Saturday, February 22, 2020


I have recently finished reading a book on the misappropriation of rock art imagery by our Anglo culture. In reading it I find the author used a considerable number of very big words. Now I have always felt that writers who do that are, in some way, trying to impress the reader with their knowledge instead of actually trying to share that knowledge with the reader. A few of the terms from the index of this book should illustrate the point.

Discursive homology
Hegemonic masculinity

I will note here that not one of these terms seems to be included in the online IFRAO Glossary of rock art terms composed by Robert Bednarik which, in itself, does have a whole lot of long words and arcane terminology, but all of which is regularly used in writing about rock art. Not that I am not conversant with this terminology, at least most of it. But, my point is, the real motive seems to be to impress us with his erudition instead of clearly making his (in many instances very commendable) case for his position on rock art studies. In many cases the use of these terms only confuses the issue for the broader audience. In the spirit of the occasion (using ridiculously large words for simple concepts)  I have coined a term for this phenomenon - Hypervocabulitis.

Please note that I am not identifying the book or the author. I am not interested in attacking it, or him, I am only advocating for clarity in writing. Please - make it easier to read.

In the words of the great Mark Twain when referring to commentators on research into Pre-Columbian America, "The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it."(


Bednarik, Robert
IFRAQ Glossary


Saturday, February 15, 2020

THE UNCANNY VALLEY AND PALEOLITHIC ROCK ART (with a thank you nod to Adrienne Mayor):

Chauvet Cave, France. Internet
photo - Public domain.

Close-up of upper Rhinos.
Chauvet Cave, France. Internet
photo - Public domain.

In the past I have commented on the appearance of motion I expect viewers would feel with some of the most realistic cave art when seen in the flickering and moving light and shadow of a flame. I have now found a really descriptive term that applies to the feelings evoked by the realistic paintings of Chauvette, Lascaux, and other Paleolithic caves viewed in the flickering light of torches or lamps - the Uncanny Valley.

Chauvet Cave, France. Internet
photo - Public domain.

Uncanny Valley chart.

From Adrienne Mayor in Time Magazine, November 13, 2018 - "Most people experience an eerie sensation when they meet natural-looking artificial beings, especially humanoid robots. This is the 'Uncanny Valley' effect, the psychological reaction of unease and apprehension upon encountering hyper-realistic replicas or automata. Affinity increases with verisimilitude, but positive feelings drop off steeply as the entity approaches being indistinguishable from reality. Anxiety rises when the line dividing the inanimate from the animate begins to collapse, and actual movement or the illusion of movement intensifies the disturbing feeling. The sudden drop-off is the descent into the 'Uncanny Valley', first identified by the robotics engineer Masahiro Mori in 1970. Today the Uncanny Valley is a well-known response to extremely lifelike robots and AI entities." 1
(Mayor 2018)

Altamire Cave, Spain. Internet
photo - Public domain.

In other words, if I understand this right, knowing that a picture (or statue, etc.) is not a real live being we are comfortable with it, perhaps increasingly so as it approaches more lifelike in appearance, until it reaches a certain point at which the increasingly lifelike appearance gives us an uneasy feeling, or perhaps a creepy feeling is actually the best word. Then that feeling dissipates as the object continues to become more lifelike. "The term refers to the shape of the graph formed when plotting people's reactions to different objects that continuously increase in their human-like appearance. As the human likeness of the object increases, people's affinity to it increases until a point is reached that the human likeness becomes off-putting, disturbing and weird. This is the uncanny "valley" since there is an immediate drop to affinity and then another immediate rise on the other side, forming the shape of a 'V' or a valley." (

Chauvet Cave, France. Internet
photo - Public domain.

I wondered about applying this theory to rock art studies so I contacted Adrienne Mayor to get her opinion. To my inquiry on this Mayor replied "Yes, I think the uncanny valley sensation can be triggered by realistic-seeming animals. Notably, the roboticist who first identified the eerie sensation in about 1970, Masahiro Mori, felt the uncanny sensation when looking at lifelike prostheses. So, I would guess that seeing the amazingly lifelike animals in cave paintings by flickering light would evoke feelings of fear, awe, and wonder." 2
(Mayor, Nov. 14, 2019, personal communication)

Chauvet Cave, France. Internet
photo - Public domain.

