Saturday, December 10, 2016


Chinese drought inscription,
Davu Cave, Qinling mountains,
China. From Ghose, LiveScience,
August 20, 2015.

A subject in rock art that has long fascinated me is evidence of verifiable events recorded on the rocks. As everyone's daily life is directly impacted by meteorology, that is one area that we should expect to find evidence of in rock inscriptions or pictures. An example of this can be found in inscriptions in Davu Cave, in southeastern China. Located in the Qinling Mountains, this cave contains written inscriptions of droughts occurring in the region and their impact upon the population.

Writing for LiveScience on August 20, 2015, Tia Ghose cited an August 13 article from the journal Scientific Reports that outlined a series of droughts in that area and the inscriptions that record them. The droughts were confirmed by analysis of chemical elements in stalagmites from the cave. Study co-author Sebastian Breitenbach, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Cambridge, England explained that the team analyzed the proportions of carbon, uranium, oxygen, and other isotopes, in stalagmites  to detect climate changes over time that signaled droughts." The amounts of radioactive uranium and carbon, which decay at a known rate, tied specific parts of the stalagmite to particular historic times." (Ghose 2015)  And, "because the water seeping into the cave was likely groundwater, the levels of oxygen and carbon isotopes could provide information about surface conditions outside the cave. The team found that oxygen and carbon levels rose when rainfall was low, suggesting that those markers could reliably reveal when drought conditions occurred." (Ghose 2015)

Comparing this scientific record then with cave inscriptions revealed a very accurate correlation.

"One inscription, which is dated to July 27, 1596, says directly that there is a big drought, and that the writers had come to the cave to get water and pray for rain. Another, dating to 1891m reads: 'On May 24th, 17th year of the Emperor Guangxu period, Qing Dynasty, the local mayor, Huaizong Shu, led more than 200 people into the cave to get water. A fortune-teller named Zhenrong Ran prayed for rain during the ceremony.'" (Ghose 2015)

"Another inscription mentions a Dragon Lake that may have been in the cave." (Ghose 2015)

All in all, records of seven droughts over the past 500 years corresponded quite well with the recorded droughts in the cave formations. The team even used their data from the chemical record and the inscriptions to construct a model to predict future periods of drought in that region. That model predicts that "in the next decade, China is in for more severe and more frequent droughts, though the model can't predict exactly where or when the droughts will occur." (Ghose 2015)

Rock art, not only as a record of the past, but as a predictor of the future. How about that?


Saturday, December 3, 2016


We have long been convinced that mythology could offer insights into the meaning of rock art. I am sure that we all know of examples where we are convinced that this works, that the meaning of a rock art panel can be inferred by knowledge of the mythology of the people who created it. Now an article in the December 2016 issue of Scientific American makes the fascinating claim that mythology can be used to decipher meaning in cave art produced during the Paleolithic period.

Drawing of the Polyphemus
myth panel in Les Trois-Freres. 
Public domain.

Julien d'Huy, in The Evolution of Myths, explains his process of phylogenetic analysis using statistics to generate "phylogenetic trees (that) reveal that species of myths evolve slowly and parallel patterns of mass human migration out of Africa and around the globe." (d'Huy 2016:64)

D'Huy explained that "my phylogenetic studies make use of the extra rigor of statistical and computer modeling techniques from biology to elucidate how and why myths and folktales evolve." (d'Huy 2016:64)

One of the myth families that he has applied this technique to is the "Cosmic Hunt", where "a man or an animal pursues or kills one or more animals and the creatures are changed into constellations." (d'Huy 2016:64) This story, in a number of variations, was common to the ancient Greeks in the story of Callisto who becomes the constellation Ursa Major, the great bear, and to the Iroquois, Chukchi, and Finno-Ugric tribes of Siberia. According to d'Huy "although the animals and the constellations may differ, the basic structure of the story does not." (d'Huy 2016:64)

D'Huy has traced the Cosmic Hunt myth back through history and around the world. He found it to be "nearly absent in Indonesia and New Guinea an very rare in Australia, but present on both sides of the Bering Strait, which geologic and archaeological evidence indicates was above water between 28,000 and 13,000 B.C. The most credible working hypothesis is that Eurasian ancestors of the first Americans brought the family of myths with them." (d'Huy 2016:65)

Another myth family that d'Huy has traced back to early origins is known as the Polyphemus myth after the one-eyed giant in the Odyssey who trapped Ulysses' crew in a cave and devoured some of them. In the same way as Polyphemus kept his herd of sheep in a cave, in variations of this myth animals are kept concealed by a trickster or other being, and a hero bring them to the surface of earth to sustain the people. The Algonquin Blackfoot people acquired buffalo in this way. "A composite phylogenetic tree of Polyphemus myths indicates that the stories followed two major migratory patterns: The first, in Paleolithic times spread the myth in Europe and North America. The second, in Neolithic times, paralleled the proliferation of livestock farming." (d'Huy 2016:68)

Drawing of the hero in the
Polyphemus myth panel in
Les Trois-Freres. Public domain.

