Saturday, June 27, 2020


Keyhole Sink, Kaibab National Forest. Photo Kaibab National Forest.

Keyhole Sink panel. Photo Kaibab National Forest.

A sad incident of vandalism occurred at Keyhole Sink, in Arizona's Kaibab national Forest occurred in August 2010. Some hero (or heroes) with a can of silvery-white paint added their work to a petroglyph panel. 

Keyhole Sink panel vandalized. Forest. Photo Kaibab National Forest. 

"Keyhole Sink is a canyon in the shape of a keyhole near Williams, Arizona. The canyon is best known for its petroglyphs, which were created about 1,000 years ago by the Cohonina people, and the seasonal waterfalls that flow into the canyon." (Wikipedia)

Restoration crew with wire brushes. Photo Kaibab National Forest.

In November, 2010, a team of National Forest personnel led by rock art restorer Johannes Loubser and Kaibab National Forest archaeologist Neil Weintraub performed a restoration on the panel. Several materials and techniques were tested before they decided on their final strategy.

Restoration crew with butane torch and Munsell chart. Photo Kaibab National Forest.

According to Weintraub "for thousands of years and for thousands of visitors - both recent and prehistoric - Keyhole Sink was a serene place to make a connection with nature and the past. I feel that all changed in late August when someone decided to hike in three-quarters of a mile to the petroglyph panel with a bucket of paint." (Banks 2010)

Restoration crew spraying Elephant Snot.
Photo Kaibab National Forest.

The process that they used to remove the paint involved both chemicals and heat. The paint used was an aluminum roofing cement and much of that could be removed from the background rock surface (not the petroglyphs proper) with butane torches. Within the lines of the petroglyphs the butane torches were used to heat "very fine steel brushes just enough to get the brush to help us peel back the paint." (Weintraub 2019)

Keyhole Sink panel after restoration restoration.
Photo Kaibab National Forest.

Remaining traces were removed with a biodegradable cleanser marketed under the name of Elephant Snot. "In 2013, we used our Youth Conservation Corps crew of local high school students to use 'Elephant Snot' to clean up the mess created by the vandals. It worked beautifully and visitors can no longer tell that the site was vandalized. 'Elephant Snot' is a biodegradable cleanser that works on certain paint materials better than others. We have had great success with it, especially in our volcanic landscape." (Weintraub 2019)

I am pleased to note another successful rock art restoration, as well as the materials and techniques used in this endeavor. Another marvelous job.

NOTE: The images in this posting were provided by the Kaibab National Forest. I wish to thank South Kaibab Zone archaeologist Neil Weintraub for his cooperation with RockArtBlog in providing this information, and for the good work of restoring this site. For further information on these reports you should read the original reports at the sites listed below.
NOTE: The weird effects in some type are the result of changes Blogger has made in their style and formatting. As they do not have an instruction manual it may take me some time to master these. Please bear with me. 


Banks, Jacqueline
2010 Vandalized Keyhole Sink Petroglyph Panel Receives Restoration Work, Kaibab National Forest News Release, November 19, 2010

Weintraub, Neil S.
2019 Personal Communication, December 6, 2019.


Saturday, June 20, 2020


Australian mud wasp, Sceliphron laetum.

And while we have been on the subject of rock art in Australia - mud daubers (wasps) have long been a friend to potters as a guide to good deposits of local clays they can use to produce their pottery, now they are becoming recognized as friends to Australian rock art researchers as a source of potential dating for rock art panels.

Not so much a new technique, but a new source of datable material has been found in rock art panels in Australia - mud wasp nests. Made from mud found locally by "mud dauber" wasps, the nests are assembled with cells for the incubation of the offspring, then filled with stung and paralyzed insects for food and a single egg by the female wasp. A mud wasp nest on top of a painted rock art panel will have to have been made after the rock art was created, and if paint is found on top of the remains of an earlier mud wasp nest that nest is older than the painting. If there are a number of nests, and they can be dated, the oldest date from on top of the paint will establish a minimum age range for the rock art (this could be true for petroglyphs as well). A range of maximum and minimum dates can be determined if there are nests found both over and under the painted image. If found in a protected location such as a rock shelter, a mud wasp nest can last a very long time indeed.

