Saturday, July 27, 2013


                         The Decalogue Stone, Los Lunas, New Mexico.

Did ancient Israelites, or at least Semites, wander around the American West during pre-Columbian times, and leave an inscription based upon the ten commandments carved into a boulder near Los Lunas, New Mexico? My answer would be a resounding no, but there are those who firmly believe this to be true.

The following quotes are from Wikipedia (with limited editing), and I have kept their underlining and emphasis intact: 

"The Los Lunas Decalogue Stone is a large boulder on the side of Hidden Mountain, near Los Lunas, New Mexico, about 35 miles south of Albuquerque, that bears a very regular inscription carved into a flat panel. The stone is also known as the Los Lunas Mystery Stone or Commandment Rock. The inscription is interpreted to be an abridged version of the Decalogue or Ten Commandments in a form of Paleo-Hebrew. A letter group resembling the tetragrammaton YHWH, or "Yahweh," makes three appearances. The stone is controversial in that some claim the inscription is Pre-Columbian, and therefore proof of early Semitic contact with the Americas."

"The first recorded mention of the stone is in 1933, when the late professor Frank Hibben (1910-2002), an archaeologist from theUniversity of New Mexico, saw it. According to a 1996 interview, Hibben was "convinced the inscription is ancient and thus authentic. He report[ed] that he first saw the text in 1933. At the time it was covered with lichen and patination and was hardly visible. He was taken to the site by a guide who had seen it as a boy, back in the 1880s." However, Hibben's testimony is tainted by charges that in at least two separate incidents, he fabricated some or all of his archaeological data to support his pre-Clovis migration theory. The reported 1880s date of discovery is important to those who believe that the stone is pre-Columbian. However, the Paleo-Hebrew script, which is closely related to the Phoenician script, was well known by at least 1870, thus not precluding the possibility of a modern hoax." 
"Because of the stone's weight of over 80 tons, it was never moved to a museum or laboratory for study and safekeeping. Many visitors have cleaned the stone inscriptions over the years, likely destroying any possibility for scientific analysis of the inscriptions' patina. Nevertheless, comparing it to a modern inscription nearby, geologist George E. Morehouse, a colleague of Barry Fell, estimated that the inscription could be between 500 and 2000 years old and explaining its freshness and lack of patina as being due to frequent scrubbing to make it more visible.

Vandalized Los Lunas Decalogue Stone, April, 2006. Wikipedia.

In April of 2006, the first line of the unprotected inscription was obliterated by vandals. The position of the stone has also shifted, possibly also related to the vandalism. No matter how much on the fringe you consider a subject to be, no one should feel that they have the right to damage and displace the subject of what some people believe to be serious scientific inquiry.

 I have previously admitted that I am not a linguist or epigrapher, so I cannot make judgements based upon personal knowledge of some of the above arguments. I can, however, relate that friends of mine who took seriously some of the diffusionist arguments back in the 1980s and 1990s, and who did have some knowledge of epigraphy, discounted this inscription as a modern creation based upon linguistic arguments. I personally discount it based upon my inability to imagine the lost tribes of Israel wandering about New Mexico (or maybe they had dubbed it New Palestine) during some pre-Columbian period.


Saturday, July 20, 2013


White clay deposits, Paint Mines, Calhan, El Paso county,
Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2007.

Northeast of Colorado Springs, Colorado, 35 to 40 miles on highway #24 is found the small town of Calhan in El Paso county, Colorado. Right outside Calhan is a magical place known as Paint Mines. This is a local with a deposit of strikingly white selenite clays eroded into interesting shapes. Other exposed veins of clay have golden yellow, rose pink and purplish mauve coloring.

Colored clay deposits, Paint Mines, Calhan, El Paso County,
Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2007.

This is a place where Native Americans of the Great Plains could gather pigments for both decorative and ceremonial use. Historian Andrew Gulliford has documented this use and has written that such places were held sacred and neutral by all the tribes. “Great Plains paint mines were neutral territory, and warring tribes could gather red, yellow, and black clay in peace without attacking one another. Sacred paint sources include the paint mines near Calhan, Colorado, and in Wyoming at Sunrise and Rawlins. A Colorado cave contains every clay color needed in Ute religious ceremonies.” (Gulliford 2000:77-78)

It is likely that many white painted pictographs (as well as some other colors) in the region had their origin in the pigments collected in this amazing and beautiful location.

Note: The cave mentioned in Gulliford (2000:77-78) is probably Shield Cave which I wrote about in my posting of December 26, 2011,OCHRE PIGMENT IN PICTOGRAPHS.

Gulliford, Andrew
2000    Sacred Objects and Sacred Places: Preserving Tribal Traditions, University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


 Baca County, CO., Photo: Peter Faris, Feb. 1996.

Back in the late 1980s I took frequent trips down to southeastern Colorado to accompany my friend Bill McGlone on trips to rock art sites. Bill lived in La Junta, the gateway to literally thousands of rock art sites in the Purgatoire (Picketwire Canyon) and elsewhere in that region. As an amateur epigrapher Bill was fascinated by correlations between so-called abstract rock art and characters in some Old World scripts, and his first focus in that interest had been the linear groupings that believers call Ogam.

I was never able to share in the belief that Bill and his friends held back then that these groupings of lines consisted of Ogam inscriptions. In order to make any deciphering work at all they had to postulate a variety of Ogam not used in the Old World, an Ogam that consists of consonants only, and no vowels. Additionally, in order to explain the presence of Ogam in southeastern Colorado one has to invoke at least one pre-Columbian visit by a party of Celts from somewhere in Europe where Ogam writing was used. As no believable physical evidence of such an expedition has ever been found I was not able to agree to their arguments for the existence of actual Ogam inscriptions. Groupings of lines – yes, I saw hundreds along with Bill and his friends. Ogam – no. On my visits to the area I would usually stay with Bill McGlone and we would often stay up until late discussing/arguing about epigraphy and diffusionism. My often stated position in those discussions was that I was not able to agree that these were actual Ogam inscriptions, but that I did not have a better explanation so I could not prove that he was in error in this belief.    