"Phylogenetic reconstructions of both the Polyphemus and Cosmic Hunt stories build on decades of research by scholars who based their work primarily on oral and written versions of folktales and legends. The current models also incorporate empirical observations of mythological motifs in prehistoric rock art. Similarities in certain rock art motifs and the reconstructed stories open a new window on the mental universe of the first humans who migrated across the Bering Strait to the New World between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago. 
In the myth of Polyphemus, as its original public most likely heard it, a hunter faces one or many monsters that possess a herd of wild animals. He enters the place where the monster keeps the animals and finds his way out blocked by a large obstacle. The monster tries to kill him. The hero manages to escape by clinging to the underbelly of one of the animals.
This protomyth - revealed by three separate phylogenetic databases, many statistical methods and independent ethnological data - reflects the belief, widely held by ancient cultures, in the existence of a master of animals who keeps them in a cave and the need for an intermediary to free them." (d'Huy 2016:69)

Drawing of the hero of the
Polyphemus myth panel in
Les Trois-Freres. Public domain.

D'Huy believes that this theme to can be applied to the Paleolithic world view on the origin of game. "At the Cave of the Trois-Freres (or "three brothers")
in the French Pyrenees, frequented during the upper Paleolithic, a panel shows a small creature with the head of a bison and the body of a human, which seems to be holding a short bow. Lost in the middle of a herd of bison, another animal, similar to a bison, turns its head toward the human hybrid, and the two exchange gazes." (d'Huy 2016:69)

This, he sees as an illustration of the herd of game animals being brought out of concealment (hidden in the cave perhaps) by a hero, to the people.
Now I have been relatively critical of statistical analysis in the past, especially when applied to rock art, but even without relying on statistics this explanation makes a great deal of sense, and when combined with the phylogenetic analysis of the mythology, I have to concede that I believe there is something here that is possibly of great importance to rock art studies. I look forward in the future to more contributions by Julien d'Huy. 

NOTE: Read the whole article in the December 2016 Scientific American magazine.


Julien d'Huy,
2016  The Evolution of Myths, Scientific American, December 2016, Volume 315, Number 6, pages 62 - 69.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Huerfano Butte, New Mexico.
Photograph Eric Packard,

On October 8, 2016, Dr. Steve Lekson gave the keynote speech at the CAS 2016 Annual Meeting in Grand Junction. He discussed Chacoan influences in southern Colorado, particularly a communication channel between Far View House, Mesa Verde, and Chimney Rock Pueblo, Colorado, by means of fire beacons, with Huerfano Butte, New Mexico, and through it Chaco Canyon.

Far View House, Mesa Verde,

Huerfano Butte, New Mexico, has three peaks on top that were visible from Chimney Rock Pueblo and from Chaco Canyon. There was a fire box between the pinnacles of Chimney Rock and fire pits (or fire boxes) on Huerfano Butte that could be seen from each other. The Huerfano Butte fire pit would also have been visible from Chaco. These would have been ideal for long-distance messaging. There was also a view of Huerfano Butte from Far View House in Mesa Verde and it also has a fire box so it must have been part of the network. These fire boxes were constructed in AD 1015-1020 (by tree ring dates). (Lekson 2009)

Chimney Rock, Archuletta County, CO.
Photograph: 2002, Peter Faris.

"'Large fireboxes at Chimney Rock likely were used to signal Chacoans at the summit of Huerfano Mesa, a plateau hosting ancient fireboxes some 30 miles to the southeast of Chimney Rock and in sight of Chaco Canyon,' said Lekson. 'There was almost certainly line-of-sight communication between Chimney Rock, Huerfano Mesa and Chaco Canyon,' said Lekson. While there is no Chaco Great House on Huerfano Mesa, 'elaborate fireboxes and shrines suggest that somebody was there to pick up the phone and relay messages.'" (

Chacoan geat house at
Chimney Rock. Photograph,
public domain.

