Saturday, October 14, 2017


Vulva symbols? Winnemucca Lake,
Nevada, Larry Benson, used with

The symbol of the "vulva", originally found in Paleolithic art, has long been assumed to represent fertility. This identification was originally made, I assume, by the early students of the cave art in France, who were French. Leave it to the French!

This is now the automatic assumption worldwide when we see these symbols carved or painted onto the rock. What I wonder is if there was ever any attempt to analyze these symbols to see if they could represent anything else? They have been found literally all over the world, representations by diverse and widespread ancient cultures have used this theme. Of course, human fertility is found all over the world, but what else might it represent? What else do all of these cultures have in common? Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is cowrie shells. Perhaps most commonly used in adornment; i.e. necklaces, bracelets, or decorating clothing, the cowrie shell was known and prized by many diverse cultures, all over the world, and down through time.

Early Chinese shell money,
3,000 BCE, June 20, 2017,

Writing on, Chapurukha Kusimba posited that "Objects that occurred rarely in nature and whose circulation could be efficiently controlled emerged as units of value for interactions and exchange. These included shells such as mother-of-pearl that were widely circulated in the Americas and cowry shells that were used in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia." (Kusimba 2017) So for so many ancient cultures the cowrie shell represents wealth, wealth that is to be displayed for personal aggrandizement. What better way to symbolically display your wealth than to carve it into, or paint it on, the rock, on a cliff, a boulder, or the walls of a cave?

Deer cowrie shells,,
Public domain.

Midewiwin shell symbols,
Rajnovich, Reading Rock Art,
p. 53, Fig. 41.

There are examples of this symbol that can be documented as representing something other than vulvas. A very different aspect of the shell, at least here in North America, was found in the Midewiwin Society of the Algonkians.Writing on the Midewiwin Society of the Algonkians, Rajnovich stated: "The Midewiwin was widespread among the Algonkians, practised by the Ojibway, Odawa, Miami, Menominee, Illinois, Shawnees, and others. Archaeologist Charles Callender suggested we cannot rule out the possibility that aspects of the Midewiwin go back 2,500 years among the Indians of Ohio. The symbol of the society and of the power of the medicine itself is a tiny white seashell, often a marginella originating on the southeast coast of the United States. These shells, called megis by the Mides, are shown in Midewiwin picture writing in various forms (Fig. 41), including a small oval figure with radiating power lines, and it may be on the rock paintings as well, possibly at Burnt Bluff (Figure 39). The people of the Shield travelled great distances to obtain the shells. The Odawa(the word means "trader") journeyed throughout the Great Lakes and surrounding areas, covering vast distances in their bark canoes, exchanging goods including the shells among the many Algonkian groups." (Rajnovich 1994:52-3)

Vulva Symbols, Patterson, p. 203,
A Field Guide To Rock Art Symbols,
Petersborough, Ontario.

Linnea Sundstrom apparently agrees that on the Great Plains this symbol originated with the Algonkians, although she also assumes that it may represent fertility as she ascribes its creation to girl's puberty rituals. "Track-Vulva-Groove style rock art clearly had its origins in the Algonkian and Siouan territories east and southeast of the plains (figure 8.13). It is more difficult to determine who made this rock art in the Black Hills country and why. Perhaps some was made by girls as part of a puberty ritual. In other parts of the West, girls sometimes made abraded grooves for other kinds of petroglyphs as part of their puberty rites." (Sundstrom 2004:88) This suggests an Algonkian influence in inland North America that could have brought ideas about the shell to the middle part of the country.

Do these images represent shells, or vulvas? Well, I don't really know but it seems to me that we owe it to ourselves to thoroughly analyze all the possibilities before we blindly relegate a whole category of rock art symbolism to definition by a French assumption. Fertility, display, or wealth, you tell me?

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet after 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 originals at the sites listed below.