Gwion style rock art with mud wasp nest remnant. A) location, and B) close-up.

How can a mud wasp nest provide dating you ask? There are currently two possibilities; AMS 14C dating, and optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL). For AMS 14C dating small bits of organic matter in the dried mud are extracted and dated with an accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS), and the OSL dating is done on small grains of quartz sand included in the dried mud.

Photographig mud dauber nest on rock art,

"OSL is a light sensitive signal that builds up over time during a period of 'burial' or cover. Provided the samples are not exposed to light during collection the signal can be stimulated in laboratory conditions and measured. When divided by the natural radioactivity of the soil or substrate, the amount of light (luminescence) produced is proportional to the period of burial time. OSL is the main method used for establishing chronologies for excavated occupation deposits that pre-date the maximum AMS 14C boundary, or in deposits that lack ample carbon samples. Samples of sediments found within the cave environment have no direct association with the art, but sediments may be collected by wasps and then 'buried' within mudwasp nests found on top of the art. Dating of mudwasp nests using OSL was first introduced by Roberts et al. They initially worked with large nests and sampled each layer to determine the extent to which light no longer penetrated the nests and the quartz was effectively 'buried' and supported their OSL age estimates with AMS 14C or organics found within two nests (Roberts et al)".

As mud dauber wasps are found pretty much all over the world this tool may provide valuable information in many instances where rock art is otherwise undatable.

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.


Roberts RG, Walsh GL, Murray A, Olley J, Jones R, Morwood MJ, et al.

1997 Luminescence dating of rock art and past environments using mud-wasp nests in northern Australia, Nature, 1997; 387 (6634): 696-699.

Ross, June, Kira Westaway, Meg Travers, Michael J. Morwood, and John Hayward,

2016 Into the Past: A Step Towards a Robust Kimberley Rock Art Chronology, August 31, 2016, Plosone,

Saturday, June 13, 2020


Stenciled crab, Photo
Brady et. al., 2020, p. 7, Fig. 4-9

The creation of rock art images with pigment and stenciling is fairly common in panels of handprints. There are also instances in Australian rock art of images made by holding an object against the rock face and spraying paint around it. These are often images of boomerangs or throwing clubs. Now, a new type of stenciled image has been discovered in Australia. Small images of animals, boomerangs, and humans have been discovered at a rock shelter named Yilbilinji 1, in Limmen National Park in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria region in northern Australia. "Traditionally owned by the Marra Aboriginal people, the site was documented by the research team in 2017 and instantly stood out as unique, according to the researchers from Flinders University and the Monash Indigenous Centre." ( 2020)

Stenciled anthropomorph with a
boomarang, Photo Brady et. al.,
2020, p. 7, Fig. 4-6.

The authors of the study described it in their published report. "In 2017, as part of an ongoing rock art recording project in northern Australia's south-west Gulf of Carpentaria, a unique and distinctive assemblage of miniature and small-scale stenciled motifs consisting of anthropomorphs, boomerangs, macropod tracks, and geometric and linear designs was recorded from the Yilbilnji rockshelter, traditionally owned by the Marra Aboriginal people, in Limmen National Park." (Brady et al. 2020:2)

Stenciled long-necked turtle, Photo Brady et. al., 2020, p. 7, Fig. 4-10.

The real question is what material and techniques were used to make the stencil. We traditionally think of stencils as particular shaped openings in a sheet of some material that paint can be applied through. This sort of stencil used on a rock face would show considerable edge bleed at rough spots on the edges of the image, yet these particular small motifs show generally sharp and clear edges. The assumption has to be that they used a flexible material that somehow adhered to the surface while paint was being applied.

Stenciled macropod tracks, Brady et. a., Photo p. 8, Fig. 5-12.