Having looked at this I believe it adequately fits the proposed situation of the effect applied to the cave paintings. Perhaps the proponents of the Neuropsychological Model should look at this as a real neuropsychological effect in perceiving rock art instead of promoting their theories about shaman and phosphenes. This is one effect that can actually be measured by an electroencephalogram.

NOTE: I am grateful to Adrienne Mayor, a friend of many years now, for her suggestion and help with this.

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.


Mayor, Adrienne
1.     2018 The Concept of the "Uncanny Valley" Dates to 1970. The Phenomenon Is Thousands of Years Older, Time Magazine, November 13, 2018, Time-Life Corp.

2.     2019, November 14, personal communication with the Adrienne Mayor.

Saturday, February 8, 2020


Aurochs, Albarracín, Teruel, Spain.
Internet photo - Public Domain.

Aurochs, Internet Photo.
Public Domain.

The marvelous cave paintings of Europe represent many of the earliest examples of art that we have and the question has always been "how could the first ones be among the greatest and most beautiful, where was the learning curve?"

Well, it may be that some of the examples of the learning curve have been right before our eyes all along. The earliest dated cave art in Europe is found in Chauvet Cave, in France. In Chauvet Cave "more than 80 radiocarbon dates had been obtained by 2011, with samples taken from torch marks and from the paintings themselves, as well as from animal bones and charcoal found on the cave floor. The radiocarbon dates from these samples show that there were two periods of creation in Chauvet: 35,000 years ago and 30,000 years ago. One of the surprises was that many of the paintings were modified repeatedly over thousands of years, possibly explaining the confusion about finer paintings that seemed to date earlier then cruder ones." (Wikipedia) Note that it says that paintings were modified repeatedly over thousands of years. If we read that to mean corrected and/or improved we have a pretty good explanation.

"Unicorn", Lascaux Cave, France.
Internet photo - Public Domain.

In Lascaux Cave, in France, the learning curve might also actually be visible for our analysis. One mystery in Lascaux is the creature that has been called "the unicorn." This is a large, bovine looking animal with two long straight horns projecting forward and up from its head. Its body and head are relatively crude. I submit that this may, in fact, be an aurochs, one of the earliest attempts, and one poorly done at that. Reconstructions of the aurochs show that the horns start out projecting from the skull to the sides and then arcing forward with the tips curving upward. If I am right the "unicorn" is a first attempt to depict an aurochs with no appreciation for the artistic techniques of perspective, the double curves of the horns were just too difficult for this painter.

Auroch, Lascaux Cave, France.
Internet Photo - Public domain.

Auroch, Lascaux Cave, France.
Internet Photo - Public domain.

Other examples in Lascaux show aurochs horns shaped like a lyre, a much more sophisticated, and therefore, I assume, later portrayal.

Auroch horns portrayed in a single plane. 
Chauvet Cave, France.
Internet photo - Public Domain.

A second aurochs from Chauvet Cave does a much more satisfactory job of presenting the actual shape of aurochs horns.

Auroch horns in three dimensions. 
Chauvet Cave, France.
Internet photo - Public Domain.

The earlier images from Chauvet Cave, although in many respects more sophisticated in representations of shape, coloration, and coat shading, are, to my mind, less successful in portraying the horns of the aurochs. One famous panel shows the horns projecting forward with a double curve but in a single plane. This shows that the horns were curved, but it is completely inadequate in portraying their actual shape and orientation.

Now, I am not trying to imply that artists from one cave learned from the artists of another cave. I do not believe that they knew of the other artists or their works, but it does seem likely that they learned from the artists who had gone before them in their own communities. I suspect that when we can get direct dating from the paints we will learn the order of the production of the images in each cave, but until that day we have to look for clues in the images themselves, and I submit that one clue can be the portrayal of details such as the aurochs horns examined here.

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.


Saturday, February 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: “Standing on the Walls of Time”

Cover, Standing on the Walls of Time:
Ancient Art of Utah's Cliffs and Canyons,
by Kevin T. Jones.

