Saturday, May 26, 2018


Bird Rattle's petroglyph record of his 1924
visit to Writing-On-Stone. Photograph
Peter Faris, 25 June 2016.

It is a verity in our branch of Art History study that we rarely get to know who created the art we study. In my March 3, 2018, posting I presented rock art (of a sort) that had been created by Sir Isaac Newton. Now, in this posting, I am visiting the author of a historic panel found in Writing-On-Stone, in Canada.

Close-up of the car on the right,
next to large "V"-necked figure
(the figure was not created
by Bird Rattle, it was already there).
Photograph Peter Faris, 25 June 2016.
This car contains 4 passengers.

A couple of years ago I finally had the pleasure of visiting the famous rock art site of Writing-On-Stone provincial park, in Alberta, Canada. There, along the cliffs on the north side of the Milk River valley, a whole lot of world-class rock art can be seen.

Close-up of the car on the left.
Bird Rattle's petroglyph record of his 1924
visit to Writing-On-Stone. Photograph
Peter Faris, 25 June 2016.
This car contains 2 passengers.

Among many images in the Plains Biographic tradition to be found at Writing-On-Stone, one panel shows a pair of automobiles with passengers clearly seen within. While unmistakably of historic origin, the actual details of its creation were debated until a photograph turned up which shows the creation of the images by a Piegan elder named Bird Rattle in 1924.

Bird Rattle carving his petroglyph,1924,
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park,
Alberta, Canada. Public Domain.

"Taken by Roland Willcomb, the photograph clearly shows the South Piegan elder Bird Rattle carving a petroglyph - one of two very similar, detailed automobiles - on a panel at the main site in what is now Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. The origin of these automobile images has long been a source of debate. Several early researchers assumed the vehicles were recent Euro-American images, while one of us in more recent research had identified certain stylistic elements which suggested a possible aboriginal source. The photograph conclusively ends the question as to the origin of the automobile petroglyphs, but more importantly, its discovery led the authors to additional photographs, correspondence, and documents pertaining to Bird Rattle's and Willcomb's association with Writing-on-Stone." (Klassen et al 2000:189)

Bird Rattle, ca. 1910, Photograph
Edward S. Curtis. Public Domain.

"Born about 1863 near Writing-On-Stone (Willcomb 1968a:3), Bird Rattle grew up during the last of the buffalo days on the Northern Plains. He was intimately familiar with Writing-On-Stone. As a boy in 1866, he and his famil were camped near the locale at the time of the Retreats-Up-The-Hill battle - one of the last major conflicts involving the Blackfoot Nation. Bird Rattle's name has long been association with both Retreats-Up-The-Hill and Writing-On-Stone, as his version of this battle directly links the rock art with this famous conflict. (Dempsey 1973) After the buffalo were gone, Bird Rattle settled in a cabin on Cut Bank Creek, just north of Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation of Montana. By the 1920s, Bird Rattle was a prominent Piegan elder and the owner of a sacred Beaver Bundle. (Willcomb 1970a:44)." (Klassen et al 2000:191)

Roland H. Willcomb was born in Massachusetts and educated in engineering. He had first come to Montana in 1908 (Willcomb 1970a). Willcomb worked around the American West until 1923 when he returned to Montana to work for the Montana Highway Commission. Between 1923 and 1925, he was the Project Engineer overseeing construction of roads across the Blackfeet Reservation. Willcomb met Blackfeet elders including Bird Rattle in Browning, Montana, and "a close friendship developed between Bird Rattle and Willcomb which continued until Bird Rattle's death on October 31, 1937 (Willcomb 1979a)." (Klassen et al 2000:191-2)

"Within a year of their meeting, Willcomb had arranged to take Bird Rattle on a visit to Writing-On-Stone. Apparently, Willcomb had been told stories of this "place of mystery, 'where ghosts live'" (Willcomb 1968a:1) and he wished to experience it himself. Their journey to Writing-On-Stone was documented by Willcomb with a series of photographs, and he later recorded a narrative of the journey (Willcomb 1968a), apparently based on his original notes and letters." (Klassen et al 2000:191-2)