As the authors described it - "Morphologically, most of the assemblage comprises motifs with well-rounded or curved edges. These attributes suggest that a malleable substance, such as wax, resin or clay, was used to sculpt the templates, and also to allow the creation of curved but also sharper edges and points, where required. . . . Additionally, with a malleable raw material, a shaped object can be placed flush against an uneven rock wall surface resulting in a more complete reproduction through stenciling. In addition, an adhesive, malleable material would not require support to hold it against the rock wall." (Brady et al. 2020:8-9)

Beeswax test stencils, Photo Flinders University.

Test stenciled panel, Photo

The authors concluded that the malleable material in question was probably beeswax, commonly used by Aboriginal peoples for a large number of purposes. Procuring an actual sample of the native beeswax from Aboriginal sources they tested its efficacy. Small (miniature) shapes were replicated and used as stencils on a sandstone surface using kaolin mixed with water to a paint consistency and then flicked onto the surface from a brush. The beeswax was then removed leaving the negative images.

"In each case, the sculpted beeswax templates allowed for a direct or close replication of the original motifs. Both the sharply defined edges and the curving and angular shapes were easily reproduced in our experiment. The heating and shaping of the beeswax required minimal time or effort, and was an effective and expedient way to create miniature or small-scale stencil motifs on a sandstone rock surface. In addition, the variable rock surface, both smooth and rough, played no role in the model's ability to adhere, suggesting that this technique would be suitable in a variety of different contexts." (Brady et al. 2020:12)

Although no analysis of the rock surface for wax residue was attempted the authors hope to be able to conduct that study in the future. This interesting paper provides useful information Australian Aboriginal rock art as well as introducing a relatively unknown technique they used to create stenciled rock art. Perhaps other parts of the world should also be examined for traces of such techniques.

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Brady, Liam M., John J. Bradley, Amanda Kearney and Daryl Wesley,

2020 A Rare Miniature and Small-Scale Stencil Assemblage from the Gulf of Carpentaria: Replication and Meaning in Australian Rock Art, Antiquity,,

2020 Miniature rock art expands horizons,

Saturday, June 6, 2020


Stamped hand prints,
Cave of 100 Hands,
Fremont Indian State Park,
Sevier County, UT. Photo
Peter Faris, 28 May 1992.

When I was going through US Army Basic Training in 1965 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, the new trainees were classified as being either "right-handed" or "wrong-handed". This was because our rifle of issue was the M-14, and the ejection port for the fired empty cartridge was placed in a location that a left or wrong-handed shooter would sometimes get hit in the nose with an ejected, very hot, empty cartridge. Indeed, "A study at Durham University - found that left-handed men were almost twice as likely to die in war as their right-handed contemporaries. The study theorized that this was because weapons and other equipment (were) designed for the right-handed." (Wikipedia) I mention this as an introduction to the question of handedness in rock art. Does the dominant hand leave any clues in the image being created, does it make any difference in the art itself?

Lower-left to upper-right slant,
Picketwire Canyonlands,
Las Animas county, CO. Tracing
by James Keyser and Mark Mitchell,
Photograph Peter Faris.

The basic motions used in the creation of rock art are; Flexion (bringing two body parts closer together, such as the forearm and upper arm), and Extension (increasing the space between two body parts as in straightening the elbow), as well as rotation of the arm and hand. These would cover the production of most examples of rock art. The natural easiest motion of the arm would arc between upper left to lower right and back for the left arm, and from upper right to lower left and back for the right arm. Thus, there might be clues in the orientation of images or the axis in a rock art panel caused by this fact. By axis of the rock art panel I refer to the center line of a unified composition. If individual images are added to the rock face at different times (a newspaper rock for instance) then this would not apply, but if the artist created an overall composition of many elements then the axis (center line) might slope to follow this arc of convenient arm motion. If not the center axis of the panel perhaps a slant to many of the elements of the panel might indicate that same thing. For instance: in 5LA8464, the Box Canyon site in Picketwire Canyonlands, Las Animas county, Colorado, recorded in September 1999 by a crew led by Dr. James D. Keyser and Dr. Mark Mitchell, a large elk and three of the four largest horses in the composition angle upward from lower left to upper right. This would be the natural arc of motion for a right-handed artist.