Kusimba, Chapurukha
2017 Making Cents of Currency's Ancient Rise, June 20, 2017,

Patterson, Alex
1992 A Field Guide To Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest, Johnson Books, Boulder, Colorado

Rajnovich, Grace
1994 Reading Rock Art: Interpreting the Indian Rock Art of the Canadian Shield, Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., Toronto, Ontario

Sundstrom, Linea
2004 Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art In The Black Hills Country, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Saturday, October 7, 2017


Zorats Karer (Karahunj), Armenia,
Pinterest, Public domain.

A site in Armenia with many standing stones, Zorats Karer (also called Karahunj or Carahunge) is much debated. Some theories call it an astronomical observatory while many other purposes have also been proposed including defensive, and a cattle market. The site is found at a "latitude of 39 34' and longitude of 46 01' on the mountain plateau having (an) altitude (of) 1770 m. and occupies a territory of about 7 hectare(s) on the left side of the Dar river canyon, the tributary of the river Vorotan (at 2 km). It is located on a rocky promontory near Sisian." (Wikipedia)

Interior of Zorats Karer,,
Public domain.

"The first scholarly account of Zorats Karer took place in 1935 by ethnographer Stepan Lisitsian, who alleged that it once functioned as a station for holding animals. Later, in the 1950s, Marus Hasratyan discovered a set of 11th to 9th BCE burial chambers.  But the first investigation which garnered international attention to the complex was that of Soviet archaeologist Onnik Khnkikyan, who claimed in 1984 that the 223 megalithic stones in the complex may have been used, not for animal husbandry, but instead for prehistoric stargazing. He believed the holes on the stones, which are two inches in diameter and run up to twenty inches deep, may have been used as early telescopes for looking out into the distance or at the sky." (Vann 2017) I am assuming that the association of the stones with pastoralist and their animals would have been based upon some idea such as the stones with holes are hitching posts to tie the animals up to. The prehistoric stargazing is certainly destined to be a much more popular theory at the present time given current enthusiasm and overemphasis on archaeoastronomy.

Zorats Karer (Karahunj),,
Public domain.

"In recent years, to the dismay of local scientists, the monoliths have garnered the interest of the international community after some pre-emptive research emerged drawing comparisons between the astronomical implications of Zorats Karer and that of the famous Stonehenge monument in England. Many touristic outlets responded to the comparison by branding Zorats Karer colloquially as the 'Armenian Stongehenge' and the resulting debate between the scientific community and popular culture has been a fierce one." (Vann 2017)

Close-up view of a drilled stone,,
Public domain.

The problem in the archaeoastronomical interpretation comes with identifying the holes in the stones as sights for viewing. If you are close enough to a 2" hole to see much at all though it your field of view is going to be 20 to 30 degrees wide, not a very precise measuring tool. I have also been unable to find any reports that mention holes in adjacent rocks lining up which would have actually been a much more precise sighting device. In the photo above you can see a monolith through the hole as if they were a rifle's peep sight and front sight, but they line up on the distant hillside, not anything on the horizon or sky. Obviously not a marker.

View through a drilled stone,,
Public domain.

"In 1994, Zorats Karer was extensively analyzed by Professor Paris Herouni, a member of the Armenian National Academy of Science and President of the Radio Physics Research Institute in Yerevan. His expeditions revealed a great deal of fascinating information about the site. First of all, his team counted 223 stones, of which 84 were found to have holes." (Klimczak 2016) (the holes are, however, especially fascinating.)

Map of Zorats Karer,
Public domain.

Klimczak continued that "a number of researchers concluded that the monument is at least 7,500-years-old, but possibly much more. It is believed to have been created for ritual reasons and the need to understand the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. The people who created (it) connected their beliefs with the early science of astronomy. it seems that the main functions of the observatory, which was also a temple, were to serve in the cult of the Sun god of early Armenians, to provide protection through cultivating the Armenian god of science, to serve as a school, and to function as an observatory." (Klimczak 2016)

In other words, we don't have any idea exactly what Zorats Karer was intended for. Also, none of the reports I have been able to find explain how the daring was arrived at. Probably, as in so many other cases, the uses changed over time with the beliefs and interests of the inhabitants of the area, and maybe all of the suggestions have a germ of truth in them. In any case, it looks like an absolutely fascinating site, and deserves much more study. The truth must be in there somewhere.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet after 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 originals at the sites listed below.