In her book Wild Inferno, novelist Sandi Ault described the communication system in a story that she attributed to a storyteller from fictional Tanoah Pueblo, which she located near Taos Pueblo. "Time before time, the chiefs in the Center of the World could talk with fire and receive its knowledge and power. They used what fire told them to hold the moon unmoving in the sky."

"Far to the north, many priests lived and worked on Fire Mountain, learning the Way. From their round tower there, and from the ridge across the river, they made many studies, watching Grandmother Moon and Father Sun rise over the shoulders of Earth Mother. They measured with sticks and holes they made in the rock, and they counted days with lines of dots and brush marks, or with piles of pebbles. They built great night fires and used big, flat stones to shoot the light of the flames far, very far. They sent their wisdom on nights when the moon was hiding, so the fires could be seen in the sky. Three-days-walking to the south, on Red Mask Mesa, the fire tenders received the messages, then built blazes of their own, and - using the same kind of stones - sent the fire's light another three-days-walking to the south, to the Center of the World. The chiefs of what they now call Chaco Canyon would see the fires, read their messages, and the Way would be known."
"The People would gather at the temples, and the chiefs would say: On this night, I will tell the moon where to stand, and it will come to that place because I say it must! The People would watch and see."
"And when Moon obeyed, and came to the appointed place in the sky, the People knew that the chiefs were very powerful. The fires had bestowed their gifts." (Ault 2008:32)

Given that the Chacoan Phenomenon in the Four Corners Region is believed to have been one of influence and spiritual leadership throughout the region, the possibility that they could  communicate over such vast distances would possibility assume a spiritual significance as well.

3 mountains painted in a kiva
at Eagle's Nest ruin, Ute Mountain
Ute Reservation, CO. Photograph
Peter Faris, 1981.

In June 1981 we were lucky enough to tour the portion of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation south of Mesa Verde. This region has pretty much as many ruins as Mesa Verde proper, with the added bonus that they have not been cleaned up. Pot sherds, bones, tools, and cordage still litter the ground in this area. One ruin that particularly intrigued me is known as Eagle's Nest. In this building there is a painted kiva with three mountain peaks painted on the inside wall (and if you look carefully you can make out some of the white dots that outlined the peaks).

Eagle's Nest ruin, Ute Mountain 
Ute Reservation, CO. Photograph
Peter Faris, 1981.

I have since been fascinated with what those three mountain peaks might represent. If Eagle's Nest could be seen as part of the communication network then perhaps the three peaks painted in the kiva at Eagle's Nest ruin on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation south of Mesa Verde can be connected to the three peaks of Huerfano Butte in the minds of the people? Is there any way that Huerfano Mesa could be visible from Eagle's Nest ruin? Given the location of Eagle's Nest Ruin in a canyon wall shelter I am pretty sure it cannot have sight lines to Huerfano Mesa. Perhaps intervening locations with fire boxes could have transmitted messages on from Far View to Eagle's Nest or from Huerfano Mesa to Eagle's Nest. The problem here is that I have no knowledge of such fire boxes and I do not believe that such research has been done. It would take detailed survey work to attempt to discover lines of sight and fire boxes or beacons that would have been used.

Three painted mountains
outlined with white dots. Spruce
Tree House, Mesa Verde, CO.
Photograph Peter Faris, 2002.

There is certainly some significance to the three peaks at Mesa Verde. Spruce Tree House has a wall painting that also has three peaks outlined by white dots. This theme would seem to be more than just coincidence in decorative elements.

So, although we apparently have instances of possible communication between Chaco Canyon, Huerfano Mesa, Chimney Rock, and Far View House in Mesa Verde, the information available does not yet justify making an assumption that there is any connection between the three painted peaks in the kiva at Eagle's Nest Ruin, three painted peaks at Spruce Tree House, and the three peaks on Huerfano Mesa. Too bad too, it would have been such a neat solution. I guess I will just have to keep looking for the answer of what the three peaks represent. I will also be happy to hear your comments on this as well.


Ault, Sandi,
2008    Wild Inferno, Berkeley Prime Crime, New York.

Lekson, Steve, PhD.,
2016   Latest Chaco Canyon Theories and Research, lecture to: Annual Meeting of the Colorado Archaeological Society, October 7, 2016, Grand Junction, Colorado.

Packard, Eric,, image 3637306.

Saturday, November 19, 2016



Flood damage upon chinese rock
art, Helan Mountain, Ningxia
Autonomous Region, China.