Upper-left to lower-right slant.
Keyser and Minick, 2018,
Horse Raiders in the Missouri Breaks:
Eagle Creek Canyon Petroglyphs,
Fig. 17, p. 26.

An example that might suggest a left-handed artist is a panel from Montana (illustrated in Horse Raiders of the Missouri Breaks by Keyser and Minick) which includes three equestrian figures, all of which display an upper left to lower right slant. This question of orientation of figures, or panels, providing clues to handedness is probably too weak to base assumptions on by itself, but when found with other clues can, perhaps, be considered a reinforcing argument.

Horse legs, Gargas Cave,

According to Bahn and Vertut there are also clues to handedness that can be found in the preferred lighting of rock art panels. "In most cases, fine engravings are almost invisible when lit from the front, but 'leap out' when lit from the side. This fact is of some importance, for it provides an indication of whether the artist was right- or left-handed. Right-handed artists tend to have their light source on the left, to prevent the shadow of their hand falling on the burin (or brush), and accordingly the majority of Palaeolithic parietal engravings are best lit from the left (in portable engravings, too, the proportion of right- and left-handers is similar to that of today). Occasionally, however, one comes across the work of a southpaw - for example, the Pyrenean cave of Gargas has many engravings including a fine, detailed pair of front legs of a horse; these had been known and admired for decades; but one day, when visiting scholars lit the figure from the right instead of the left, they were suddenly confronted with the rest of the horse, which nobody had seen before! It is possible, of course, that Palaeolithic artists used the lighting of engravings to their advantage, making them appear or disappear to great effect - alas, we shall never know." (Bahn and Vertut 1997:108)

Sprayed handprints, internet
photo, public domain.

Also, if one hand is used in handling pigments or tools used to create rock art, we can assume it to have been the dominant hand. If this is the case then we may be able to make assumptions on handedness from the handprints that are so common in rock art. If the print is a direct stamping,  i.e. pigment applied to the hand and then stamped on the rock surface, then it was probably made with the dominant hand. If it is a patterned stamped handprint, then the paint was probably applied with the dominant hand to the other hand which was then stamped on the rock. An outlined handprint, I will assume, is made by using the dominant hand to draw around the other hand held to the rock surface. An orally-sprayed handprint could well have been made with either hand.

Gower Cave rock art, Swansea,
South Wales, Britain.
Dr. George Nash.

Another example of evidence of "handedness" in rock art is illustrated by the discovery of a reindeer wall engraving in a cave in South Wales in Britain by Dr. George Nash from the University of Bristol. "Dr. Nash discovered the faint scratchings of a speared reindeer while visiting the Gower Peninsula caves near Swansea in September 2010. - This drawing appears to have (been) engraved by an artist using his or her right hand as the panel on which it is carved is located in a very tight niche." (Heritage Daily 2011) So the handedness of this artist can be deduced by the location of the image itself. In this case it must have been on the left wall of a narrow niche so that only the right hand could conveniently access it.

So, does any of this matter? Who cares whether the people producing rock art were right or left-handed? Well, aside from anthropologists who love this sort of thing, it provides us with tangible evidence that the people who produced the rock art were pretty much just like us. And, that being the case, perhaps we can more appreciate their thoughts and beliefs.

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.


Bahn, Paul G., and Jean Vertut,
1997 Journey Through The Ice Age, University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Heritage Daily,
2011 Archaeologist's Chance Discovery May Be Britain's Earliest Example of Rock Art,

Keyser, James D., and David L. Minick
2018 Horse Raiders in the Missouri Breaks: Eagle Creek Canyon Petroglyphs, Montana, Publication #25, Oregon Archaeological Society, Portland.

