Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Carnegie Quarry, Dinosaur National
Monument, UT. Photo: Peter Faris.

I became interested in the relationship of Native American fossil knowledge and how it is portrayed in their art and rock art back in the early 1980s. One evening, teaching a class on rock art for the University of Colorado extension program, I was lecturing on the marvelous rock art of Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado, and a member of the class asked me what the Native Americans who lived there thought about the dinosaur bones. I was embarrassed to admit that I had not thought of it but that they would have certainly been aware of the bones, these people knew the land like we know our own homes. The Native Americans were also animal anatomists depending upon hunting for their survival, they would recognize the bones they saw and must have been impressed by their size, and the fact that they were part of the solid rock.

Returning home that evening I went to my file cabinet and wrote “Fossils” on a blank file folder. I began to file notes, clippings, and references that had any mention of Native Americans and fossils. I was soon surprised at the amount of material I was collecting on a subject that had been ignored by researchers as far as I could see. This search has given me a great deal of satisfaction, and I have experienced the joy of discovery. Along the way I was lucky enough to make the friendship of Adrienne Mayor whose books on the fossil knowledge of early cultures have broken new ground in the understanding of mythology and ethnographic records (I keep waiting to hear about Adrienne receiving a MacArthur grant but so far they do not seem to have noticed yet).

Dinosaur bone in rock matrix, Dinosaur
Ridge, Denver, CO. Photo: Peter Faris.

A society does not leave questions unexplained. They would have seen the fossils around them and must inevitably have had stories and explanations for their presence, what they were, what caused them, and what they meant to the people. Over the intervening years I have found a wealth of knowledge on the subject. I will be revisiting this subject in the future, but this is how and where it started.

Fremont style petroglyphs, Cub Creek,
Dinosaur National Monument, UT.
Photo: Peter Faris.

The rock art of Dinosaur National Monument is not found in direct association with the fossilized remains that made it famous, but there is certainly a large quantity of it in that area. I cannot imagine that there not a connection. Rock art portrays the beliefs and events of a society, and in an area with both fossilized dinosaur remains and world class rock art the creators of the rock art must have been aware of the amazing bones.

Giant lizard petroglyphs, Cub Creek, Dinosaur
National Monument, UT. Photo: Peter Faris.
Notice petroglyphs across bottom of frame
include four more reptiles.

As I said above, this has been a sub-theme of my personal interest for a long time. Indeed, the photo of giant lizard petroglyphs in my page heading comes from Cub Creek in Dinosaur National Monument, and I have since associated them with a dinosaur fossilized track site nearby, but that is for future postings.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Some of the early rock art representations of horses equipped with tack or gear illustrate it with the body covered by a tent-like hanging covering. These represent horses that are covered with rawhide horse armor. John Ewers related an early report of this which was found in Lewis and Clark’s 1805 description of the Lemhi Shoshoni. “They have a kind of armor like a coat of mail, which is formed of a great many folds of dressed antelope-skins, united by means of a mixture of glue and sand. With this they cover their own bodies and those of their horses, and find it impervious to arrows”.
Citing a number of early sources Ewers continued:
“The earliest known description of the use of armor by any Plains Indian tribe refers to both body and horse types. In 1690, Tonty found the Caddo on Red River wore “body-coverings of several skins, one over the other, as a protection from arrows. They arm the breasts of their horses with the same material, a proof that they are not very far from the Spaniards.” The French explorers Du Tisne and La Harpe found the Wichita and their neighbors on the Arkansas wore hide body armor and decked their horses with breastplates of tanned hide in 1719. Five years later Bourgmont remarked that the Paduca (Apache) went to war dressed in “specially tanned buffalo skins with which they protect themselves. They also hang them around their horses to protect them against arrows” A Ponca tradition refers to their fights with mounted Comanche, before the Ponca themselves obtained horses, in which the Comanche employed horse armor “of thick rawhide cut in round pieces and made to overlap like the scales of a fish. Over the surface was sand held on by glue”.
Armored horse petroglyph, Farrington
Springs, Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris.