”On the morning of September 13, 1924, Willcomb and Bird Rattle, accompanied by a second Piegan elder, Split Ears, and Jack Wagner who acted as an interpreter, left Browning in Willcomb's car. The party drove north to the Canadian border. There they were joined by two of Willcomb's friends from Great Falls, John Stevenson and I. O. Deshon, who arrived in a second car. From the border the two cards proceeded to Writing-On-Stone, where the party set up camp near the cliffs. After briefly inspecting the rock art on the cliffs, the party gathered around the campfire where Bird Rattle and Split Ears described the rock art as messages from the spirit world which could be read by Medicine Men (Willcomb 1968a:13). These messages, which frequently changed overnight, warned of enemies in the area, told them the location of buffalo herds or strayed horses, and foretold future events. One of the stories told by Bird Rattle that evening was that of the Retreats-Up-The-Hill battle, which Willcomb transcribed in great detail in his later narrative. (Willcomb 1968a; Dempsey 1973)." (Klassen et al, 2000:193)

It was during this visit that Bird Rattle decided to add a record of his trip to the Biographic rock art at Writing-On-Stone. "According to Willcomb, at one point during the day, "Bird Rattle decided that he should record our trip. He selected a bare rock face some distance from any of the ancient 'writings.' He tried his best with a hard piece of quartz, but was barely able to scratch the surface of the sandstone" (Willcomb 1968a:17). Bird rattle, in fact, selected a face already containing rock art, and despite Willcomb's assertion to the contrary, he was quite successful in carving his record of the trip, judging from the resulting petroglyphs." (Klassen et al 2000:194)

"By recording this significant event as rock art, Bird Rattle demonstrated the relationship between narrative expression and the spirit powers of a sacred place. Bird Rattle's petroglyphs, and Willcomb's narrative of this trip (together with the anonymous 1932 narrative), provide new insights into the aboriginal significance of Writing-On-Stone, and the meaning of its rock art."
(Klassen et al 2000:195)

(I wonder whether Bird Rattle actually wore his feather headdress as he created his images, or whether the photo was posed later.)

For students of this art form which is all too often presented to us anonymously on the surface of the cliff, cave, or boulder, and incident like this where we have factual knowledge of the time and place, as well as the thoughts of the creator, can be of inestimable value in looking for meaning.
I am personally very grateful to Klassen, Keyser, and Loendorf for their work in winkling out the facts of this story, and then bringing it to us.

NOTE: The images of Bird Rattle in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.


Dempsey, Hugh A.,
1973 A History of Writing-On-Stone, Unpublished manuscript on file with the Provincial Museum of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

Klassen, Michael A., James D Keyser & Lawrence L. Loendorf,
2000 Bird Rattle’s Petroglyphs at Writing-On-Stone:Continuity in the Biographic Rock Art Tradition, Plains Anthropologist, 45:172, 189-201.

Willcomb, Roland H.
1968a        Ah-sin-efp: Writing-On-Stone, Manuscript on file at the Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena.
1970a        Bird Rattle and the Medicine Prayer, Montana Magazine of Western History 20:42-49.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

TWO-WAY COMMUNICATION:  While I really appreciate your comments (generally) on RockArtBlog, I must remind you that they come to me on a "no-reply" e-mail communication from Blogger. If you wish an answer to a comment or question you have to send it to me directly at  

Saturday, May 19, 2018


Eagle Rock Shelter, 5DT813,
Delta County, Colorado.
Public Domain.

The oldest dates recovered so far in Colorado have come from an excavation at Eagle Rock Shelter (5DT813) in Delta County, supervised by Dr. Glade Hadden, recently of the Montrose office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Beginning in 2007, the BLM and Western Wyoming Community College collaborated upon this excavation resulting in some remarkable findings.

"Since 2007, the BLM and Western Wyoming Community College have collaborated on the excavation of the Eagle Rock Shelter (Site 5DT 813) in the northern portion of the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area. Excavations at the site have to date uncovered evidence of habitation within the shelter spanning the range of human occupation of North America." (Hadden, quoted in Bannister2013:1)

Panel 1, Eagle Rock Shelter,
Photograph Carol Patterson.

