Saturday, March 26, 2016


Figure 1. 3-Kings Panel, Classic
Vernal Fremont Style, McConkey
Ranch, Utah. Photograph Peter Faris,
September 1994.

The subject of Style in rock art has perhaps engendered more arguments than any other facet of this field of study. So many people throw the word style around loosely without actually understanding the definition of that word. In art studies, style is that suite of defining characteristics which encompass a group of related works, and separate it from another group. For instance, Impressionism, as compared to Classicism. But when we look at Impressionist works by a number of different artists we see a broad range of appearances between them, so where does style come in? The term Style actually applies more to the intentions of the artist than it does to the end result of that artist's creation, but, to the general public, the term becomes applied to what they see in common from one work to another. That is the basic meaning of the term Style as it is generally applied in rock art studies.

The rock art in the example of Stylistic Evolution that I am presenting here began as Fremont Classic Vernal Style figurative imagery as defined by Polly Schaafsma (1980), and evolved or morphed into what I have called Post-Classic Vernal Abstraction (Faris 1987:29). Starting with highly naturalistic examples, why would imagery devolve into increasing abstract forms over time. My answer is that we have numerous examples from the history of art in which exactly that has occurred, and I suspect a psychological effect like "Mere Exposure" is behind it. The basic premise is that people get used to what they see most often as the way something should be seen - as the "right way" to portray it.

“THE MORE YOU SEE IT THE MORE YOU LIKE IT, (Familiarity) Robert Zajonc (1923-2008) –
Zajonc’s groundbreaking paper, Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure, was published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1968. Zajonc’s paper describes a series of experiments in which he showed participants a sequence of random images – geometric shapes, Chinese symbols, paintings, and pictures of faces – that were flashed in from of them so rapidly that they were unable to discern which were shown repeatedly. When subjects were later asked which images they preferred, they consistently chose the ones to which they had been most frequently exposed, although they were not consciously aware of the fact. What Zajonc seemed to have discovered was that familiarity brings about an attitude change, breeding affection or some form of preference for the familiar stimulus. This increases with exposure: the greater your number of exposures to something, the more affection you will feel toward it. To put it simply, 'the more you see it, the more you like it.'” (Collin, et al 2012:233)

How would that also lead to the evolution (or perhaps devolution) from realistic to abstracted images? Well, along with the Mere Exposure effect we humans tend to overlook details, so as we are viewing these images we are also making subconscious decisions as to which parts of it are more important than others, and in the future the less important portions of the image can get overlooked, while the elements we consider to be of greater importance will remain and perhaps become emphasized.

The Classic Vernal Style of Polly Schaafsma includes figures with attention to realistic details of texture, contour, and accessories, the best example of which is the main figure from the 3-Kings panel at McConkey Ranch, North of Vernal, Utah (FIGURE 1). This ultimate expression of Classic Vernal Style shows anatomic details, clothing and accessory details, and was created in multi-media, painted as well as pecked. Other figures from this stylistic classification are less grand and ornate, but most seem to share this intention toward realism.

This is exactly what I saw in the progression of images from Cub Creek, Dinosaur National Monument, Utah, a step by step simplification and abstraction from the Classic Vernal Realism starting point to a final set of petroglyphs that would not be identified as anthropomorphs if we did not have the intervening steps to refer to.

Figure 2. Classic Vernal Fremont
Style, McConkey Ranch, Utah. 
Peter Faris, 1987.

From the Classic Vernal Style beginning we see a first step in the evolution of the figure is essentially a simplification. Details of adornment, headdress, jewelry (pectorals, ear bobs), clothing, etc., are still present but the figure itself is not realistically proportioned, it reminds one of a cookie cutter gingerbread man. This example (FIGURE 2), also from McConkey Ranch in the Dry Fork Valley, near Vernal, Utah, is obviously related to the 3-Kings panel, but not as naturalistically detailed. In effect, the interest is more in the decorative detail than in the realism of the figure. This focus on decorative detail will be seen to be a constant throughout the sequence.

Figure 3. Three-Princesses panel at Cub
Creek, Dinosaur National Monument,
Utah. Photograph Peter Faris,
Sept. 1989.

Figure 3A. Close-up of first princess
at Cub Creek, Dinosaur National
Monument, Utah. Photograph
Peter Faris, Sept. 1989.

Figure 3B. Close-up of second and
third princesses at Cub Creek,
Dinosaur National Monument, Utah.
Photograph Peter Faris, Sept. 1989.

As I envisioned it back in 1987, the 3-Kings panel was most likely created during a cultural peak of the local Fremont culture, after which the culture slowly changed (or declined), and the rock art changed with it. I illustrate this with a sequence of anthropomorphs from the great cliff face site of Cub Creek in Dinosaur National Monument. From the Classic Vernal Style beginning, the first step in the evolution of the figure is essentially a simplification. I illustrate this with figures from very near the Cub Creek cliff face known as the 3-Princesses. the figures now are merely symbolic shapes instead of realistically proportioned torsos, or even the cookie cutter figure. FIGURES 3, 3A, and 3B show the 3-princesses panel complete and then close up, and FIGURES 4 and 5 are drawings of these figures.
Figure 4. First princess at Cub Creek,
Dinosaur National Monument, Utah.
Peter Faris, 1987, page 32.