Imagery of armored horses has been discovered at the monumental rock art site of Farrington Springs, in southeastern Colorado, by Mark Mitchell.

Rock Art Depicting Commanches, Horses Clad In Leather Armor Discovered In Colorado, ScienceDaily, April 1, 2004 — Several new rock art discoveries by a University of Colorado at Boulder researcher depict mounted warriors, likely Comanche, astride horses clad in leather armor and created around 1700 to 1750, the first such petroglyphs found in the state. CU-Boulder anthropology doctoral student Mark Mitchell, who identified the art, said Plains Indians like the Comanche probably acquired horses from the Spanish in northern New Mexico beginning about 1650 through raiding or trading. The idea of leather-armored horses and riders to deflect spears and arrows probably came from American Indians seeing armored Spanish horse soldiers in the Southwest or Mexico.
"This art tells us about Comanche history through archaeology," Mitchell said. "There is some recorded history but virtually no archaeology of the Comanche, which makes these rock art depictions very valuable. They should point us to additional places to look for Comanche sites containing artifacts associated with horses."

Armored horse petroglyph, Farrington
Springs, CO, photo: Peter Faris

The new finds by Mitchell include three in Colorado and one in central Kansas. He identified two separate rock art depictions of armored horses on the Purgatoire River in southeast Colorado, both showing the horses' armor as rough trapezoids of leather on each side with straight to slightly flaring front and back margins and curved at the top and bottom. "Both also clearly show an armored collar from which horses' heads protrude," said Mitchell.
Page 34, Rock Art of Western North Dakota and the Southern
Black Hills, James D. Keyser and Linea Sundstrom, South
Dakota Archaeological Society, No. 9, 1984.

In order to pick out the image of the armored horse in the first photo from Farrington Springs, Colorado, you need to first see the fairly large, tent-like shape in the middle of the picture. That represents the body of the horse draped in a cover of leather armor. Protruding from the right side of that shape is a parallelogram representing the cylindrical neck covering of the armor. The horse’s head protrudes from the right side of that cylindrical neck armor with a pointed ear, and is almost ludicrously small in comparison with the size of the neck and body. This is much like the larger of the two armored horses in James Keyser’s illustration from Rock Art of Western South Dakota, the North Cave Hills, and the Southern Black Hills (South Dakota Archaeological Society, Number 9, Special Publication) as seen above.

Mark Mitchell’s exciting discovery adds important new evidence for interpreting the prehistoric/historic transitional period in the American west. It also illustrates beautifully one of the most important axioms in rock art research. We really do tend to see what we look for. This site has been visited by hundreds of visitors over the years, including yours truly, and as far as I know not one of us recognized the important image of the armored horse. We certainly saw it, but it did not register. Then Mark Mitchell stood in front of the panel in the same place that so many of us had stood in before, and he realized what it was he was seeing. Congratulations Mark, on your important contribution.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


IN THE LAND OF TEMPLE CAVES, by Frederick Turner, 2004, Counterpoint, New York.

This interesting little book, by an unabashed Francophile, has a difficult job defining itself. It was ostensibly written about the Paleolithic cave art in France, but keeps straying into paeans about the food and wine. There is a recurring sub-theme about the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001, and confusing detours through the failed art career of Adolph Hitler and a meeting with a suspiciously creepy hunter in the woods. This book strikes me as stylistically very like the type of book that would have been written by expatriate American writers in Paris between the world wars, which is, I suspect, the model that Frederick Turner sees himself in, and deservedly so it appears.