"Eagle Rock Shelter is a fairly large rock shelter located on the first bench above the Gunnison River. The site was originally recorded by the BLM in 1988 after it was reported as a looted site. After receiving the report, BLM archaeologists, along with staff from Alpine Archaeological Consultants, recorded the shelter and assessed the damage from looters. Their conclusion at the time was that the shelter may still contain some in situ deposits and that BLM should initiate an excavation to recover information missed by the looters. The shelter walls contain dozens of petroglyphs spanning the Archaic Period (ca. 7,000 years BP to roughly 2,000 years BP), the Formative Period (ca. 300 AD to 1,200 AD) and the Late Prehistoric (Numic or Ute) period. The BLM concluded at the time that there was a reasonable chance that some deposits from these time frames may still be intact inside the shelter." (Hadden, quoted in Bannister2013: 1)

"The Archaic period is an era in the human history of Colorado dating from ca. 6500-AD 200. It is one of he three prehistoric periods used by archaeologists to characterize broad cultural changes that occurred throughout the Americas. It was preceded by the Paleolithic Indian period (ca. 11,500 - 7000 BC), extending back into the late Ice Age, and was followed by the Formative period (1000 BC - AD 1450)." (Black 2018)

Drawing of panel 1, Eagle
Rock Shelter, Carol Patterson.

"In 2007, BLM archaeologist Glade Hadden and Dr. Dudley Gardner of Western Wyoming Community College visited the site with an eye to establishing a college archaeological field school. Our assessment then was that the site may prove to be an ideal field school project with a high probability of finding undisturbed Formative and Middle to Late Archaic occupation deposits. Excavations began by delineating the damage to the site from the looting episode. After the first year we had concluded that, while most of the later Formative and Late Prehistoric levels had been destroyed, there were good indicators of intact Late Archaic and Formative period levels still in place. Over the next few years, WWCC and BLM continued to excavate and uncovered numerous intact occupational levels including Ute, Fremont hearths (Formative period), and Archaic hunter/gatherer camps, with a degree of preservation that was remarkable. Perishable fibers, cordage, leather, and wooden artifacts were found including a 3,000 year BP basked, dart foreshafts, an early archaic Pinto point with sinew wrap still in place, stone, bone, and wood tools, beads, including bone beads in both round and disk form, eagle bone beads, food preparation impliments, ground stone, and ocher." (Hadden, quoted in Bannister2013: 2)

Panel , Eagle Rock Shelter,
Photograph Carol Patterson.

"By 2010, we had established that the shelter occupation dated back at least to 8,000 years BP and contained undisturbed occupations representing all phases of known human occupation for the area. In 2011, we excavated down through the intact Archaic levels and discovered hearths, with the first dating to ca. 9,000 years BP, well within the Paleo-Indian period, and finally a single hearth which yielded two individually certified dates of 12,800 years BP. The hearth contained charred bones (including one element of a late Pleistocene mammal), charred seeds, grasses, as well as stone tools and debris. The date from the older hearth places the early occupation of the shelter to the end of the last Ice Age, and represents one of the earliest Clovis sites in North America, placing it among a small handful of stratified Clovis/Paleo-Indian occupation sites in the western hemisphere - and currently the oldest archaeological site in Colorado." (Hadden, quoted in Bannister2013: 2)

Drawing of panel 8, Eagle
Rock Shelter, Carol Patterson.

What seems remarkable to me in this is that it has not been long since all archaeological references insisted that there was no habitation of North America that early. It was argued that Clovis (11,500 - 11,000 BP) was the first culture to inhabit North America. It should be noted that there is no mention of any Clovis culture affiliation in any of the material from Eagle Rock Shelter.

"The site is important because of the Paleo-Indian component, but that is far from the only significant component, says Hadden. "We have some of the most amazing stuff ever found in archaeological sites in Colorado right here. They're not unique, but they're amazing." In all, the site contained more than 50 hearths, and at least 42 different occupational contexts, including some gaps in occupation later on. In one of those layers was a 7,000-year-old woven yucca fiber basked that archaeologists estimate looters missed by about eight inches.  It's the oldest known basket in Colorado and the second-oldest found in North America. "And it has a nice provenance," said Hadden. "We know exactly where it came from. . . and the dry climate has maintained it beautifully."" (Meck 2016)

"Another find that could be a game-changer is a Middle Archaic Pinto point with sinew wrapped around the base. Pinto points, found in this area, are thought to date 5,000-6,000 years, but the sinew dates back 8,000 years. That could push the occupation dates of sites in the Escalante Canyon near Delta back possibly 2,000 more years, said Hadden." They also found tanned animal hides, a yucca-fiber sandal, and hundreds of projectile points, some dating back 12,000 - 13,000 years." (Meck 2016)

Eagle Rock shelter also includes rock art, although none of it can yet be associated with the earliest occupations of 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, and it was recorded in detail by Dr. Carol Patterson and Dr. Alan Watchman.

