Friday, June 29, 2018


Inscription on a limestone
ostracon. Tomb of Sennifer,
Egypt. Photo
Public domain.

The oldest known inscription in an early version of our alphabet (well almost) is an ostracon, an inscribed piece of limestone discovered in 1995 in Egypt, in the tomb of Sennefer (or Senneferi). The text is actually written in hieratic, a form of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the words are of foreign (not Egyptian) linguistic origin, and appear to be mostly Semitic.(Jarus 2018) The earliest forerunner to our alphabet was written in Semitic language scripts. This inscription has recently been analyzed and deciphered, and is thought to represent an abecedary. 

"An abecedarium (or abecedary) is an inscription consisting of the letters of an alphabet, almost always listed in order. Typically, abecedaria (or abecedaries) are practice exercises." (Wikipedia)

Painted mural, Tomb of Sennefer,
Luxor, Egypt. Public domain.

Writing in the Times of Israel (22 May 2018),  Amanda Borschel-Dan recorded that the record was painted upon a limestone flake, and was recovered from the tomb of Sennefer at Luxor. "Newly deciphered Egyptian symbols on a 3,400-year-old ostracon from Luxor's Tomb of Senneferi appears to be the first written evidence of the ABC letter order of the early Semitic alphabet, according to a University of British Columbia Egyptologist. In his article, "A Double Abecedary? Halaham and 'Abgad on the TT99 Ostracon," Prof. Thomas Schneider concludes that a small (approximately 10 x 10 centimeters, or about 4 x 4 inches) double-sided limestone flake was used by Egyptian scribes as a mneumonic device to remember the letter orders of not one, but two forms of early Semitic alphabets." (Borschel-Dan 2018)
"Three of the words start with the ancient equivalent of B, C and D, creating what may be a mnemonic phrase. Thomas Schneider, a professor of Egyptology and Near Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia, reported the discovery in a paper published recently in the Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research. This discovery "would be the first historical attestation of 'our' alphabet sequence," he told Live Science in an email." (Jarus 2018) 
"One side of the limestone piece contains a series of Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols that represent the words "bibiya-ta" (a word that can mean "earth snail"), "garu" (a word that can mean "dove") and "da'at" (a word that can mean "kite"), Schneider wrote in his paper. More than 3,000 years ago , the "g" would have represented the sound that "c" does today, Schneider told Live Science. This means that the first letter of each of these words is the ancient equivalent of "BCD."  (Jarus 2018)
"The other side of the inscribed piece of limestone also contains a series of Semitic words written in hieratic Schneider said. The first letters of the first four words in that series - the letters "hlhm" - represent the first few letters of another ancient alphabetic sequence, one that never became as popular as the ancient forerunner of our alphabet. These words form a phrase that means, "to make pleasant the one who bends reed, water [according] to the Qab." The "qab" is a unit of measurement that equals about 1.2 liters, Schneider wrote. This phrase likely helped the person who wrote this inscription to remember the first few letters of this alphabetic sequence, Schneider said." (Jarus 2018)
"Whoever wrote these inscriptions 3,400 years ago may have been trying to remember the start of both alphabetic sequences, Schneider said. Sennefer(i) was an official who dealt with Egyptian foreign affairs and likely understood the Semitic languages that were used in the Eastern Mediterranean, Schneider said." (Jarus 2018) So, these inscriptions were not written in our alphabet, but in Egyptian hieratic, and were not written in our language, but in the ancient Semitic language. This  ancient Semitic language was generally written by the Semites themselves in a version of the Phoenician script that later evolved into our alphabet. Even if the connection to us is a little tenuous, a written inscription of that age deserves attention.
NOTE: Some 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.


Borschel-Dan, Amanda
2018 Aleph is for 'Elta: First Written Record of Semitic Alphabet, From 15th Century BCE, Found in Egypt, 22 May 2018, Times of Israel,

Jarus, Owen
2018 Earliest Version of our Alphabet Possibly Discovered, Live Science, May 16,

Saturday, June 23, 2018


Tool-sharpening grooves,
Picture Canyon, Baca County, CO.
Photo Peter Faris, 21 Sept., 1986.

In southeastern Colorado there are large numbers of sites that have rows of lines or grooves pecked or ground into the rock. Over the years attempts have been made to decipher them as Ogam inscriptions, counts of some sort, even ribstones as proposed by Larry Loendorf, or just tool-sharpening grooves.

"Ribstones may vary in their details but all consist of a long, vertical line or groove along the length of a boulder that is crossed by shorter grooves, creating a figure that represents the backbone and ribs of a buffalo. The grooves have been pecked and abraded into the boulder surface a depth of 1 or 2 centimeters, and a series of cupule-like holes have been placed between the lines. The inclusion of pecked eyes, ears, a mouth, and horns, suggests a living buffalo, and the presence of buffalo hoofprints on a number of boulders created the impression of movement." (Loendorf 2008:214)

Tool-sharpening grooves,
Picture Canyon, Baca County, CO.
Photo Peter Faris, 21 Sept., 1986.

