Saturday, February 25, 2012


Vermillion Canyon, Moffat County, CO.
Photo Peter Faris, Sept. 1987.

Back in the late 1980s the Denver Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society (DC/CAS) took a number of field trips into Brown’s Park in northwestern Colorado. These trips were primarily to visit Fremont rock art sites in Brown’s Park, an area that is really a long way from anywhere. One of the favorite sites involved considerable 4-wheel driving and then a long hike. This was the Vermillion Creek canyon, a narrow slot canyon through the Vermillion Bluffs . We had to come in from the north side because access from the south end was blocked by a drop-off and a pool of water. We usually tried to time the visit so we could sit and have lunch below this panel with the large figure gazing down at us. One strange coincidence was that on two of our trips in while we were sitting there a troop of boy scouts came along down the canyon. The odds against two groups of such totally different origin as DC/CAS and a boy scout troop being in that remote place at the same time seemed very high, and the odds against it being the same two groups seemed stellar. Yet it did happen, and I had been told that it not only happened the two times I witnessed it, but on at least one other occasion as well.

 On the trip in 1987 that the illustration is from we were sitting below the panel eating our lunches and not much talking was taking place. We were in that state of revery that all of us real rock art groupies fall into when confronted by an impressive panel. Indeed, some of our members believed that we were in a spiritual place and having a spiritual experience. Well lo and behold, the troop of boy scouts came swinging on by hiking to some destination farther down the canyon, and as they passed one scout pointed up to the petroglyph panel and I distinctly heard him say to his companion “see, there is the Thunderstud that I told you about.” – End of spiritual moment, it instantly snapped us back into perspective. Think about it, who are we to assume that there was anything spiritual about that place and that imagery. We don’t have a clue to the motives for its creation. In the study of rock art we may sometimes jump to conclusions too quickly. Let’s try to hold off on the guesswork and base our opinions on actual fact. Remember, Thunderstud is watching you. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Mayan glyph for Venus, Patterson, A Field Guide To Rock
Art Symbols Of The Greater Southwest  1997, p. 76.

The symbol of the outlined cross is commonly identified as a representation of Venus. In mesoamerica it symbolized Quetzalcoatl in his aspect of the morning star and indeed the Mayan glyph for the planet Venus includes an outlined cross (Patterson 1996:76). In light of known connections between the American southwest and mesoamerica we might well suspect that the influence of this symbol was shared between prehistoric peoples of both regions.

Winter solstice sunset, Goodman Canyon.
From Bostwick, Landscapes of the Spirits, 2002.
A study of Hohokam rock art in South Mountain Park at Tucson, Arizona, has recorded some
fascinating connections of rock art and mythology of those people in this area. Archaeologist
Todd Bostwick wrote about this in Landscape of the Spirits, Hohokam Rock Art at South
Mountain Park, photographs by Peter Krocek, University of Arizona Press, Tucson (2002).
Bostwick recorded a number of solstice sunrise and sunset alignments from locations that also were marked by rock art. From one location that they named the Morning Star site they photographed a summer solstice sunrise from a boulder upon which a petroglyph of a snake is crawling upward. In another location that they dubbed the Gila Vista site they photographed a winter solstice sunset. Remarkably, the viewing point at this site is a pointed boulder with a petroglyph of a thick-bodied lizard, possibly a horned toad, facing downward pecked on the face of it. There was one example however of a Winter solstice sunset photographed behind a boulder with an outlined cross inscribed on it. Sited in a location in Goodman Canyon, it leads one to speculate that what was being recorded by this alignment might have not been the sunset, but the setting of Venus as the morning or evening star.

 Johnson Canyon, Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, CO. Southwestern
Lore, Vol. 59, No.2, Summer 1993, p.  23.

Another example is seen in the photo taken by the author in Johnson Canyon, on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southwest Colorado. In this instance the outlined cross of Venus accompanies a concentric circle sun symbol and a pair of anthropomorphs (Faris 1993: 23).


Bostwick, Todd W.
2002   Landscape of the Spirits, Hohokam Rock Art at South Mountain Park, photographs
            by Peter Krocek, University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Faris, Peter
1993    A Meteorological Model for the Concentric Circle Sun Symbol of the American Southwest, pages 23 – 27, Southwestern Lore, Vol. 59, No.2.

Patterson, Alex
1992    A Field Guide To Rock Art Symbols Of The Greater Southwest, Johnson Books, Boulder


On September 17, 2011, I posted a column that I entitled VANDALISM OF ROCK ART - THEFT (this link should go to that month, the particular posting is the second down). In this posting I used the example of the famous orca petroglyph at petroglyph beach, Wrangell, Alaska. I had found it not on the beach as I had been led to believe, but in a yard next to the beach. Of this I stated "I went over to the fire ring (yes, I was trespassing) and found that one of the boulders in the ring had exactly the Orca petroglyph that I had been searching for on it. In other words the home owner had stolen it. They probably did not think of it as theft, after all they live there. They may have thought of it as protecting the art. The fact is, however, they took the petroglyph rock away from its location on the public beach and placed it on their own private property. Maybe it is better protected now."

