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

Saturday, May 16, 2020


Main panel on rear wall
of GvJm16, Photograph
Stanley Ambrose.

I have run across a report of a whole new category of rock art vandalism. Counterfeit rock art produced for Hollywood productions and left behind in the landscape when the filming is over. It is perhaps best described by quoting from the abstract of the paper itself.

Left side of main panel on
rear wall of GvJm16,
Photograph Stanley Ambrose.

Right side of main panel on
rear wall of GvJm16,
Photograph Stanley Ambrose.

"A large rock shelter at Lukenya Hill, Kenya, is well known for its diverse and well-preserved prehistoric paintings. Images recorded in the 1970s include geometric motifs resembling those at sites in the Lake Victoria region, overlain by recent paintings attributed to the Masai. Several new images of animals and humans appeared between 1988 and 1995 that resemble those from central Tanzania, and many preexisting images were obscured. If these new paintings had not been recognized as modern forgeries they could have been used as evidence for a dramatic revision of the prehistory and geographical distribution of the Khoisan-speaking peoples and their belief system. The apparent motivation for painting these new images was to serve as the background for a scene for the Young Indiana Jones television series. In order to prevent future damage to rock art sites and other significant cultural and natural heritage resources, the film and tourism industries should be trained and certified to recognize and avoid damaging such localities." (Ambrose 2007:1)

Faded images of a herd of
antelope, middle right of
GvJm16 main panel.
Photograph Stanley Ambrose.

Faded images of a large and
a small antelope, far right of
GvJm16 main panel,
Photograph Stanley Ambrose.

In other words, if this is not readily clear, the scenery people for this television series, in preparing the site to shoot a particular scene, had painted new and counterfeit rock art over pre-existing real rock art, a shocking example of cultural and scientific disregard.

White dotted giraffe and
streaky anthropomorph, not
present before 1988, GvJm16.
Photograph Stanley Ambrose.

Kongoni (hartebeest) painted in
yellow w/black barred face on
lower far right of main panel at
GvJm16, not present before 1988.
Photograph Stanly Ambrose.

"The damage inflicted of the painted panel at GvJm16 during the production of the Young Indiana Jones television program is not an isolated incident. A paleontological site at Olorgesailie was used for a military battlefield scene for the Young Indiana Jones series in the 1990s. Several other archaeological, paleontological and geological localities have been altered and damaged during film productions. Forged rock paintings remain on the walls of a lave tube cave on Mt. Suswa. An open-air Neolithic site at Lukenya Hill (GvJm48)was bulldozed to provide a level surface for a trailer for a movie set in the 1980s." (Ambrose 2007:5) And the author documented a number of other like outrages.

Yellow feline with white outline on
lower far right of main panel at
GvJm16, not present before 198
Photograph Stanley Ambrose, 1995.

One motivation in some instances was seemingly to provide more rock art to attract tourists. This suggests that our own passion for rock art is partly to blame for its vandalism. The other main motivation seems to have also been financial, in order to attract the fees for film and television productions. But, at a time when our own government has stripped Bear's Ears monument in Southern Utah of some 80% of its land area to open it up to commercial exploitation it is not quite the time for us to point the finger at this behavior.

"Although there are well-established laws for the protection of such cultural and natural heritage resources in Kenya, most transgressions are by individuals who have neither the training to recognize cultural, archaeological, paleontological and geological sites nor an understanding of their significance and responsible stewardship." (Ambrose 2007:131)

So, once again, ignorance and venality have proven more powerful than cultural sensitivity and the appreciation of creativity, and, as always, once it is lost it cannot be wholly regained.

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 this report you should read the original report listed below.


Ambrose, Stanley H.
2007 Raiders of the Lost Art: Implications of Rock Art Forgery at Lukenya Hill, Kenya, for Cultural and Natural Heritage Protection Strategies, in Deacon, J., editor, The Future of Africa's Past: Proceedings of Rock Art Conference, 2004, Nairobi, Trust for African Rock Art, Nairobi, pp. 128-132.