This said, he has managed to express some insights about the Paleolithic art of Europe that all of the experts have not been able to express. For instance, on page 32 he writes that “what little we do know is based on a mere fraction of original whole, for the art of the caves cannot be imagined to represent all of Ice Age art. There have been found, for instance, scores of small figurines of humans and animals, indicating the existence of portable art of considerable complexity, many of these from Eastern Europe and Siberia. There must also have been decorations on hide and paintings and engravings on exterior surfaces exposed to the elements that wore them away, perhaps even within the lifetimes of their creators”. Instead of focusing on the cave art and ignoring the huge gaps in our knowledge he has used the presence of cave art to point out how much is still missing in our knowledge of these ancient cultures. At his best Turner broadens and deepens our perceptions of the humanity of the creators of this amazing cave art, and colors in the human context of their societies. Having reminded us of this broader context that the art belonged in, he then points out other assumptions that necessarily follow, assumptions of their dreams and hopes, fears and joys.

Turner lost me on page 119, however, when he described hiking along a wooded trail when he came across three pieces of stone in the path. These were a fragment of limestone, a piece of hematite that looked as if it had been utilized by the ancient people, and a chunk of what he believed was worked flint. To the horror of this member of the Colorado Archaeological Society of a quarter-century standing Turner described picking the stones up, putting them in his pocket, and continuing his hike idly rubbing them together with his fingers in his pocket. The artifacts are not only stolen, removed from context, but then handled roughly to add new scratches and markings rendering any possible analysis of them meaningless.

Perhaps part of my problem with Turner’s book is just that different context. The only books on rock art that I have seen which were not written from an archaeological context seem to generally have been written by New-Agers . I am just not used to a book written by a non-archaeologist which actually has material in it that I can admire, and that provokes actual cognition, as does the rock art that inspired it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Hand prints, Pecos trip, Texas, Jan. 2004.

I believe that all students of rock art are fascinated by the symbol of the hand print – I certainly find them intriguing. They come from all ages, from Paleolithic caves in Europe, Aboriginal rock shelters in Australia, and North American rock art panels from all periods. They have been created in many forms; pictographic and petroglyphic, and in all degrees of realism. Some of the pictographic versions seem to have been made by pressing a painted hand against the rock. Some others found have been spray painted by blowing a mouthful of paint around the hand carefully held flat against the rock. Other hand prints are outline or solidly pecked petroglyphs. It is common to think of them, especially the painted hand stamps, as a sort of a signature by the creator of the image, a statement that “I was here.” This is an example of interpretation through empathy. We believe this because it makes sense in our common humanity with the artists. We see it as something they would do because it is something that we would do. We can also think of them in this sense because many of them reveal individual, identifiable traits. In some cases variations in size may determine that some hand prints were left by children or adolescents. Many Paleolithic examples in some of the caves of Europe show missing fingers or joints. These are speculated to be victims of frostbite, or cases of digits cut off in grief as in known examples from the Great Plains tribes of North America so many years later.

Larry Loendorf, in his recent book Thunder and Herds wrote that “adult human beings seem not to have abandoned the innate fascination with their hands. In the rock art record from the earliest to the most recent of times the hand is the most common stylistic element. Red hand stencils and prints occur in panels dated between 30,000 and 36,000 years ago at Chauvet cave in France. They occur in large numbers in complex, painted arrangements in caves in Borneo and Argentina, and as single petroglyphs – associated with spirals – at sites at Zuni and La Cienega, New Mexico.”

The more realistic, exact and accurate, hand prints, whether painted by hand stamping, spraying, or pecking after outlining the person’s real hand on the stone, bring up another fascinating possibility – determining the gender of the creator of the image. There is an interesting difference between the hands of most men and most women. Statistically, most male hands have a 3rd (or ring) finger that is longer than the 1st (index) finger. At the same time, statistically, more women show the opposite, an index finger that is longer than the ring finger. Not all, this is not a universal trait, but the larger proportion of a study group should show this.

In the example shown from the Pecos region in Texas, the 3rd finger appears noticeably longer than the 1st finger to me. Therefore, I interpret this to mean that the maker of the hand prints was probably a male. A researcher at the site could perform careful measurements to prove this one way or another. Another possible way of adding to our knowledge about the makers of the rock art.