A recent story on reported considerable damage to rock art on cliffs of Helan Mountain in the Ningxia Autonomous Region of northwest China by heavy rains and flooding. " reports that rare flooding in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of northwest China has damaged some of the thousands of prehistoric carvings on the cliffs of Helan Mountain. The images are thought to have been created by nomads who lived in the area between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago. Some of the images were damaged by mud and silt, and about a dozen images that had been carved on individual rocks were carried away by the flood waters. Other pictures were lost when layers of mountain rock peeled off or cracked in the heavy rains. Hu Zhiping, deputy director of the Helan Mountain Cliff Painting Administration, said that the extent of the damage is still being assessed." ( 2016:2)

Helan Mountain was decorated with an estimated 20,000 examples of rock art scattered over several hundred kilometers. These had been created by nomadic tribes once living in the area and are believed to be between 3,000 and 10,000 years in age.  "An employee at the scenic area which has about 6,000 cliff paintings, said about a dozen paintings on individual rocks were unaccounted for." ( 2016:2)

This is another reminder of the ephemeral nature of much rock art. This statement may seem counterintuitive when we are discussing an art form that depends upon solid rock for its medium, but you can visit museums all over the world that are full of ancient works of art that are in better condition than the contents of many rock art sites that are younger in age than those works of art in the museums. The morale of this story is that is still critical that we fully record all rock art so that digital records may be protected for the future. 


Saturday, November 12, 2016


Almont rock art site, CO.
Photo, Jared Allen, 2016.

I recently received some fascinating pictures and information from Jared Allen. Jared shared some photographs of a rock art site near Almont, in Gunnison County, Colorado. A couple of the photos show deeply incised grooves or the sort usually defined as tool sharpening grooves, although some of the grooves appear to be arranged purposefully to create a tree-like image. Much more interesting, however, are a couple of Jared's photographs that illustrate what appear to be Navajo Yei (Holy People) figures. Almont is a considerable distance from the current region of Navajo habitation, so what gives here?

Almont rock art site, CO.
Photo, Jared Allen, 2016.

Almont, Colorado, is approximately 9 miles north of the town of Gunnison, and 60 miles NW of Saguache. Some references place the early Navajo and the boundaries of Dinetah, the Navajo homeland, far enough north and east of their present territory that it includes the San Luis Valley in south/central Colorado. "Dinétah encompasses a large area of northwestern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, southeastern Utah, and northeastern Arizona. The boundaries are inexact, and are generally marked by mountain peks which correspond to the four cardinal directions." (Wikipedia) Indeed, Mount Blanca, one of the Navajo four holy mountains is located in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range on the east side of the San Luis Valley.

Almont rock art site, CO.
Recurved bow held by
figure on the right.
Photo, Jared Allen, 2016.

The right figure in this group appears to be holding a recurved bow considered a hallmark of athapaskan peoples and, thus, a possible Navajo identifier (see below).

Yei pictographs showing recurved
bow, Delgadito Canyon. Picture

"In Navajo tradition, the Holy People, or Yeis, are sometimes shown holding "recurved" bows. This technological innovation is thought by some to have been introduced by the ancestors of today's Navajo and Apache. The distinctive double curve is sometimes shown alone as a symbol for Naayee' Neizghani, or Monster Slayer, one of the Hero Twins." (

If these images are indeed Navajo in origin they are probably dated from back early in the athapaskan entrance into this area, as with the passage of time the Navajo gravitated farther south and west. "The Navajo occupation of the region has been divided into two major phases - the Dinetah phase (ca. 1500-1630, which includes the entrance and settling of the area by the Navajo, and the Gobernador phase (ca. 1630-1800), during which time the Navajo culture became fully defined." (Wikipedia)

So, if these Navajo figures are authentic, they are probably fairly early, or evidence of a later wanderer.



Saturday, November 5, 2016


I have written elsewhere about the fact that when I was an undergraduate the field of Art History also included studying architecture and design/decoration. I do not see so much of that these days but, as for me, both architecture and design/decoration are legitimate branches of Art History and thus are eligible for inclusion here in RockArtBlog. The following combines both in an example of an Ancestral Puebloan structure in Utah. 

Lintel over doorway, Ancestral Pueblo.
Photograph: Joshua Smith.

Humans are fascinated by fossils. This was as true for our early ancestors as it is for us. On October 6th, 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Joshua Smith, a contract paleontologist in Grand Junction, Colorado. We met at his favorite coffee shop and I had an excellent breakfast burrito and a cup of good coffee while we talked about Native American fossil knowledge.  Smith showed me photographs of one of his discoveries, an instance of incorporation of fossil dinosaur footprints into the architecture of an ancestral puebloan building in Utah.

