Saturday, November 30, 2019


Stone slab with three mountains,
Plate XLVI, 22nd Annual Report of
the Bureau of American Ethnology
to the Secretary of the Smithsonian
Institution. J. W. Fewkes, 1904.

I have previously posted two columns in RockArtBlog on the Three Mountain theme in Mesa Verde (see references below). Here I am bringing another example from elsewhere into the picture as well. In 1900 and 1901 Jesse Walter Fewkes was excavating for the Bureau of American Ethnography and found this artifact in a burial at Chevelon Ruin, one of the Homolovi Cluster of ruins near Winslow, AZ.

Fewkes discovered a burial which had been covered by a rock slab with painted designs. He described this in his report which was included in the 22nd Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1900-1901, Part One.

Fewkes' description and analysis of the artifact:
"This object, which is much larger than any of those which have been mentioned, is painted on both sides with highly suggestive designs of a symbolic nature. The decoration on one side is almost wholly obliterated, but on one corner we detect clearly the modern symbols of the dragon-fly. The pigments with which this stone is painted were easily washed off, and this accounts for the loss of the decoration on the surface which was uppermost as it lay in the grave over the body. The design on the other face, however, is more distinct. It consists of three triangular figures enclosed in a border, recalling a san mosaic such as is used in modern presentation of the Hopi ritual. Two colors, black and white, are readily detected in the border - the black outside the white. The field enclosed by this border is yellow, and the three triangular figures are black, with enclosed rectangles, which are white. At the apex of each triangle there is a rude figure of a bird painted red, in which the head, body, and two tail feathers are well differentiated.

Three Mountain Kiva painting, Eagle's Nest,
Ute Mountain Ute Reservation,
Colorado. Photo Peter Faris, 1981. 

Three mountain theme painted
on a wall, Spruce Tree House,
Mesa Verde, Colorado.
Photo Peter Faris, 2002.

The whole character of the design on this stone calls to mind the decorations on the walls of a kiva of a cliff dwelling of the Mesa Verde, described by Nordenskjold, and figured in his beautiful memoir. In the designs on the kiva wall of 'ruin 9' we find groups of three triangles arranged around the whole estufa at intervals on the upper margin of a dado, and each of these triangles is surrounded by a row of dots. The field on which they are painted is yellow, and the triangles and dots are red or reddish brown. On a wall of Spruce Tree house Nordenskjold found a similar dado with triangular designs, and it is interesting to note that in the figure of this ornamentation which he gives rude drawings of birds appear in close proximity to the triangles.

Three mountain theme painted
on a wall, Cliff Palace,
Mesa Verde, Colorado.
Photo Internet, Public Domain.

Fewkes had analyzed this composition and proposed that the three triangles were rain clouds. (Fewkes 1904:105) Irrespective of Fewkes analysis the three triangles do not match any cloud portrayals I know of, I think it is much more likely that they represent mountains, making this another example of the three-mountain theme common to the four-corners area.

San Francisco Peaks, Arizona.
Photo Internet, Public Domain.

Since this rock slab had been used to cover a burial this suggests that the interred body was being sent to the home of the kachinas, the San Francisco Peaks. Whereas, in my previous columns I had posited that the three-mountain theme might refer to the three peaks of Huerfano Butte because of its central location in the fire-beacon communication system (see references below) I now need to add the possibility that they refer to the three main peaks of the San Francisco Peaks, the home of the kachinas. Especially since many of the painted examples of the Three Mountain theme are in kivas, and kivas are dedicated to kachinas, which come from the San Francisco Peaks. An additional factor is that the San Francisco Peaks are only 70 miles or so to the Northwest of Winslow so propinquity would seem to be on the side of this argument. In either case, we know that the Three Mountain theme was important to ancestral Pueblo peoples, and over a larger area than I was aware of before.

It might even be the case that both Huerfano Butte and the San Franciso Peaks are correct. Perhaps the ancestral pueblo peoples who found significance in the Three Mountain theme applied it to nearby features that they were familiar with, so at Mesa Verde the Huerfano Butte had this significance to them, and at Chevelon pueblo it might well have been the San Francisco Peaks. 

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.


Faris, Peter
2016 Huerfano Butte, New Mexico, as the Model for Painted Mountains at Mesa Verde, Nov. 26, 2016,

2017 Another Example of the Three Mountain Theme at Mesa Verde, Jan. 21, 2017,

Fewkes, Jesse Walter
1904 Two Summers Work In Pueblo Ruins, in 22nd Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1900-1901, Part One, by J. W. Powell, Director, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D. C.