Saturday, May 30, 2020


Flute player, Mesa Prieta,
Rio Arriba county, New Mexico
Photo Peter Faris, 1997

The concept of (mis)appropriation is basically the adoption of one aspect of a particular group or culture by another group or culture and using it in ways that the first group or culture never intended, or finds offensive. On March 3rd, 2012, I posted a column titled Kokopelli, in which I wrote: "Our culture has enthusiastically adopted Kokopelli with the predictable results. We have multiplied sillier and sillier Kokopellis, riding bicycles, skiing, playing trombones, etc. I own a few myself given to me as gifts by friends. This may be an inevitable part of our society’s attempt to accommodate, understand, and appreciate another culture, but we should not allow this aspect of the modern Kokopelli to make us forget the powerful attributes of fertility and blood which he presented to the people who first conceived of him, and that he represents a sacred image to many of our fellow citizens." (Faris 2012) To this list of misuses  I would now add puerile Kokopelli pornography.

Flute player, Mesa Prieta,
Rio Arriba county, New Mexico,
Photo Peter Faris, 1997

As to the origins of the figure that we call Kokopelli - "Exactly when they first appear is uncertain, but nonphallic fluteplayers without humps are present in Basketmaker III rock art dating back to around A.D. 500. After A.D. 1000 they are present with hump and flute in Anasazi rock art, pottery, and wall paintings. They also appear on ceramics of the Mimbres in southern New Mexico around A.D. 1000  to A.D. 1150 and on Hohokam pottery by A.D. 750 to A.D.850" (Slifer and Duffield 1994: 4)

Kneeling flute player, Mancos canyon,
Montezuma county, New Mexico,
Photo Peter Faris, 1983

I suspect that our use of the Kokopelli image may be as offensive to many Native Americans of the southwest as the image of Andres Serrano's 1987 photograph of a crucifix in a bottle of urine which he titled "Piss Christ" is to many devout Christians. That one raised an uproar. We understand, and share to some extent, the horror that this object presented to devout Christian evangelicals, but that empathy seems to not translate well to the beliefs of other cultures, perhaps because we are so sure that our beliefs are correct and therefore the beliefs of other cultures are wrong. Remember the handful of occasions in recent years involving cartoonists who drew images of the prophet Muhammad in a terrorism context, and received death sentences in fatwas from Muslim clerics who deemed their cartoons disrespectful to Islam. We take a political cartoon as free speech guaranteed by our constitution, those Muslim clerics did not necessarily see that as a right.

"A fatwa is any religious decision made by a mufti (Islamic scholar who is an interpreter or expounder of Islamic law). The most infamous fatwa is the one by Ruhollah Khomeini sentencing Salman Rushdie (Muslim Essayist) to death - that's why most Western people see fatwa just as a death sentence, although it's more than that." (Shuravi 2006)

My particular favorite
flute player, Long House,
Bandelier National Monument,
Los Alamos County, New Mexico,
Photo Peter Faris, Sept. 1985

In his 2018 book Petroglyphs, Pictographs, and Projections: Native American Rock Art in the Contemporary Cultural Landscape, Richard A. Rogers addressed the question of misrepresenting and misappropriating one culture's idea/image/icon by another culture. One point that Rogers makes repeatedly, if I understand his position, is that flute-players and Kokopelli are not at all the same thing, but a conflation which we, the outsiders, have made of characters in the Hopi pantheon. "The conflation of flute player images with Kookopölö, creating a situation where all variations of the former are widely referred to as "kokopelli," is of concern to many Hopis, especially members of the flute clan. The possibility remains, however, that some flute player images in rock art could be related to Kookopölö. Church also quotes Clay Hamilton of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office as saying that flute player-like images without a flute but carrying a walking stick or staff may indeed be Kookopölö." (Rogers 2018:180)

Kokopolo, p. 18, Alph H. Secakuku,
Hopi Kachina Tradition, 1995,
Northland Publishing,
Flagstaff, Arizona.

According to Slifer and Duffield "There are rock art depictions of fluteplayers without the hump or phallus, and there are hump-backed, phallic figures with no flute. They may all be variations on the same theme, but the flute seems to be the most common diagnostic element." (Slifer and Duffield 1994:19) Indeed, as I wrote in The Day I Met Kokopelli, the Kookopölö of the Hopi is the Assassin-fly kachina and the long proboscis is not actually a flute at all (Faris 2012)

Crouching flute player, Mancos canyon,
Montezuma county, New Mexico,
Photo Peter Faris, 1983.