They divided the rock art there into sixteen panels for their comprehensive 2006 report, and found that most of the rock art can be attributed to the Archaic and Formative eras. Their description of panel one is reasonably representative of most of the rock art in Eagle Rock Shelter. For panel one their report stated "Two eras are represented in this panel. The large animals are of the Archaic Era with branching antlers, large bodies and long thin legs and cloven feet. The smaller animals with stubby legs and round bodies, and the anthropomorph with stick legs and arms, along with the sinuous lines belong to the Formative era.
This panel exhibits characteristics of the Archaic Era with large horned animals, stick figure type anthropomorphs and abstract lines (2400 BP and older). It is superimposed in some areas by later, Formative Era (2400 to 700 PB) quadrupeds, and some later scratched and gouged lines. Determining age is difficult because of the strong weathering which has affected the surface and the glyphs. As no rock surface coatings are present a direct approach to dating is not possible. Varnish has not reformed in the peckings and so an indirect age estimate of less than about 2000 years may be approximate for most of the motifs." (Patterson and Watchman 2006:26 & 27)

While it would have been exciting to have examples of rock art from the earliest Paleolithic occupation, the fact that we now have hard dates from that early, plus the great detail of the rock art recording, provide us with a wealth of material to consider. A good job all the way around.

NOTE: For more complete information I would refer you to the resources listed below.


Banister, Craig
2013 "Eagle Rock" Clovis/Paleo Tour, The Surveyor (Newsletter of the Colorado Archaeological Society, Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall 2013, pages 1 & 2.

Black, Kevin
The Archaic Period in Colorado,, accessed April 30, 2018.

Lofholm, Nancy
2016   A Basket Older Than God . . . Well, Jesus, July 1, 2016,

2016 Eagle Rock Shelter Offers New Insights Into Paleo-Indian Culture, Sept. 6, 2016,

Patterson, Carol, Dr., and Dr. Alan Watchman
2006 Gunnison River Rock Art Site (5DT813), Delta County: Documentation, Evaluation, and Management Plan. Submitted for Julie Coleman, BLM Archaeologist, BLM Field Office, Montrose, CO, 80401, Urraca Archaeological Services, Montrose, Colorado

Saturday, May 12, 2018


Esarhaddon inscription, Tomb of
Jonah, Nineveh, Iraq. Photograph
Live Science, Public Domain.

Explorations on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq, in the ruins of The Tomb of Jonah, an ancient shrine that was blown up by ISIS (the so-called Islamic State) on July 24, 2014, in the ancient Iraqi city of Nineveh, revealed seven inscriptions that describe the rule of Assyrian king Esarhaddon. (Jarus 2018)

"Jonah, known as Yunus in the Koran, is a religious figure in Abrahamic religions most famous for the story of being swallowed by a 'giant fish,' or possibly a whale. The text says that he preached in the city of Nineveh, which was the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire" (Hugo 2018)

Mosque of the Prophet Yunus.
Photograph Voice of America,
Public domain.

When Iraqi forces reoccupied the ruins they discovered that ISIS had been tunneling beneath the mosque, presumably for artifacts that could be sold on the black market, one of their sources of income. The mosque, and the Tomb of Jonah, had been blown up by ISIS as one act in their campaign to eradicate what they perceive as idolatry and heresy.

Tunnels beneath the Mosque
of the Prophet Yunus.
Public domain.

Tunnels beneath the Mosque
of the Prophet Yunus.
Public domain.

"The seven inscriptions were discovered in four tunnels beneath the biblical prophet's tomb, which is a shrine that's sacred to both Christians and Muslims." (Jarus 2018)

"One inscription, in translation, reads: 'The palace of Esarhaddon, strong king, king of the world, king of Assyria, governor of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the kings of lower Egypt, upper Egypt and Kush.'" (Jarus 2018)

An inscription which was engraved on the back of a fallen Lamassu (a deity with a human head and the body of a bull or lion) reads in translation: "The palace of Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, descendant of Sennacherib, king of Assyria." (Jarus 2018)

Stele of Esarhaddon,
Public Domain.

"Another inscription found under the Tomb of Jonah says that Esarhaddon 'reconstructed the temple of the god Assur (the chief god of the Assyrians),' rebuilt the ancient cities of Babylon and Esagil, and 'renewed the statues of the great gods.' The inscriptions also tell of Esarhaddon's family history, saying that he is the son of Sennacherib (reign 704-681 B.C.) and a descendent of Sargon II (reign 721-705 B.C.), who was also 'king of the world, king of Assyria.'" (Jarus 2018)

Sennacherib is known to biblical scholars  because in the Christian bible the Second Book of Chronicles, Chapter 32, describes how the Assyrian King Sennacherib invaded Judah.