Friday, November 22, 2019


I have long maintained that archaeologists are wrong in arguing that they alone should study rock art. After I had been involved in the field of rock art studies for about 20 years a recently graduated archaeologist argued to me that "you have to understand, I am a professional, you aren't." I am an art historian and I have long experience in working backwards from objects and images to try to tease out conclusions about the culture and individual that created it. This is essentially what an Art Historian does - sound familiar? When I began this the dominant position in the archaeological community was that rock art should be recorded but that it was folly to try to understand it in any way. Thank goodness those days are pretty much over.

In 2013, Severin Fowles of the Department of Anthropology, Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, summed it up much better than I ever have: "Boundary maintenance between anthropological archaeology and art history was more complicated. Of course, there has always been a kind of implicit accusation that the art historical gaze indirectly, and sometimes directly, encourages the growth of the antiquities trade and, in turn, the further looting of sites. However, the more fundamental accusation had to do with the archaeologist's (generally unwarranted) assumption that art historians succumb to the fetishistic power of the artifact itself, losing sight of the broader network of social forces out of which the artifact is but a momentary crystallization. Explanatory truths, for the archaeologist, do not reside in the artifact itself, it was said, but in "the Indian behind the artifact" or, more properly, in the system behind the Indian behind the artifact as Flannery (1967) suggested during the heyday of archaeology's scientific revolution. Such worries over the dangers of becoming fixated on artifactual things sound almost theological in retrospect. Artifacts, very much like religious icons, were said to be mere tools for reaching deeper truths and hidden organizations.
Perhaps this partly explains why late twentieth century archaeologists focused so much of their energy on the analysis of large assemblages of humble object fragments drawn from middens, fragments that do not easily enchant and that only became meaningful once they had been typologized, quantified, and transformed into percentages. Commentary on singular aesthetic objects - the mainstay of art historical writing - tended to be deemphasized precisely because material singularity interrupted the development of increasingly abstract models. This was especially true in North America where it continues to be the case that the extraordinary "museum-quality" pieces recovered from archaeological sites are often surprisingly little discussed in comparison with fragments of utilitarian pottery and other mundane remains. Somehow it came to be assumed that bits of charcoal and chipped stone debitage are inherently more scientific than murals or masks." (Fowles and Arterberry 2013: 67-8)

What Fowles is so eloquently saying is essentially that we both were wrong. Art historians focused too much on objects of "beauty" or impressive value, overlooking possible clues from less impressive items, while archaeologists tried to ignore those and skewed the record to the minute and mundane that they could "scientifically" quantify. In this way neither discipline actually could see a whole culture in all of its complexities. I have to admit that, while I know all the marks on the rock are data, I do gravitate to Fowle's objects of "beauty." Some rock art just appeals to me more than other rock art - guilty as charged.

In the end it comes down to the fact that each discipline has valuable contributions to make to the study of rock art. The real question should be who should not study rock art? That is easier to answer; UFO believers, spiritualists who psychically commune with rock art, and anyone who comes to it with a preconceived bone to pick (and I have met examples of them all at rock art conferences).


Fowles, Severin, and Jimmy Arterberry
2013 Gesture and performance in Comanche Rock Art, pages 67-82, in World Art 2013, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, UK.

Saturday, November 9, 2019


Figure playing a Dong Son Drum,
Kisar, Indonesia.
Photograph from Live Science.

I have written previously about the topic of music as it relates to rock art. Of course, both music and visual art share many of the same characteristics; creativity, discipline, and philosophy. But most of my previous references have been aimed at the idea of music being played in rock art sites as part of a ritual. As far as rock art portraying musical instruments I have written about a possible musical bow (or mouth bow) at the cave of Les Trois Freres in March 28, 2010, "Music At Rock Art Sites?" and a horn rasp or morache at the cave of Laussel in April 26, 2010, "Music At Rock Art Sites (Continued)". I also presented an example of flute-playing from Mesa Prieta in New Mexico in May 28, 2011, "The Flute-Playing Armadillo". There have also, of course, been numerous references to flute-players among columns on Ancestral Puebloan rock art (see cloud index below).

Dong Son Drum, Indonesia.
Note the sunburst in 
the center of the head.
Photo: Public Domain.