Saturday, May 9, 2020


Cattle. Photograph TARA
(Trust for African Rock Art)

Pretty much anywhere you find rock art one of its most important themes is going to be involved with primary sources of food for the indigenous population. This is why there are so many horses and reindeer illustrated in the painted caves of Europe, and so many bison in the rock art of North America. In Africa, the San people (so-called Bushmen) illustrated their most sought after game animals, especially eland but also giraffes and others. However, in the tribal cultures of Africa the predominate animal in their rock art has been cattle images.

"Crying cows" of Algeria.
Photographs TARA.

"Archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that domestication of cattle occurred 10,000 BP in Western Asia. After this migrations of humans and cattle about 8,000 years BP occurred followed by interbreeding with wild cattle in Northern Africa to produce breeds local to the continent. More than 60% of the rock art of the Sahara depicts cattle or cattle related activities reflecting the importance of these events. All around Africa however, cattle depictions in rock art abound." (TARA 2016:1)

African cow petroglyph.
Photograph after Noguera.

Red painted African cattle with herders.
Internet photograph - public domain.

I assume that originally these people lived a classical pastoral lifestyle, relying on their herds for food and resources. In a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a team consisting of Katherine M. Grillo, assistant professor of anthropology at University of Florida, Fiona Marshall of Washington University, and Julie Dunne (who led the study) at the University of Bristol looked for traces of milk consumption on ancient pottery to confirm that the cultures relied on this food resource. "After excavating pottery at sites throughout east Africa, team members analyzed organic lipid residues left in the pottery and were able to see evidence of milk, meat and plant processing. 'This is the first direct evidence we've ever had for milk or plant processing by ancient pastoralist societies in eastern Africa,' Grillo said. 'The milk traces in ancient posts confirms the story that bones have been telling us about how pastoralists lived in eastern Africa 5,000 to 3,000 years ago - an area still famous for cattle herding and the historic way of life of people such as Maasai and Turkana,' Marshall said." (Heritage Daily 2020)

African cattle petroglyphs.
Internet photographs - public domain.

But the role of cattle in these societies goes way beyond the role of mere foodstuffs. Perhaps inevitably, the herds became not only signs of wealth but acquired spiritual value because of that importance. "Today many people see cows (and the consumption thereof) either as a contributor to environmental destruction, or as a solution to feeding the world's population. Both views are centered on the (important) role that cows play in providing food primarily in the form of milk and meat. But cattle are more than that. Through millennia and in different places in Africa, cattle have been imbued with significant symbolic and social meanings in addition to their role as food providers." (TARA 2016)

Red painted African cattle with herders.
Internet photograph - public domain.

This importance of cattle led to their portrayal in many cases as discrete individuals instead of generic cattle. "Cattle were perceived as having unique horns, especially among longhorn cattle which occupied a large population. For instance, some cattle were given lyre-shaped horns. Cattle were known to have a large financial, cultural, and environmental impact on the people of the Ennedi highlands. They were also given distinct coats to individualize these animals, and rock art at some sites including the Chiguéou II site, includes cattle figures in extravagant geometric designs. Cattle were found all among the highlands, while other animals, such as horses, were not." (Stanley 2015)

Painted cow, Wadi el Firaq,
Internet photograph - public domain.

Therefore, African rock art portraying cattle must be viewed as a much more complex phenomenon than just groceries or even wealth. They are viewed as beautiful, objects of devotion and desire as well as a means of sustenance. "So there are many reasons why cattle were, and still are, prized and cared for in many African societies: beauty, hardiness, religio-spiritual use, social and political value - and food." (TARA 2016)
In other words, African cattle images can carry meanings and have implications pointing to virtually all aspects of a culture and its value systems.

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.