On February 12, 2012, I received the following comments in two emails from Anonymous. "The family living there are the Barlows. Leo H. Barlow and his wife Neilly and three children lived for many many years in the home up untill Leo died July 1st 2004. The orca petroglyph has always been there where you found it. Just for your information. The chidren would make rock rubbings of the petroglyphs and sell to the visitors untill they made that illegal. So don't say they stole it never again or else."

"Oh by the way there is no fire ring in the yard this rock is just inside the edge of the yard by it's self where it's been for more then 80 years.
Thank You,
Mark Maynard"
So Mark, I want to thank you for the jog to my memory. It is funny that I still see a ring of boulders in my mind when I think back, but I do agree that you are correct, as I recall it now with your prompting the Orca boulder is by itself in the yard. I may have not expressed my point clearly enough. Please note that I wrote that "they may have thought of it as protecting the art" and concluded with the idea that "maybe it is better protected now."  In looking back I think that the problem is my use of the word "stolen" I agree that is too harsh a term. If it had at some point been moved perhaps I should have used the term misappropriated or something of that ilk. The point that I was trying to make is that even if it had been moved in an attempt to protect it most of today's laws and regulations would treat that as theft. But 80 years ago, who knows?  Your information about how long it has been in the yard certainly does counter my assumptions which had been based upon information that the Orca petroglyph boulder was on Petroglyph Beach. So I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the Barlow family. Thank you for the new perspective and the additional information.

Friday, February 10, 2012


An article in Archaeology Magazine, Vol. 65, No. 1, January/February 2012, written by David Herbert describes the discovery of a Paleolithic toolkit used by artists.

Abalone shell paint cup, p.20, Archaeology,
Vol. 65, No. 1, Jan-Feb 2012

Herbert wrote “A cave in southwestern South Africa was used as a paint production workshop, where ancient artists made a liquid ochre pigment. The toolkit of shells, stone, and bone from Blombos Cave suggests Middle Stone Age humans were capable planners.

Similar paint-making workshops have been found, such as the one at Lascaux Cave in France, but, at 100,000 years old, the Blombos toolkit is now the oldest one uncovered. ““A Middle Stone Age painter has left all his tools for us,”” says Francesco d’Errico, a University of Bordeaux archaeologist involved in the excavation, noting the kit’s complete and preserved state.

 Artifacts from Blombos cave.
Chenshilwood at en.wikipedia.

Two abalone shells were found with ochre and mineral residue in them, along with tools resembling mortars and pestles made of stone and bone from a variety of animals. The shells used for storing the powder are caked with both yellow and red pigments, implying repeated use. The variety of tools suggests their owner returned to the cave repeatedly to grind ochre from clay found nearby, using and discarding tools as needed.”

This is not the first discovery of apparent artist’s supplies at Blombos Cave. Earlier finds include blocks of ochre that could be intended for making paint, although some of them bear engraved line decorations making their intended use more difficult to interpret. In addition to that we have bone tools that may have been intended for applying the paint like an ink pen. Now, adding to those the abalone shells used for mixing and storing the paint and tools used to grind the pigments, and we have a complete artist’s kit.

Unfortunately the article does not describe any evidence of paint usage in Blombos cave. There is no indication that the ochre was used to create pictographs on the cave walls but it did point out  that much of the cave has a layer of calcite on the walls which might be obscuring original painted imagery. Additionally d’Errico speculated that the ochre paint might have been created for body decoration. In any case this represents the earliest known artist’s tool kit and pushes the horizon of the dawn of human art much earlier in our history.


Saturday, February 4, 2012


In a place like the arid American Southwest any place where water is found is a memorable and highly prized location. Symbols that are associated with such places would also be considered important. One symbol that inevitably comes to mind around water in the Southwest is the dragonfly. Dragonflies, in addition to being associated with water, are also definitely sky beings. For some Native American tribes they represent swiftness and activity. They are commonly portrayed in Native American art as a vertical line with a double crossbar.

Shield, and dragonfly, Galisteo dike, NM.
Photo Peter Faris, 1988.
The image of the dragon fly from Galisteo Dike was produced by ancestral Pueblo people. These images are fairly common in the southwest. In this location it is associated with other images including sky symbolism. There is a 4-pointed star, a bird, and a shield decorated with stars and sun images. As a sky being the association of the dragonfly with sky symbols makes sense. Adding all of this to its association with water we should expect that the dragonfly symbol would be popular in rock art of the region. 

Yellow Nose with Dragonfly shield, National Anthropological
Archive, Smithsonian Institution. MS. 166032.

Tribes of the Great Plains also see desirable military qualities in the dragonfly. Its straight flight can be reminiscent of the flight of an arrow and its quick zigzag darting makes it hard for an enemy to strike. The Cheyenne warrior Yellow Nose had these qualities in mind when he painted a dragonfly on his war shield.
Navajo dragonfly. Redrawn from  Kritsky and
Cherry, Insect Mythology, 2000, p. 109.

The Zuni regard the dragonfly as possessing supernatural power and killing one is supposedly forbidden. Because of its shape the Zunis also see a resemblance to an awl used for leatherworking and Dragonfly Kachina is associated with moccasin making and sewing. They appear in Hopi rock art, and on Pueblo necklaces. For the Navajo they symbolize pure water.