Dong Son Drum, Indonesia.
Note the sunburst in 
the center of the head.
Photo: Live Science

Now, an article in by Natasha Frost presents us with a large number of painted images of Dong Son drums in Indonesia. "A Dong Son drum - - - is a bronze drum fabricated by the Dong Son culture in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam. The drums were produced from about 600 BCE or earlier until the third century CE - - -. The drums, cast in bronze using the lost-wax canting method are up to a meter in height and weigh up to 100 kilograms (220 lb). Dong Son drums were apparently both musical instruments and cult objects. They are decorated with geometric patterns, scenes of daily life and war, animals and birds, and boats. More than 200 have been found, across an area from eastern Indonesia to Vietnam and parts of Southern China." (Wikipedia) These have been prized possessions and preserved carefully, and were regarded highly enough to become a common subject of rock art, probably by someone leaving a record of his wealth and importance.

                  Dong Son Drum        
               pictographs, Indonesia.
                Note the sunbursts.
            Photograph from Live Science.

These pictographs were discovered in caves on the small Indonesian island of Kisar, off the coast of Timor. "Home to just a few thousand people, it had never been the site of a full archaeological exploration before a recent expedition by researchers from the Australian National University in Canberra, despite being a key site in the historical international spice trade. The island is almost entirely surrounded by ancient coralline limestone terraces, which run parallel to the coastline. Over the centuries, the sea has worn shelters and caves into the terraces. Within these nooks and crannies, archaeologists found 28 galleries replete with amazingly well-preserved rock paintings, done by people dead for millennia." (Frost 2017)

Dog pictographs, Kisar, Indonesia.
Internet Photo, Public Domain

"The paintings themselves are tiny, barely four inches in height, and show dynamic scenes including boats, dogs, horses, and people often holding what look like shields, said Sue O'Connor, the lead archaeologist on the project. 'Other scenes show people playing drums,' she said in a statement, 'perhaps performing ceremonies.' These figures, painted in shades of ocher, burnt umber and russet-red, remain in extraordinary condition, despite being as much as 2,500 years old." (Frost 2017)

Lene Cece Rock Shelter, Photo
from O'Connor et al., Fig. 13, p. 14.

"Dong Son drums have been found on many of the islands of eastern Indonesia including Flores, Roti, Leti and Kei. Interestingly, in the last few years two Dong Son drums have been discovered in the Lautem District, not far from the rock-art sites in Timor-Leste discussed here (Oliveira 2015). Spriggs and Miller (1988) suggested that Dong Son drums may have been carried on exploratory maritime expeditions by elite traders wishing to establish client-patron exchange relationships in the islands, and given to cement alliance." (O'Connor 2017:14) In other words quid-pro-quo - I give you a gift that will enhance your standing and reputation in your community and you give me favorable trading preferences. These islands were an important link in the maritime spice trade so a good trading relationship was definitely the road to prosperity. This is apparently pictured in a boat painting in Lene Cece rock shelter in Timor-Leste. "Although most of the Kisar boat paintings are highly schematized, features of the large boat in Lene Cece shelter in Timor-Leste (Fig. 13) resemble those on the boats on the Dong Son bronze drums in having 'high prows which are vertical or raked back' (Akerman & Dwyer 2000:87). The prow appears to be carved to resemble a cockerel with long tail feathers. The Dong Son boats also feature warriors wearing feather headdresses and carrying weapons or ritual paraphernalia (Kempers 1988). The Lene Cece boat shows small human figures in X-ray within the boat, and up on deck warriors wearing elaborate headdresses. - - - The sun-ray motif - directly above the Lene Cece boat also closely resembles the sun-ray motifs which decorate the tympanums of Dong Son drums." (O'Connor 2017:11)

Although these Dong Son drums are being reported as items of ritual significance, they are also apparently tokens of wealth and importance, the family or individual that owns one would have enhanced status and public position. This suggests that the pictographs represent a record of someone's wealth and importance, public bragging rights - and, they could be played too.

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Faris, Peter
2010 Music At Rock Art Sites?, March 28, 2010,

2010 Music At Rock Art Sites (Continued), April 26, 2010,

2011 The Flute-Playing Armadillo, May 28, 2011,

Frost, Natasha
2017 In Indonesian Caves, a Treasure Trove of Forgotten Ancient Paintings, December 15, 2017,

O'Connor, Sue et. al.
2017 Ideology, Ritual Performance and Its Manifestations in the Rock Art of Timor-Leste and Kisar Island, Island Southeast Asia, December 2017, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Cambridge.