I did try as many ways as I could come up with to define these lines as tallies of some sort. I was never able to prove that because I could not specify what they were counting. Oh, some might come close to enumerating the days in a lunar cycle, or the moons in a year, but I could never prove any connection. Vague suspicions do not hold up well in a debate with a person who deeply believes his position.

Well now that better explanation has finally come along. Dr. Lawrence L. Loendorf in his book Thunder and Herds, Rock Art of the High Plains, has drawn attention to the resemblance of many of these groupings of lines to the so-called ribstones of the Northern Plains. “Ribstones may vary in their details but all consist of a long, vertical line or groove along the length of a boulder that is crossed by shorter grooves, creating a figure that represents the backbone and ribs of a buffalo.” “Plains groups like the Cree believed that ribstones embodied the spirit of a bison, which they honored by leaving offerings and saying prayers at sites where the stones occur.”  (2008:214)

Well done Larry, from now on I do have my better answer and in the event of a repeat of those debates of old I can cite you, and I no longer have to worry about taking a ribbing (or a stoning) over not having an answer.


Loendorf, Lawrence L.
2008    Thunder and Herds, Rock Art of the High Plains, Left Coast Press, Inc., Walnut Creek, CA.

Saturday, July 6, 2013


In 2004 William D. Hyder wrote “How people interact with the environment is, in part, a projection of their culture. Patterns in the location of human activities can be interpreted as evidence of cultural behaviors and beliefs (p. 85-86).” He goes on to discuss rock art locations as interpretable phenomenon. He does, however, point out the danger in using our modern framework of beliefs and perceptions to analyze locations that were originally established by people whose framework of beliefs and perceptions was very different.

I have written elsewhere about the pitfalls of making such assumptions because of that very difference. Take, for example, a rock art panel that is found on the general border to one group’s territory. I know many people who will automatically assume that it was placed there as some sort of warning message to outsiders about trespassing on that group’s territory. Just as plausible, however, is the possibility that it was placed there to be as far as possible from the center of habitation of the resident group because it is too holy to be located where it would be exposed to the profane eyes of the group. Almost opposite interpretations, but both are equally plausible, or implausible, the main difference being an inward or outward focus in interpretation. Was it placed there because of us, or them? We just really need to know a lot more about the people and their territory to make that kind of analysis.

This attitude is in line with the thoughts of Lewis Binford who, according to Wikipedia “is mainly known for his contributions to archaeological theory and his promotion of ethnoarchaeological research. As a leading advocate of the "New Archaeology" movement of the 1960s, he proposed a number of ideas that matured into Processualism.” Binford studied the uses that people put various locales in their territory to by analysis of cultural remains, tools, etc., and would then have made assumptions related to possible meaning (had he felt that he had enough information to do so) based upon factual information related to activities in that location.

"Water glyph."

One commonly assumed relationship between rock art and geography is the marking of resources, perhaps most often presented as “water glyphs” which announce to onlookers the presence of potable water. In an arid landscape like much of the American west this is a particularly prevalent belief. I am personally dubious about this and for the same reasons that I outlined in my first posting in this blog on April 18, 2009, ARE THERE MAPS IN NATIVE AMERICAN ROCK ART?  I argued then, that since Native American cultures depended primarily on oral transmission of knowledge the idea that they put up a sign to mark something seems a little unlikely. Add to that the fact that you and I know where all of the resources are in our territory and anyone else is a potential enemy who we would not want to see the signs and you have sufficient reason for me to doubt the reality of those “water glyphs”.

Indeed, these so-called water glyphs resemble the arrangements of lines engraved into rocks in South Carolina that were used for pine tar extraction and leaching lye from wood ashes and that I posted ( and that I posted on 14 April 2013. Not that there is any indication of pine tar extraction in the Arizona desert, but this suggests that there are other possible explanations.

Jane Young related one anecdote that might also shed some light on this. “I remember showing slides to one tribal elder and asking him what he thought about the projected figures. He replied, “I don’t know, I’ve never been there.” His later comments revealed his strong feeling that he couldn’t say much about imagery that he had not seen in its overall natural context. This suggests that rock art images in and of themselves are only part of what is significant about a site; nearby images are also important, as are local plants, animals, boulder configurations, springs, and so on. Rock carvings and paintings are, after all, integral parts of the landscape surrounding the pueblo, and like other features of that landscape, Zunis frequently associated them with events from myth and legend that transpired there.” (Young 2004:83). It seems to me that this also argues against blanket assumptions that any specific symbol can always be interpreted as having the same meaning, no matter where it is located. If it is located at a water source, then perhaps it is a water glyph, but if not, I will not accept that as an explanation. And even if it is in reference to water at that water source, that does not mean it is a sign pointing to that water. Perhaps that symbol is meaningful to the spirit of the water in that location.

As I have said before, I am always very skeptical when presented with claims about rock art being some sort of sign or marker to a resource. Do I know what these “water glyphs” represent – no, I do not, but I am skeptical that they are meant to lead us to water. What do you think?


Hyder, William D.
2004    Locational Analysis in Rock Art Studies, p. 85-101, in The Figured Landscapes of Rock Art, edited by Christopher Chippindale and George Nash, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Young, M. Jane
2004    Ethnographic Analogies in Southwestern Rock Art, p. 80-102, in New Dimensions in Rock Art Studies, edited by Ray t. Matheny, Occasional Papers Series No. 9, Museum of Peoples and Cultures, Brigham Young University, Provo.