In this column I am limiting my discussion to the figure that we call Kokopelli, although there are certainly many other symbols that we have (mis)appropriated in the same way. What drives out fascination with this figure, accurate or not, whether authentic or a figment of our own imaginations? "Why are non-Native peoples drawn to indigenous rock art and/or rock art imagery?What is its appeal? In what contexts (environmental, social, political, economic) is rock art imagery reproduced, consumed, and discussed? What structures of meaning inform, mediate, constrain, and enable the interpretation and valuation of rock art? What are the ethical and ideological issues involved in the appropriation of rock art imagery? What structures of meaning inform the preservation or rock art sites? In all these activities, what/whose interests are being served?" (Rogers 2018:8)

I cannot yet answer all of these questions for myself, but, in general, to answer Rogers I guess I have to say that it is my interests that are being served by my fascination with this remarkable area of art history.

"The interpretation of ancient, indigenous rock art by contemporary Westerners provides a clear case to demonstrate the contrast. From a transmissional view, the meaning of much rock art is lost due to the lack of a shared cultural context for assigning meaning to the symbols. Possibilities for communication failure loom large: without contextual (cultural) information, we are left, at best, with guesses as to the literal referents of some images and almost entirely acontextual (outsider) efforts to "crack the code" of the meaning of the images." (Rogers 2018:21)

I have long maintained that there is no single meaning to any image. Yes, there was the idea that its creator intended to portray, but there was also probably a spectrum of imperfect understandings of that particular idea among his or her contemporaries. Then, there are all of the imperfect interpretations of the image by people who came after (usually from different cultures). Finally, we come to whatever the result of our analysis is as to its meaning, and don't forget as our culture evolves our descendents will probably change that interpretation as well. Our interpretation in many instances says more about ourselves and our culture as it does about the rock art itself.

"The interaction with rock art may in many cases do little to truly understand the intentions of their ancient creators, but that does not mean those contemporary meanings should be dismissed as insignificant - instead, they offer insights into the interpreting culture and their relationships with cultural others, be they ancient or living. The question becomes not "are these interpretations correct (the same as the originating culture)?" but instead "how did these interpretations come to be (what are their conditions of possibility)?" and "what kinds of identities, relationships, and social systems are being created through these interpretations." (Rogers 2018:22) 

A few of the Kokopellis
gifted to the Faris household
over the years.

Given all of this, as I confessed in my opening, I have a number of these examples of Kokopelli in my possession. A sheet metal cutout mounted on our front door and another on the garden fence, a couple of wall switch-plates, a candle stick, and even a Christmas tree ornament, that were given to me as gifts over the years (and believe me I do see the irony in having a Kokopelli hanging on our Christmas tree). According to Rogers "indeed Kokopelli - not the flute player and not Kookopölö, but the contemporary commercial figure - is a hybrid creation, a piece of postmodern pastiche, not in itself a 'real' or 'genuine' figure from any ancient culture."(Rogers 2018:326)

Perhaps this all represents an example of most of our culture misunderstanding, and therefore not respecting, this belief of the Puebloan peoples, and of the rest of us blindly trying to evaluate the meaning of rock art scientifically, and forgetting its emotional content.

NOTE: It has not been my intention in this particular posting to join in the controversy about assigning Kookopölö/Kokopelli/Flute-player identities and definitions. Those interested in trying to pin that question down should refer to Slifer and Duffield's book listed below.
Those interested in questions of cultural appropriation and misuse should consult Richard Roger's excellent book listed below.
And finally, 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
2012 Kokopelli, March 3, 2012,
2012 The Day I Met Kokopelli,

Rogers, Richard A.
2018 Petroglyphs, Pictographs, and Projections: Native American Rock Art in the Contemporary Cultural Landscape, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

2006 Fatwa, December 19, 2006, Urban Dictionary,

Slifer, Dennis and James Duffield
1994 Kokopelli: Flute Player Images In Rock Art, Ancient City Press, Santa Fe.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


Petroglyphs across from Munsell
Site, Buffalo arroyo, Pueblo
County, Colorado.
Photograph Peter Faris, Oct. 1998.