So, while the destruction of historically significant cultural properties should be lamented by all civilized humans, the resulting discovery has added to our knowledge of the early history of the Middle East, and that, at least, is a good thing.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.


Hugo, Kristin
2018 Ancient Tomb of Biblical Prophet Discovered in Iraq Contain Engravings Describing Brutal Assyrian Ruler, February 21, 2018, Newsweek,

Jarus, Owen
2018 Beneath Biblical Prophet's Tomb, an Archaeological Surprise, Live Science, Feb. 18, 2018,

Saturday, May 5, 2018


Dragon trail, S. of Rangley,
Rio Blanco county, CO.,
Photograph Peter Faris,
Sept. 1990.

Back in 1990, south of Rangeley, Colorado, I ran into one of the most amazing and memorable petroglyphs I had (and still have) ever seen. A beautiful example of sheepherder art, it was the nude figure of a woman, wearing only a drape and high heels, and signed "Paco Chacon, Fruita, Colo, Jan 9 1975."

Sketch of petroglyph, 
Dragon trail, S. of Rangley,
Rio Blanco county, CO.,

The thing about it was that it could in no way be labeled a pornoglyph; although nude, she was demure and innocent, self-confident and comfortable in her beauty. When I met her she was only fifteen years old based on the dated signature. As a life-long fan of folk art this petroglyph instantly impressed itself in my memories as one of my very favorites.

Dragon trail, S. of Rangley,
Rio Blanco county, CO.
Photograph Cheryl Ames,
Sept. 2008.

I was later given this 2008 photograph by Cheryl Ames showing the demise of this remarkable beauty. Some philistine with a high-powered rifle, for whatever demented reasons, had decided to practice his target practice on her image.

By now I am sure you have noticed that this particular column is not an impartial scientific report on rock art. I am, in fact, ranting about an all-too-common occurrence in rock art, vandalism, and lamenting the destruction of a particularly beautiful example of sheepherder art. There is, however, one bright element in this dark and depressing story. I have recently read a wonderful book by Steven G. Baker (2016) about this artist, Paco Chacon. Baker's "My Name is Pacomio" opens up the life of this artist whom Baker had befriended, and introduces us to the remarkable body of work, both on rock and on Aspen bark, that is Paco Chacon's legacy to the world. So many more examples of the work of this remarkable self-taught artist than I could ever hope to find are illustrated in Baker's 130 pages.

Paco Chacon petroglyph,
"Desert Bighorn, and Little 
Miss Tuffet." #12, p. 93,
Photograph Steven G. Baker.

 "Paco's Pony", #13, p. 93, 
from Shavetail Basin,
near Rangely, CO.
Photograph Steven G. Baker

According to Baker, Pacomio Chacon was born in New Mexico's Jemez mountains on La Mesa del Polio in the vicinity of the community of Coyote. As with so many others in this rural, pastoral society, Chacon grew up working around the family's small farm and herding flocks of sheep. I have no intention of recounting the life history of Paco Chacon, for that I will refer you to the book listed below which Steven G. Baker wrote about the life and work of his friend. I will say that Chacon sounds like an admirable man who showed a remarkable talent for portraying the human figure although he had no formal art training. That you will see for yourself in the few other examples of Chacon's body of work that I am including with Baker's permission out of the roughly one hundred that Baker has documented (and refers to other known examples that he could not photograph).

Aspen bark inscription, 1964-65,
photograph by Richard Moyer,
Meeker, Colorado.

Paco's "Marilyn M., Chimera of
the Aspens", #19, p. 71.
Photograph Steven G. Baker.

"Kneeling Lady", #18, p. 71.
Photograph Steven G. Baker

As grateful as I am to Paco Chacon for the beautiful examples of his work which decorate some of the Colorado/Utah  wilderness where sheep have long grazed, I am as grateful to Steve Baker for bringing me the full story of the gentle and talented man who produced it. Thank you both.


Baker, Steven G.
2016 My Name Is Pacomio: The Life and Works of Colorado's Sheepherder and Master Artist of Nature's Canvases, Western Reflections Publishing Co., Lake City, CO.