This is a surprisingly good description of many of the panels that I mention above, enigmatic collections of tool-sharpening grooves that seem to beg for additional identity. I personally have made many attempts to link them to some type of count, from calendar to number of game animals bagged, with no convincing success.

Now, a recent discovery at the site of the Roman town of Interamna Lirenas, located 90 miles southeast of Rome, have suggested another possibility, that of sundials.

Roman hemicyclium, Archaeology,
May-June 2018, p.68.

"The limestone sundial measures about 21 inches by 13 inches by 10 inches (54 by 35 by 25 centimeters), and has a bowl-like face engraved with 11 hour lines, which mark the 12 hours of daylight. Three curved lines intersect perpendicularly with these hour lines, marking when the winter solstice, equinox and summer solstice should happen researchers said.
The sundial's iron needle that casts shadows - known as a gnomon - is missing but its lead base is still there, the researchers noted they added that this type of bowl-like sundial is known as a hemicyclium, and was common during the Roman period." (Geggel 2017)

Blessed Twins inscription (5LA2224),
2975±200 BP , Las Animas County,
CO. Photo Peter Faris, 24 May 1987.

Each of the examples herein of the tool groove groupings have cracks or crevices in the rock face that a piece of wood, a section of tree limb perhaps, could be jammed into to served as a gnomon. Could they have been intended as sundials by their Native American creators? That would require a whole lot of research, to begin with I do not have records of the original orientation of these panels so I cannot say which way they faced. Would a couple of them thrown shadows at all? I also have no idea of the units of passing time that they would have measured, did Native American peoples of southeast Colorado divide the day up like we do?

In most instances I also have no record of the direction these panels face which would, of course, be of major importance if they were used as sundials. What is their orientation?

Tool-sharpening grooves,
Hackberry Springs, Bent County, CO.
Photo Peter Faris, 21 Sept., 1986.

Given the uncertainties of the sundial possibility, balanced against Larry Loendorf's description of ribstones, I think we will have to go with Larry on this one - they are ribstones - at least until I hear a better suggestion.

NOTE: The sundial image in this posting was retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If this images was 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.


Geggell, Laura
2017 Time to Celebrate: Ancient Sundial Made to Celebrate Roman Politician, Live Science, November 9, 2017

Loendorf, Larry
2008 Thunder and Herds, Rock Art of the High Plains, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Lobell, Jarrett A.
2018 Artifact,  Archaeology , p. 68, May/June 2018

Saturday, June 16, 2018


5,000-year-old Egyptian "Nativity

Italian rock art researchers have announced the discovery of what they are calling "the oldest nativity scene ever found." Because of the magnitude of the claim they are making about its meaning I am quoting the article in its entirety. On December 22, 2016, Rossella Lorenzi wrote on, "Italian researchers have discovered what might be the oldest nativity scene ever found - 5,000-year-old rock art that depicts a star in the east, a newborn between parents, and two animals." (Lorenzi 2016)

Now the panel undoubtedly does depict a man and woman with a small figure between them, two animals (one a probable), and a dot on the right that has been identified as the "star in the east."

The description goes on: "The scene, painted in reddish brown ochre, was found on the ceiling of a small cavity in the Egyptian Sahara desert, during an expedition to sites between the Nile valley and the Gilf Kebir Plateau. "It's a very evocative scene which indeed resembles the Christmas nativity. But it predates it by some 3,000 years," geologist Marco Morelli, director of the Museum of Planetary Sciences in Prato, near Florence, Italy, told Seeker. Morelli found the cave drawing in 2005, but only now his team has decided to reveal the amazing find." (Lorenzi 2016)

"The discovery has several implications as it raises new questions on the iconography of one of the more powerful Christian symbols," Morelli said. The scene features a man, a woman missing the head because of a painting detachment, and a baby. "It could have been interpreted as a normal depiction of a family, with the baby between the parents, but other details make this drawing unique," Morelli said. He noted the newborn is drawn slightly above, as if raising to the sky. Such position, with the baby not yet between the parents, would have meant a birth or pregnancy." (Lorenzi 2016) Where in the world would this conclusion have come from, that a position between and slightly above would have meant birth or pregnancy? But what if it is not rising to the sky? What if it is slightly higher to represent that it is farther away? They do not say that the lion is rising to the sky, yet it is much higher than the small figure. Maybe the lion is not yet born either.

"As death was associated to Earth in contemporary rock art from the same area, it is likely that birth was linked to the sky," Morelli said." (Lorenzi 2016) I would love to see the references that back this statement up, I just don't believe it.