Figure 5. Second and third princesses
at Cub Creek, Dinosaur National
Monument, Utah. Peter Faris,
1987, page 31.

These figures are stylistically related to the Cub Creek panels and the location is certainly close enough to be considered as the same location, and as they are all in the same basic location they were likely to have been created by one group of people (the local residents) over time, and thus their changes illustrate perfectly the evolution that I have discussed above.

This sequence will wait for part 2 of this essay. 


Collin, Catherine, Nigel Benson, Joannah Ginsburg, Voula Grand, Merrin Lazyan, and Marcus Weeks,
2012    The Psychology Book, DK Books, London and New York.

Faris, Peter
1987    Post-Classic Vernal Abstraction: The Evolution of a Unique Style in Late Fremont Rock Art in Dinosaur National Monument, Utah, pages 28-40, Southwestern Lore, Vol. 53, No. 1, Colorado Archaeological Society.

Schaafsma, Polly
1980    Indian Rock Art of the Southwest, School of American Research, Santa Fe, and University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


UNDESTANDING MEANING AND PURPOSE OF ROCK ART, by D. Russel Micnhimer, 2012, Pendulum Press.

Cover Photo.

I recently received a copy of a very interesting book, Understanding Meaning And Purpose Of Rock Art, by D. Russel Micnhimer. To begin with it is very unlike almost any other rock art book I have ever read. Unlike most, which are crammed full of the most interesting photographs of rock art the author can find, this volume has just a few, black and white, rock art photos which have no captions. They are not identified as to site, location, style, or even subject.
Five Stars for thoughtfulness.

As I read this remarkable volume I began to get the feeling that I was perusing an exhaustive concordance of rock art studies. Now don't get me wrong, this book does not begin to fit the actual meaning of a concordance which is, in effect, a word-by-word index of the subject, generally the bible (look at a copy of Strong's Exhaustive Concordance to see what I mean). What gave me that feeling was the encyclopedic completeness with which Micnhimer approaches his subject. He not only touches on every aspect of his subject, the understanding of meaning and purpose of rock art, he gives numerous aspects that most of us never thought of before. And unlike so many one-size-fits-all theories about rock art, he approaches it with the unique premise that we should think about it.

It was a little long on its discussion of "altered states of consciousness" for my taste, but that does fit in with his premise that all possibilities should be considered. To my great joy, I only noticed the "S" word (shaman) twice, so that kind of balances out. Indeed, he mentioned a couple of possibilities that I had not really considered before. For many years I have consistently rejected the proposition that some rock art consists of what we class as maps. Along with this I have been hugely skeptical of the concept of rock art marking the location of important sites and resources (I will not go into all that here). I was surprised, however, to find a couple of other possibilities that I had not considered. One was that the marking located at the resource or site could represent an ownership mark, and the other is that a petroglyph could serve "as a tool to focus group unity and common values." It may have "instilled a sense of belonging to the group of those who understood the symbols, served as a reassurance of group knowledge about periodic insecurities such as drought or eclipses or insured that necessary tasks were undertaken that would insure the survival of the group." (p.36)

Because Micnhimer does present all the possibilities I can guarantee that you will read some you disagree with, but he does not say he agrees with them either. His whole premise is that we must consider all the possibilities before accepting, or rejecting, an answer.

I can only say that I wish that we could require all those who have been beguiled by fraudulent gurus like Barry Fell, Scott Wolter, and LeVan Martineau to read this book. It seems to me that it is appropriate to end in Micnhimer's own words of conclusion. "We can realize as this discussion concludes, that understanding the meanings and purposes of rock art is a complex one. Many factors and facets of the task must be recognized and combined if we are to arrive at satisfactory results. Once we have learned to ask the appropriate questions, we can begin to populate our understanding with the appropriate answers and hope that by doing so we can be closer to actually knowing the intent of the original makers of these marks on stone that we know as rock art. To the extent this book facilitates that, my marks here will have succeeded." (p. 143)

To get a copy for yourself:

Micnhimer, D. Russel,
2012    Understanding Meaning and Purpose of Rock Art, Pendulum Press.

$14.95 plus $4.00 shipping and handling, to:
Russel Micnhimer
P.O. Box 1653
Prineville, OR  97754

Saturday, March 12, 2016


"Map Rock", Turkey Creek, Fort
Carson, Colorado. Photograph:
Peter Faris, July 2005.

On April 18, 2009, I posted a column titled "ARE THERE MAPS IN NATIVE AMERICAN ROCK ART?" In this column I presented a so-called map panel petroglyph from southeastern Colorado and explained my belief that it could not represent a map as we define the term.

