) produces a year of 364 days. The 28 dots in the lower box represent days and were entered by working downward and to the right. The last row of dots shows the artist in the process of rechecking his dot count. Then a new and final dot was entered in the right edge of the box which indicated 12 vs. the desired 13 calendar months. But why not show 13 months. the answer is that this would have violated ceremonial rules of "duality," and would be" bad luck"." (Eaton 1999: 150)

Well, Mr. Eaton does have the correct count of the numbers of dots. I cannot, however, follow the reasoning that says it has to have 13 dots for months but stopped with 12 because 13 would be bad luck. It seems to me that fear of 13 (triskadekaphobia) is pretty much a European/Christian concept.

According to Wikipedia:
"Triskadekaphobia (from Greek tris meaning "3", kai meaning "and", deka meaning "10" and phobos meaning "fear" or "morbid fear") is fear of the number 13 and avoidance to use it; it is a supersitition and related to the specific fear of the 13th person at the Last Supper being Judas, who betrayed Jesus Christ and ultimately hanged himself." (Wikipedia)

Now, I admit that there is still a lot to learn about the Fremont Indian culture, but I am willing to predict that they were not Christians of European descent. The Fremont culture was a pre-Columbian culture found in eastern Utah and northwestern Colorado from roughly AD 1 to AD 1300. "It was adjacent to, roughly contemporaneous with, but distinctly different from the Anasazi culture." (Wikipedia) 

Note, the real panel has a great deal of other imagery on it that Eaton had to ignore. One other interpretation that he wrongly made is his portrayal of the star chart over the left shoulder (our left, not the bird's) of the heron. In the actual panel this can be seen as a feathered plume which is actually attached to the bird. Careful examination of the photo shows that the surface of the area surrounded by dots had been scraped smooth. It would have originally appeared lighter against the patina of the rock surface.

Here is my argument with Eaton, he includes the Fremont Culture as a Puebloan group which they were not according to all references. And then he bases his analysis and interpretation upon a European Christian superstition which the Fremont people most assuredly did not share. So while I have no doubt that Mr. Eaton was sincere in his studies, and he certainly had a great deal of fun in the belief that he was making important contributions to the subject of rock art studies, his efforts have mainly contributed to the kind of sloppy interpretation that makes serious students of rock art cringe. Sorry Mr.  Eaton, nice try but no cigar.

Great blue heron, Wikipedia.

So, do I have a better suggestion? This is in a drainage of the Colorado River in a stretch where it goes through a very dry countryside near the Colorado/Utah border. If a native inhabitant were going to see a great blue heron in the wild it would have certainly been near here, along the Colorado River. And, we still have the fact that people of the Puebloan and Fremont cultures were agricultural. This leads me to suggest that the heron, as a water bird, is a logical image to find symbolically representing the needed moisture for their crops. It is an idea anyway.


Eaton, William M.
1999    Odyssey of the Pueblo Indians, Turner Publishing Co., Paducah, KY.


Saturday, February 6, 2016


Castner Range view.

Rock art students and enthusiasts are asked to support an effort to create a new National Monument to protect Fort Bliss rock art sites. See the information below:

"Significant ancient rock imagery sites, ancient cultural deposits, and historic military sites are located on the 7,000 acre Castner Range at Fort Bliss in El Paso Texas . We now have an opportunity to protect these sites through creation of a new national monument. Congressman Beto O’Rourke submitted a bill December 16, 2015 to create the national monument. The goal is to establish Castner Range as a national monument so that it will be protected in perpetuity. Lands within a national monument feature exceptional scientific, cultural, ecological, geological, historical, and recreational values. If Congress fails to act the President can declare the national monument through the Antiquities Act."

"An El Paso non-profit, The Frontera Land Alliance, is leading the effort and collecting letters of support from individuals, to President Obama for the national monument, showing diverse community support."

Pictographs in White Rock
Shelter, Fort Bliss, TX.

"Letters from organizations are just as valuable as letters from individuals.  If you can contribute a letter of support from businesses, civic and conservation organizations and/or faith leaders please use one of the attached letters and send to the email below. 
Please support this effort by going to where you can access the letter from individuals to the President which must be competed (date, address, signature and printed name) and mailed to Frontera Land Alliance at 3800 N. Mesa Street, Suite A2-258, El Paso, Texas 79902 or scan and email"

"We encourage everyone to edit letters as they choose and use their own letterhead if they like.  Then, For Coordination, Send Original Signed copies to:  The Frontera Land Alliance , 3800 N. Mesa Suite A2 -258, El Paso , TX 79902 ." 

Rock Art, Franklin Mountain,
El Paso area, TX.

“Castner Range is closed to the public due to UXOs (Unexploded ordnance).   You can help protect Castner Range as a National Monument.” Simply go to the web site to download examples of letter formats. This is certainly a worthy cause, please help them out. Remember: Protect The Past  For The Future. 

I am sorry that I was unable to include any photos of actual Castner Range rock art, but I have been unable to locate any specific examples. The rock art illustrations are El Paso area styles, but are not, as far as I know, site specific to Castner Range.

On June 10, 2009, I posted a column on RockArtBlog titled Protecting Rock Art in which I expressed my opinion that one of the best ways to protect rock art sites is to plant poison ivy. I also expressed the (not entirely) cynical thought that if we established toxic and radioactive waste dumps at these sites they might be better protected. This Castner Range proposal provides a new opportunity for rock art site protection. Much of the cultural material at the proposed national monument is on former army firing ranges at Fort Bliss. Yes, the area is loaded with unexploded ordnance and people are strongly discouraged from entering. It might be worth trying in other locations.


Quotes are courtesy of:  Frontera Land Alliance at 3800 N. Mesa Street, Suite A2-258, El Paso, Texas 79902 or scan and email to:

Loendorf, Chris
2011    FORT BLISS ROCK ART PIGMENT ANALYSIS BRUKER TRACER III-V EDXRF STUDY OF PICTOGRAPHS AT WHITE ROCK SHELTER AND PICTURE CAVE, Material Science Laboratory, Gila River Indian Community, Cultural Resource Management Program, Sacaton, Arizona.