It is called Diffusionism, the argument that travelers from the Old World visited the New World over and over in prehistoric periods. Various proponents make their cases for visits by Phoenicians, Celts, even the Chinese in the centuries before Columbus. We now know that Vikings actually did make it to North America so arguments about American runestones have received new fuel for their fires, but here I am going to visit the question of abstract symbol petroglyphs in Southeast Colorado and the clinging question of whether or not they were created by visiting Phoenicians.

Near Bear rock, panel 3,
Purgatoire Canyon, southeast
Colorado, Photograph Bill
McGlone, date unknown.

This question first gained a measure of prominence in the nonsense of Barry Fell and his so-called epigraphic translations. Given that as an origin, these Diffusionist theories were all too easy for archaeologists to discount and decry. There have, however, been some serious researchers who were at least willing to consider the possibilities. For southeast Colorado these researchers were Bill McGlone and Phillip Leonard who first became interested in some inscriptions that they thought might represent Celtic Ogam. Although their focus changed within a few years from Ogam to proto-Sinaitic inscriptions this investigation was forever tainted by the Ogam connection. Bill McGlone later admitted to me that he regretted that he had ever gotten involved with the Ogam controversy because of that fact, and his trouble getting actual experts in epigraphy to even pay attention.

Farrington Springs, southeast
Colorado. Photograph Bill McGlone,
Oct. 1988.  (trident is supposedly
dated to 1975±200 BP
by cation-ratio dating).

The basic problem came down to this - what evidence is there that these inscriptions can actually be in proto-Sinaitic? Opponents, with traditional archeological investigations in mind, say that there is absolutely no evidence at all, a total lack of corroborative evidence, while proponents say the inscriptions themselves are corroborative evidence. Now, I am in no way an epigrapher, linguist, or even an expert on the Middle East, so I have to look at the question another way entirely. In his 2018 "A Study of Southwestern Archaeology" Stephen Lekson raised the question of applying legal standards of evaluation to questions that provide problems for traditional scientific analysis. Lekson adapted an argument by Charles Weiss, a retired professor from Georgetown University, for use in this attempt, and since it was good enough for him it is certainly more than good enough for me. Weiss's scale from 1 to 10 ranges from 0% probability (impossible) to 100% probability (beyond any doubt), and uses courtroom terms like "probable cause", "preponderance of the evidence, and "beyond a reasonable doubt" to evaluate the likelihood of arguments. (I will not take the time and space to put in Weiss's whole table, for those who are interested I will refer you to his publication listed below in references)

Four-Mile Ditch site, southeast
Colorado. Photograph Bill
McGlone, Nov. 1990.

So in order to evaluate this I believe that it comes down to two basic questions; what is the likelihood that Phoenicians or other peoples from the Middle East actually were here to create the inscriptions, and if not proto-Sinaitic inscriptions what else could they reasonably be? I will address these in order.

Mustang site, southeast
Colorado. Photograph Bill
McGlone, August 1989.

The total straight line distance from the coast of Israel to southeastern Colorado is in the order of 6,700 miles. Of course, to sail that it would not be in a straight line so the actual figure has to be considerably higher. A Phoenician ship would have to leave the coast of Israel, sail through the Mediterranean and out the Pillars of Hercules, cross the Atlantic to locate the mouth of the Mississippi River. Then it's a simple 350 miles up the Mississippi to the Arkansas River and about 850 miles up the Arkansas River to southeast Colorado, and did I mention that much of the Arkansas is not really navigable?

Purgatory Canyon, south of the
bear, Bent County, Colorado.
Photograph Peter Faris, June 1991,
(trident symbol cation-ratio dated
1,975 plus or minus 200 BP.)