"The scene becomes more symbolically complex if the other figures, two animals and a small circular feature are taken into consideration. On the upper part is a headless lion, a mythical beast which appears in several rock art drawings from the same area, while below the scene a baboon or an anthropomorphic monkey can be seen. In the east, the Neolithic artist (has) drawn what appears to be a star. The researchers called the site the "Cave of the Parents." No doubt it's an intriguing drawing," Morelli said. "We didn't find similar scenes until the early Christian age." (Lorenzi 2016)

In the above statement the author failed to distinguish whether any lion in general was the "mythical beast which appears in several rock art drawings from the same area" or whether it is the headless state of the lion which renders it mythical. Given the long tail it does appear to represent an lion, a figure important to the later Egyptians, and, as an apex predator, a figure likely to be of importance to anyone who lives where they are found. As to the "baboon or an anthropomorphic monkey", it is just as likely to represent a seated human with outstretched arms. Without a head I don't believe it can be definitely identified.

All in all this story would be perfectly acceptable if the author had inserted the word "possibly" about a dozen times, but as it stands it is unacceptable sloppy rock art analysis and reporting.


Saturday, June 9, 2018


5LA5598, Boulder Site, Pinyon
Canyon, Photo US Army, Fort Carson.

Petroglyphs on boulders at 5LA5598,
         Boulder Site, Pinyon Canyon, Photo
                from Larry Loendorf.

Back in the 1980s, Dr. Lawrence Loendorf organized and directed a ground-breaking rock art recording project on the Fort Carson Colorado training grounds known as the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site in Las Animas County, Colorado. This is a detached training ground in southeastern Colorado belonging to Fort Carson. Larry organized interdisciplinary teams to comprehensively record, not only the rock art and the surface it is on, but the surroundings, thus capturing a detailed picture of it in its actual environs. This picture would include the geography, geology, botany, and data on climate and resources, anything that could help understand the culture that produced the art.

Quadruped Petroglyphs on
boulders at 5LA5598, Boulder Site,
Pinyon Canyon, Photo from
Larry Loendorf.

I found this to be, at that time, eye-opening and revolutionary, and I am still impressed by his concentration and the depth of his detail. I recently contacted Loendorf to ask for a statement on his approach to recording rock art for RockArtBlog, and this is his reply.

"The rock art recording completed by Sacred Sites Research, Inc. (SSR) follows a process that developed over the past 50 years. The initial decision in rock art recording is whether the intent is to record the rock art site or the rock art at a site. Although this sounds like the same thing, the recording of a rock art site is quite different than simply recording the rock art.
The SSR approach is to record the whole site with emphasis on its setting as well as the rock art." (Loendorf 2018)

"Time and again by recording the whole site SSR makes discoveries that are important to understanding the rock art. The vegetation at a site, especially what is growing along the cliff wall or in the rockshelter, can include medicinal plants like Datura or tobacco. There are frequently small rock shrines or fasting beds near rock art sites. We find the tools used to make the petroglyphs or pictographs, often at the base of the panel. The most common find is a portion of a painting or petroglyph that has fallen out of its original place. These can serve as samples for dating or additional studies." (Loendorf 2018)

"Of course, SSR also records the rock art. The methods used for this work have changed through the years with new technology that significantly improves the process. DStretch software and DStretch enabled cameras (now cell phones) is the most important new technology although the use of drones to map large sites with multiple panels, is a close second. Other new techniques like the use of portable x-ray fluorescence instruments to study pigments, or small digital microscopes to examine areas of superimposition are important advances and there are others that artists use in completing their scale drawings. However, SSR rock art teams learn the most by recording the whole site." (Loendorf 2018)

He is describing an in-depth, detailed study of the rock art as well as its surroundings. He illustrated this point by describing a discovery on a recent recording project at a site near Carlsbad, New Mexico, Kee's Site.

Kee's Site, near Carlsbad,
New Mexico. Photo from
Larry Loendorf.

"Recently on a project near Carlsbad, New Mexico, we recorded Kee's Painted Shelter, a site that has long been known but never fully recorded. The Kee's stie has mainly abstract figures with a few representational ones covering its wells and ceiling. The site is a long oval-shaped rockshelter in the canyon wall. Across from Kee's, slightly upstream, in the opposite canyon wall is the Honest site. The Honest site was excavated by Susan Applegarth in the 1970s and found to contain a fairly thick layer of Archaic-age deposits circa. 3000 years of age. Applegarth mentioned the Kee's site but did not incorporate it into her research.
During our project, I was near the Honest site while the crew was completing drawings of the paintings at the Kee's site. Even though the two sites are some distance apart, I could clearly hear every word they were saying. Since sounds carry better at night when temperatures are cooler, it is apparent the Kee's site has an auditory component that we would have overlooked. It also serves as a link between the two sites in a way that would not have been discovered without recording the whole site and not just the rock art." (Loendorf 2018)

Although I opened this column with a description of my positive and enthusiastic response to Loendorf's work back in the 1980s, it applies doubly now because of the technological improvements (such as DStretch, and X-ray fluorescence) that have been made since then, and which he makes use of on his rock art recording projects. Larry produces arguably some of the most complete reports available today on his rock art recording projects, and his work should stand as an example for quite some time.