Heritage Daily,
2020 Milk Pioneers: East African Herders Consumed Milk 5,000 Years Ago,

Noguera, Alessandro Menardi
2016 The Chiguéou II Rock Art Site Revisited (Ennedi, Chad), February 8, 2016,

Stanley, David
2015 Prehistoric Rock Paintings at Manda Guéli Cave in the Ennedi Mountains - Northern Chad,

TARA (Trust for African Rock Art),
2016 Cattle in African Rock Art and Traditions, January 22, 2016,

Saturday, May 2, 2020


Mani stones, Diskit Monastery, India.

Normally we students of rock art think of our subject as a branch of art history - something interesting that belongs to the past, but that is not always true. There is a form of rock art that is not only contemporary, but people are still earning a living by producing it - Buddhist Mani Stones. Most common in Tibet, but also found in neighboring India, Nepal, and Bhutan, Mani stones are a corporeal prayer, essentially a permanent supplication for blessing and enlightenment.

Mani stones, Kutsapternga, Nepal.

"Mani stones are stone plates, rocks and/or pebbles carved or inscribed with the six syllabled mantra of Avalokiteshvara (Om mani padme hum, hence the name "Mani stone"), as a form of prayer in Tibetan Buddhism. The term Mani stone may also be used in a loose sense to refer to stones on which any mantra or devotional designs (such as ashtamangala) are inscribed. Mani stones are intentionally placed along the roadsides and rovers or placed together to form mounds or cairns or sometimes long walls, as an offering to spirits of place or genius loci. Creating and carving mani stones as a devotional or intentional process is a traditional sadhana of piety to vidam. Many stones are a form of devotional cintamani. The preferred technique is sunk relief, where an area around each letter is carved out, leaving the letters at the original surface level, now higher than the background. The stones are often painted in symbolic colors for each syllable (om white, ma green, ni yellow, pad light blue, me red, hum dark blue) which may be renewed when they are lost by weathering." (Wikipedia 1)

Mani stones, Ladakh, India.

The most common inscription on Mani stones is the Buddhist mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum."

"The first word Aum/Om is a sacred syllable in various Indian religions. The word means 'jewel' or 'bead', Padme is the 'lotus flower (the Buddhist sacred flower), and Hum represents the spirit of enlightenment." (Wikipedia 2)

"Carving Mani stones is considered a form of meditation. Monks make them and so do local villagers, and add them to mounds which grow bigger and bigger as time passes by. The Jiana Mani Stone Mound in Xinzhai Village, of Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China grew just like that." (Patowary 2015)

Yushu Jiana Mani stone mound,
Xinzhai Village, Yushu Tibetan
Autonomous Prefecture, China.

"Yushu Jiana Mani stone mound is the largest Mani stone mound in the world. It's said that the local Tibetan Buddhist Master Jaina built a small Mani stone mound 300 years ago. Since then, people kept putting more Mani stones on the to pray and collect merit. Now it has around 200 million stones, is 300 meters long, 3 meters high, and 80 meters wide." (Tibetpedia 2017)

Mani stone carver,
Internet photo, Public domain.

"Mani stones can be seen in neighboring countries of Nepal and Bhutan as well, where Buddhism is also widely practiced. Large examples of Mani stones resembling tablets carved out of the sides of rock formations are in locations throughout the Nepali areas of the Himalayas. Mani stones are also found around monasteries in India, the true place of origin of the mantra where it was orally transmitted through many generations. It is not known when the mantra came into use, but the earliest recorded mentions of it occurred in the late 10th and early 11th centuries in the Karandavyuha Sutra, which itself was compiled at the end of the 4th century from an even earlier source." (Patowary 2015)

Mani stone vendor,
Internet photo, Public domain.

So, not only are Mani stones a form of hard rock prayer, they are a demonstration of devotion through sacrifice, either by putting in the work to create one, or the money spent to purchase one, and a permanent offering for continued blessing. A modern form of decorative rock art with a very serious meaning and purpose, and supporting a class of contemporary professional rock art carvers.

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.


Patowary, Kaushik
2015 The Sacred Mani Stones of Buddhists,

2017 Mani Stones, June 29, 2017,