Saturday, November 2, 2019


Drinking reindeer, Les Combarelles,
Public domain.

There is a phrase you often see in rock art papers nowadays - "incorporation." Basically, it refers to using a natural feature of the rock face as part of a composition. The most engaging example I know of is one I posted a column about on September 8, 2018, "The Drinking Reindeer of Les Combarelles."

      Drinking reindeer, Les Combarelles,
      France. Drawing, Peter Faris, 2019.

In this panel a reindeer engraved onto the cave wall has his head down and his tongue out lapping water from a small seep that originally exited the cliff face at that point. The composition includes both the created reindeer and the incorporated natural water seep.

Spotted horses, Pech-Merle, France.
Internet image, Public domain.

Another famous example is the spotted horse from Pech-Merle cave, France, where a rock projection the shape of a horse's head seemingly suggested that the large horse be painted in that position. In his book "Painted Caves" Andrew Lawson describes it as "overlapping figures of two horses filled and surrounded by spots and negative hand stencils. Note the diminutive head of the horse on the right, but the shape of the rock which might suggest a head with better proportions. This figure, 1.6m long, has provided an age estimate of 26,640±390 (uncal bp). Fine red paintings of a fish, indented circles, and bent thumbs also appear on the frieze." (Lawson 2012:133)
Lawson apparently sees the black portion of the horse on the right above and to the right of the front legs as the horses neck tapering up to a diminutive black head. I prefer to look at that as the black mane and forelock on top of the horses head which is represented by the painted rock projection (shaped like a horse head). I think this is also true of the horse on the left with a black mane and forelock over a somewhat indeterminate neck and head. Whether Lawson is correct, or my version is correct, it is the shape and volume of the wall projection that inspired the painting of the horse in the first place.

Polychrome bison ceiling, Altamira,
Spain. Internet image, Public domain.

Another commonly cited example of incorporation involves the great Polychrome Bison ceiling at Altamira cave. "the natural protuberances on the ceiling were employed for perspective and volume. Cracks were also used to represent outlines." (Bradshaw Foundation) Bumps on the stone ceiling of this gallery in Altamira were painted as bison, giving the animals roundness and three dimensions. "These conventions were used to best effect where they also utilized the natural contours and fissures of the ceiling. Thus, bosses were exploited to give volume to the bodies of the animals, while cracks and eminences were used to emphasize various anatomical features." (Lawson 2012:257) This represents incorporation of the surface relief of the rock face into the rock art - shape and volume again.

Bison, Portel, France, Thinking
with the Animals in Upper Palaeolithic
Rock Art, Georges Sauvet et al,
2009, p. 9.

A less known example that includes both the shape (as in Pech Merle) and a rock projection (as in Altamira), is found in Le Portel cave, France, where a bison is located on a rock projection the topside of which is defined by a crack that suggested the outline of his back. The shape of the rock projection suggested the body of the bison and its volume provides relief.

These three examples are relatively straightforward and easily defined. There are, however, many cases of rock art recording where incorporation is reported, but not so definitely proven. Advocates of the "S"-word (shamanism) often state that the rock face is a membrane between this world and the spirit world. In some cases, an anthropomorph or zoomorph on a rock face next to a crack in the rock is defined and explained as a figure that has just left the inside of the rock through the crack, however, unless the painting or pecking actually rounds the corner and continues inside of the crack there is actually no way to prove that the image and the crack are connected at all.

A recent example I saw in a paper published about Scandinavian rock art showed a number of images from a highly fractured cliff face. One image that was near a crack was touted by the authors as a highly significant example of  "incorporation" - the position of the crack was assumed to be included in the composition. Many other images with cracks were, however, ignored with no comment. Indeed, a couple of examples had cracks right through the image which were also not mentioned. This inconsistency cancels their credibility when designating the one example as "incorporation".

I am, by no means, denying that incorporation occurs in rock art, I cited a number of examples above. I do maintain, however, that it is reported much too loosely, without actual proof. The presence of a rock irregularity on the surface within a rock art composition, or a crack in the rock a panel is painted on, does not mean that it was ever intended to be an actual feature of the rock art. The examples I gave above are unmistakable - many others are not.

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Bradshaw Foundation

Lawson, Andrew J.
2012 Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK

Sauvet, Georges, Robert Layton, Tilman Lenssen-Erz,
Paul Tacon & Andre Wlodarczyk,
2009 Thinking with Animals in Upper Palaeolithic Rock Art, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 19:3