His business: Sacred Sites Research is a 501(c)3 non-profit, and is located at 6220 Mojave Street NW, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87120.

Illustrations and quotes from Larry Loendorf, and also from:

Loendorf, Lawrence L.
2008 Thunder and Herds, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Saturday, June 2, 2018


It wasn't done by the butler in the library . . . . . it was done in the Missouri Breaks, by the Blackfoot and the Crow.

Cover: Horse Raiders in the Missouri
Breaks,  Keyser and Minick, 2018,
Oregon Archaeological Society,

Back in the dim past (1970s and 80s) when I was only a few years into my studies of rock art, I was lucky enough to meet Jim Keyser, the only archaeologist I know who had the courage at that time to state that we could, in fact, interpret rock art and learn a lot about it and the people who made it, not just record it. Since then, Jim's publications with a number of collaborators, provide an education in how to approach the subject of meaning in rock art. Now I have the distinct pleasure of presenting to you a 2018 book by James D. Keyser, and David L. Minick, Horse Raiders in the Missouri Breaks: Eagle Creek Canyon Petroglyphs, Montana, another volume in the series published by the Oregon Archaeological Society in Portland (

Eagle Creek Canyon Petroglyphs
site, 24CH757, Montana.

Stylistic comparisons,
Fig. 12, p. 22.

Most rock art books are large regional surveys or site reports, but this is an in-depth analysis of the rock art of a single locale, but (as with all of Keyser's work) with a very broad range of comparative material explaining and establishing it in time and place. It includes very detailed descriptions of the rock art, and comparisons to ledger-book art as well. Including over 100 pages on just six panels at a single site (just five panels if you discount panel three which is a modern autograph - vandalism), its detailed chronologic and stylistic classification will inform studies over a much broader region, and its approach to the study of rock art sets an example that we can all benefit from. For example: it includes eight pages (31 - 38) of analysis of saddles in rock art. I also count forty pages devoted to interpretation of the rock art at the site.

Jim Keyser with a recording crew, 
Eagle Creek Canyon project.

From his beginnings in rock art studies Keyser has  propounded the theory that Native American winter counts and ledger book art provide a lexicon that we can use to inform our analysis of rock art imagery. Over his productive career Keyser has also accumulated comparative files of other rock art sites which join the winter counts and ledger book art in his lexicon of examples. This analysis, based on Keyser's huge comparative files, also places it in the broader context of regional rock art, and Native American art which could be applied to other art forms and media.

Plate 5, Horse, Carved and 
abraded on Panel 5.

David Minick is a long-time member of Oregon Archaeological Society and member of Keyser's rock art research team. His profession was Photo-journalist and Photographer and for the last 5 -6 years he has done much of their camera work specializing in DStretch analysis, along with lab work. He has also co-published some site reports with Keyser from Oregon, Washington, and Utah, especially recovering imagery with DStretch.

Plate 2, Horse and rider
from Panel 2.

This partnership has combined their talents to illustrate an example for the way rock art sites should be approached. As a result of their extensive analysis the authors have developed an explanation of the presence of the rock art being studied as an ancient form of tagging, or calling cards. Back on March 13, 2011, I posted a column titled Tagging and Territorial Marking in Rock Art, looking at the question as to whether some rock art was the equivalent of the modern form of vandalism - tagging. The idea is that it is a mark left by someone for someone else to find, not quite in the sense of "Kilroy was here," but more in a challenging sense, like "I was here and there was nothing you could do about it." Keyser and Minick have, of course, provided a much more thorough explanation of rock art as a "calling card."

In their analysis the examples of Blackfoot and Crow rock art in the same location are successive messages from one group to the other, taunting them. In their theory the basic motive was the Plains Indian phenomenon of horse raiding, stealing horses from an enemy group. This site, Eagle Creek Canyon in Montana, they present as being located in the area bordering between both tribes and on a natural route for horse raiding. If my group was successful I might leave a horse image on the cliff to taunt you, and after a reciprocal raid your group might leave a horse image there to trump mine.
Five Star Book.

This volume provides a lesson as to how rock art analysis should be conducted. It can be ordered from the Oregon Archaeological Society at


Keyser, James D., and David L. Minick,
2018 Horse Raiders in the Missouri Breaks: Eagle Creek Canyon Petroglyphs, Montana, Oregon Archaeological Society, Portland.