I have never understood why so many self-appointed “experts” in rock art make such a big deal about "it is not really art" or, "those people never even had a word for art." Why would you choose to devote yourself to a subject and then begin by denigrating it? These people are usually brand new to the field of rock art and almost invariably totally ignorant of the disciplines of Art History. As someone with a background in Art History my answer to them has always been "of course it is art. It is art because I say so." Art Historians have always chosen what they wish to study based on the creativity of the material and their curiosity about the culture, and the designation of art goes with their attention to the subject. So-called "Primitive Art" has been a subset of the field of Art History for at least a century and a half.

Barrier Canyon style,
"the Perfect Panel",
Fig. 3.1, p. 26.,
Photograph Layne Miller.

Now, I have an official and legal backup for my position because the legislature of the State of Utah in 2017 passed SB2017-171 declaring Utah's rock art as Official Art of the State of Utah, signed into law by the Governor of Utah on March 22, 2017.

Earlier in 2017 the Utah Legislature had named Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (a work of landscape art that I have always admired) as the official Utah State Work of Art. As a former Utah State Archaeologist, Kevin T. Jones was not supposed to consider rock art as anything but an artifact, without meaning, and certainly not ART. Yet the news about the Spiral Jetty bothered him. How could Utah, a state named after its indigenous peoples, ignore the amazing petroglyphs and pictographs found in such abundance all over the State, left by those indigenous people? Jones came to the conclusion that this was actually art, and, as such, deserved at least equal billing with a modern construction done by someone from outside the State. His subsequent efforts led to the passage of Utah’s SB2017-171.

Figure with yucca, Barrier Canyon
style or Basketmaker, Fig. 2.5, p. 14.,
Photograph Layne Miller.

That leads me to this review of his book Standing on the Walls of Time: Ancient Art of Utah's Cliffs and Canyons, by Kevin T. Jones, with photographs by Layne Miller, University of Utah Press, 2019, 152 pp., 153 color photos, 1 map, $19.95 (paper).

This is not a text book - it contains very little factual or scientific information about the prehistoric peoples who lived in Utah and created the rock art. This is not a coffee table book, although it is filled with magnificent photographs by Layne Miller. This book is an art appreciation book although Jones himself had never thought of it that way. Indeed, he seemed surprised when I referred to it as such when discussing it with him. It is a paean to the creative imagination and sophisticated cultures of the people who created the pictographs and petroglyphs that fill its pages.

Fremont, "The family panel",
Nine-Mile Canyon, Fig. 7.8, p. 74,
Photograph Layne Miller.

In chapter one (on page 3) he writes "Some view the art of early cultures as code for something knowable through induction, such as representing maps, stories, calendars, astronomical markers, even validation of Western religious teachings. This book represents a departure from nearly all of these approaches. I am not going to try to interpret the artist's meanings or symbols. In fact, I am strongly opposed to that approach. I do not try to match or categorize symbols in an attempt to advance culture history studies. I advocate for a much simpler, more human approach - to view the work of ancient artists purely as art. Let it reach you on more of an emotional, as opposed to intellectual level."  Jones' inner journey from the traditional archaeologist's position that "rock art is nothing but artifacts, we will never understand it" to his present belief must have been in equal parts uncomfortable and exciting for a professional archaeologist. His 180 reversal from the predominant "official" position of North American archaeologists of 20 -30 years ago to his present advocacy must have been a remarkable adventure.

Kevin’s conclusions on how we should relate to rock art have also taken a non-traditional turn. In chapter fourteen (on page 140) he wrote - "While some take pride in keeping site locations secret and only sharing them with "trusted" associates, this does nothing to protect sites. Hoarding special knowledge may be good for your status among friends, but it is self-serving and not beneficial to the resource.
Sharing your love and appreciation of ancient art is beneficial, as it enables better management and protection of sites and brings more allies into the ranks of caretakers and stewards. Take photographs, share them with your friends. Post them on social media without revealing exact locations. Enjoy and love these gifts from those who lived before us, and those who live after us, those who live a hundred years from now, will likewise be able to enjoy and love them."

Fremont, "The Wolf Man",
Nine-Mile Canyon, Fig. 9.6, p. 94,
Photograph Layne Miller.

This volume is a once-in-a-lifetime book. There are many good, even great, rock art books on today’s market. I have reviewed a number of them here on RockArtBlog over the years. But I have seen nothing like this book before. Do yourself a favor, read “Standing on the Walls of Time” by Kevin T. Jones.