View of the underside of the lintel,
Ancestral Pueblo. Photograph:
Joshua Smith.

Smith first noticed them in 2003. While the building had long been known to archaeologists, apparently no one had noticed the tracks on the underside of the lintel over the doorway until Smith came along (an good example of we see what we expect to see, and an excellent reason for cross-disciplinary studies in rock art).

Pointing out one track on
the lintel, Ancestral Pueblo.
Photograph: Joshua Smith.

Some of the structure is dated from Basketmaker II, AD 50 - 500 (Wikipedia), but most of the construction appears to date from the Pueblo III period, AD 1150 - 1350 (Wikipedia). While the structure is constructed of cream-colored sandstone from nearby, the pinkish-colored sandstone of the lintel stood out as coming from a different source, although also local. In examining it Smith found the two dinosaur tracks on the underside where they were exposed to view. This may be important as the stone could have just as well been placed with the tracks on the upper side hidden from view. This suggests that they were purposely left so they could be viewed, and that they had some significance to the builders and occupants of the structure (Smith 2016).

Pointing out one track on
the lintel, Ancestral Pueblo.
Photograph: Joshua Smith.

Dinosaur tracks are classified into separate ichnospecies from dinosaur remains because they often cannot be pinned down to the exact species that made them. These tracks fall into the category known as Grallator. "Grallator tracks are characteristically three-toed (tridactyl) and range from 5 to 15 centimeters (or 2 to 6 inches) long. While it is usually impossible to match these prints with the exact dinosaur species that left them, it is sometimes possible to narrow down potential trackmakers by comparing the proportions in individual Grallator ichnospecies with known dinosaurs of the same formation." (Wikipedia)

Outlined track on the lintel, Ancestral
Pueblo. Photograph: Joshua Smith.

Smith identified the tracks as belonging to a small theropod dinosaur, similar to a coelophysis, based upon his knowledge of the age of the rock formation and the species extant in that time. (Smith 2016)  Previously, I have written about Native American knowledge of fossil tracksites and cited a Navajo example identifying them as "giant lizard footprints". (Faris 2011) Whether the tracks had a spiritual value to the builder, or were just included for decorative purposes, this important discovery not only adds another example of Native American fossil knowledge, it provides evidence of another facet of their beliefs and material culture in which this knowledge could be expressed. Thank you Josh. 


Faris, Peter
2011 Dinosaur Footprints and the Giant Lizard Petroglyphs at Cub Creek, Dinosaur National Monument, Feb. 9, 2011,

Smith, Joshua, personal communication, 2016.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Petroglyph panel, Crescent Junction
site, Grand County, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, Oct. 8, 2016.

Driving in to the Crescent Junction (Utah) rock art site one goes right past a Department Of Energy radioactive tailings disposal site. This reminded me of a RockArtBlog posting on June 10, 2009, titled Protecting Rock Art, in which I discussed poison ivy as a protection for rock art panels, and speculated upon the efficacy of using rock art sites for radioactive or toxic waste disposal to protect the rock art (Faris 2009). This is close in concept, but the disposal is near the rock art, not around it, and, I think, coincidental. In other words they were not looking to protect rock art, they were looking for empty land to dump their radioactive tailings at.

Petroglyph panel, Crescent Junction
site, Grand County, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, Oct. 8, 2016.

Petroglyph panel, Crescent Junction
site, Grand County, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, Oct. 8, 2016.

It is a good site though, worth visiting. I was there on a field trip from the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Colorado Archaeological Society (CAS) which was held in Grand Junction over the weekend of October 6-8. Members of the Grand Junction chapter of CAS are to be congratulated for an excellent meeting and programs.

The Crescent Junction site is on a number of scattered boulders at the base of the Bookcliffs formation on the North edge of the Grand Valley.

Fremont figure, Crescent Junction
site, Grand County, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, Oct. 8, 2016.

Some of the rock art is archaic imagery with anthropomorphs, quadrupeds, footprints, and symbols intermixed. Many of the human figures seem to be Fremont in origin which give us a timeframe of AD 1 to 1300 (Wikipedia).

Bat? Crescent Junction
site, Grand County, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, Oct. 8, 2016.

One of the interesting figures seen here has been identified as a bat by folks in the area. It may be, maybe not, but it is interesting. Also some very complicated panels which could be designated as palimpsests because of intertwined and overwritten figures and symbols.

All in all it is a great example of the type of marginal Fremont site found throughout western Colorado and eastern Utah.


Faris, Peter
2009   Protecting Rock Art, June 20, 2009,