A fairly simple illustration of this question is found at the so-called "Map Rock" at Turkey Creek, Fort Carson, Colorado, pictured above. The most common explanation of any so-called map  rocks is that they picture the landscape around the site. The lines are matched up to water courses or valley bottoms for explanation. 

Petroglyph lines traced over
photograph of "Map Rock",
Turkey Creek, Fort Carson,

As you can see I have done this for the Turkey Creek map rock. The first step was to trace the lines on the rock. 

Map of Fort Carson, Colorado. The
Turkey Creek area is in the bottom
left quadrant.

Tracing of the watercourses on
the Fort Carson map.

Then I traced the streams and waterways on a map of the Turkey Creek area at Fort Carson. It is a relatively simple step then to compare the tracings for commonalities that would identify the petroglyph as a map. "But what about scale" you say? I think we can see that there is no grouping of lines on the map tracing that matches the petroglyph at any scale.

"Ah, but what if it is a map of trails, not streams?" There I have to fall back on my previous explanations. I do not believe that Native Americans ever created what we identify as a map to record trails. First, you do not need a map to follow most trails, you can see them clearly there on the ground, and this map is not going to fit into your pocket anyway. Then the map proponents declare that it is a "secret trail" that will take the people to safety in a time of war. Some secret! If that were the case their secret is posted on the equivalent of a billboard for their enemy to find and follow.

Lean Wolf's ledger book drawing
of his horse raid. From Warhus,

About the closest I can come to acknowledging a map in Native American art would be an example from ledger art that shows a figure traveling a route for a horse raid (Warhus 1997). That is the map drawn by Lean Wolf, 1881, recording, and advertising, his heroism, but that is not intended to accurately portray the geographic details of the route, it is intended to be a record of Lean Wolf's deeds and actions, his personal history. This was also drawn during the period when Anglo culture was changing the native practices, and so is strongly influenced by American culture.

So, in the end, I fear I have to stick with my opinion that there just are no maps in rock art. If you believe otherwise please send me the evidence.


Faris, Peter

Warhus, Mark 
1997    Another America: Native American Maps and the History of Our Land, St. Martins Press, New York.

Saturday, March 5, 2016


Bird-Headed Figure. Photograph:
John and Daphne Rudolph. 

This illustration is a new example of an Ancestral Puebloan bird-headed figure that I was given recently. The photograph was taken by John and Daphne Rudolph and provides another excellent example of this interesting theme. They had it labeled as from Train Rock on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southwest Colorado. I have not seen it in person, so I do not take any personal credit for the picture.

Bird-headed figure, Kiva Point, Ute
Mountain Tribal Park, Montezuma
County, CO. Photograph: Peter
Faris, June 1981.

On March 5, 2011, I posted a column that was titled BIRD-HEADED FIGURES. In this I presented a petroglyph panel from Kiva Point on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southeastern Colorado that includes a portrayal of an Ancestral Puebloan figure with a duck-like bird perched on its head, and I pointed out the fact that Lovelock Cave in Nevada held 3,000-year-old duck decoys. I cited Sandra Olsen's description of their creation and use:

"Remarkable preservation at Lovelock Cave, Nevada, has led to the recovery of 3,000-year-old duck decoys - - - that were made by stretching a bird skin over a tule reed form. Many ethnographic reports describe hunters putting duck skins - on their heads as they swam right up to live ducks. They captured the ducks by grabbing their feet and pulling them underwater, so as not to disturb other nearby fowl." (Olsen 1998:104)

It is difficult to see these images and not think of them as portrayals of one of these ancient duck hunters wearing his duck decoy on his head.

Cipikne katcina, From Fewkes,
             Hopi Katcinas, 1985.                 

Salimopia katcinas, From
Fewkes, Hopi Katcinas, 1985.

Other possibilities exist, of course, some suggest that they are early examples of katcina costuming. There are also examples of duck katcinas including Pawik and Cipikne of the Hopi and the various colored Salimopias of the Zuni (Fewkes 1985). Indeed, this also seems to be quite plausible.
Bird-headed figures, Alex
Patterson, p. 49.

I have also included again an illustration from Patterson (1992) which shows a number of examples of the theme of bird-headed figures. Some examples show an anthropomorph with a bird perched or standing on top of its head, and others have the head replaced by a bird. Neither of the examples I have posted are included in Patterson's compilation, but that is not surprising considering the popularity of this theme. He could not have covered all of the known examples.

Given all this, I would love to see someone do a book on these bird-headed figures. A fascinating subject to ponder. Thank you John and Daphne.


Fewkes, Jesse Walter,
1985   Hopi Katcinas, Dover Publications Inc., New York.

Olsen, Sandra L.
1998   Animals in American Indian Life: An Overview, pages 95-118, in Stars Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature, Marsha C. Bol, editor,  Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Niwot, CO.

Patterson, Alex

1992   A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest, Johnson Books, Boulder.