Chart of Proto-Sinaitic and
Early Phoenician characters.

Then there is the problem that these symbols were not created with metal tools which our hypothetical Phoenician travelers certainly had. Also, although some of the characters resemble some proto-Sinaitic letters, there are others that do not, so what about the poor matches, other symbols and wrong characters? This argument is usually explained away by attributing the inscriptions to some poor Phoenician crewman who is barely literate, if at all. However, if it was important enough to take this 8,000+ mile journey to leave the inscription in the first place why would not the captain of the ship or someone in charge who is fully literate be the one to write it, and why would he pound it in with a rock instead of their metal tools? This is then sometimes countered with the proposal that the inscriptions were actually made by Native Americans in imitation of real proto-Sinaitic writing, sort of a prehistoric North American cargo-cult argument. My only answer to this is to ask where is the real inscription that the Native Americans were attempting to copy or imitate? Nothing of that sort has ever been found. Using the legal argument evaluation I have to find that the preponderance of evidence is against these markings being proto-Sinaitic script "beyond reasonable doubt" (67% to 99% on Weiss's scales), and that the argument against this is substantially proven.

Near Bear Rock, Purgatoire
Canyon, southeast Colorado.
Photograph Bill McGlone,
photo undated.

So, if not proto-Sinaitic (or some other north African) script, what are they. My answer of choice is that most of them are probably random doodles. Some of them are undoubtedly simple symbols representing other things like a circle for a sun, etc. But why are they there lined up like inscriptions? I would answer that like attracts like. We have learned this from modern taggers as well as from the people who vandalize rock art sites. Why do they pick the rock art panel to vandalize, why not make their marks away from the rock art? If I make a mark in a location, someone else is likely to pick that spot for their own mark. The other point that I think applies here is that there are actually only a limited number of simple geometric symbols that you can make with curved and straight lines. Doodles us them, simple pictographs use them, abstract images use them, and written scripts use them. Of course they resemble writing, they are made up of the same curved and straight elements as written script, but they carry no written message. And, lined up like written inscriptions? Standing on the ground and facing the cliff there is a limited vertical space which is convenient for me to work in, in other words, my images would probably be generally arranged more horizontally than vertically. (Some of these inscriptions are too high on the cliff to be reached today without a ladder. I assume that this might be a sign of erosion of the valley bottom since their creation.)

Split Mesa panel, southeast
Colorado, Photograph Bill
McGlone, photograph undated.

Now using the same legal analogy for evaluating this I would say that the definition of these marks as doodles and abstract, instead of being written characters, has been proven to a standard of "reasonable belief" (again 67% to 99% on Weiss's scales) and that the likelihood that they represent a proto-Sinaitic script is thus between 1% and 33%. If these points were being argued in a court of law it would be found that they are not written inscriptions. Not scientifically proven, of course, but logically established nevertheless.

In closing I want to say that in spite of Barry Fell's inaccuracies and sloppy interpretations, some of the people who believe in the diffusion theory, who believe that these inscriptions are actual and real proto-Sinaitic writing, are educated and intelligent. As in all cases of attempted interpretation without actual physical evidence, in the end it falls to belief to define your answer. You either believe it or you don't, and I don't.

NOTE: For a current presentation of the diffusionist position on proto-Sinaitic inscriptions in Colorado you should read Carl Lehrburger's  writing listed below in references.

NOTE 2: Yes, the images have been colored in on the rock. Early epigraphy researchers in southeast Colorado seem to have used aluminum paint to make them more readable and photographable.

NOTE 3: 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.


Lehrburger, Carl
2015 Secrets of Ancient America: Archaeoastronomy and the Legacy of the Phoenicians, Celts, and Other Forgotten Explorers, Bear & Company, Rochester, VT.

Lekson, Stephen H.
2018 A Study of Southwestern Archaeology, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City

Weiss, Charles
2003 Scientific Uncertainty and Science-Based Precaution, article in International Environmental Agreements, June 2003, DOI:10.1023/A:1024847807590