Klimczak, Natalia
2016 Armenian Stonehenge: Incredible History of the 7,500-Year-Old Observatory of Zorats Karer,

Vann, Karen
2017 Unraveling the Mystery of the "Armenian Stonehenge",

Saturday, September 30, 2017


Chusang hand-and-footprint
site, Tibet, photo Wall Street
Journal, Public Domain.

On August 13, 2016, I wrote in this column "Highest Altitude Rock Art Revisited - Yet Again" about a rock art site in Tibet at approx. 15,600 feet in altitude above sea level. I have not yet been able to top that, but we now have heard of a Tibetan site with foot-and-hand-prints at 14,000 feet in altitude, a good second.

"human handprint preserved in
the soft limestone at the 14,000-
foot-high site of Chusang in central
Tibet was left there more than
7,000 years ago." (Coates 2017:42) 
Photo: Wall Street Journal,
Public Domain.

Published in the September/October 2017 issue of Archaeology magazine (volume 70, number 5) pages 38-43, by Karen Coates, The Heights We Go To, discussed a site in Tibet with both foot and hand prints at that altitude. It seems remarkable that people were there as long ago as 7,000 years, not that they could not have gone there back then, but I wonder why they would?

Coates was reporting on research by Mark Aldenderfer of the University of California, Merced. "Aldederfer  and several of his colleagues created a stir in early 2017 when they announced that they had evidence of preagricultural hunter-gatherers living in a permanent settlement system on the central Tibetan Plateau at least 7,400 years ago - thousands of years earlier than researchers had previously thought. That research centers on a site called Chusang, about 215 miles from Lhasa, at an elevation of 14,000 feet. There, 19 human hand-and footprints are embedded in a unique formation of travertine limestone created in the remains of ancient hot springs. No artifacts were found nearby, just the markings of up to six individuals who were at that site millennia ago." (Coates 2017:41)

The Tibetan examples of extreme altitude rock art testify to something very basic in humanity that can drive or inspire people to the most impressive results. You can read the whole article in the September/October issue of Archaeology magazine listed in REFERENCES below.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet after 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 originals at the sites listed below.


Coates, Karen,
2015 The Heights We Go To, Archaeology Magazine, Vol. 70, No. 5, September/October 2017, pages 38-43.

Faris, Peter
2016 Highest Altitude Rock Art Revisited - Yet Again,, August 13, 2016.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


Newspaper Rock, Indian Creek, 
San Juan County, UT. Photo 
Sherman Spear, 1966.

One of the joys in the study of rock art is the moment of recognition, that eureka moment in which you believe you have identified something that had been unidentified before. Located in the Canyon Rims Recreation Area next to Canyonlands, San Juan County, Utah, is Newspaper Rock, a pre-and-proto-historic palimpsest of petroglyphs millennia in the making. Imagery has been accumulating on this rock from the Archaic period down to the historic, and near the bottom to the right of center on this rock is a small petroglyph of a bird. The bird stands upright, has a plump body, long legs with big feet, and a bill of medium length.

Newspaper Rock, Indian Creek, 
San Juan County, UT. Photo 
Sherman Spear, 1966.

In looking at the birds of Utah, my candidate for the closest fit to these characteristics would be the killdeer.

Newspaper Rock, Indian Creek, 
San Juan County, UT. Photo 
Sherman Spear, 1966.

"Killdeer are a type of plover, similar to the snowy plovers that nest along the shores of the Great Salt Lake. The killdeer, however, is well at home in dry upland habitats.
Killdeer nest on open ground, digging just a shallow scrape in the soil. Gravel roads are often ideal nesting habitat because killdeer eggs blend in very well with nearby pebbles. The spotted eggs and young hatchlings are very cryptic, invisible to the eye even when they are underfoot. This dangerous breeding strategy can often lead to trampled nests. Or, if a predator has a good sense of smell, the eggs and young are easily eaten." (Larese-Casanova)

Kildeer, Public domain.

To protect its nest the killdeer uses the famous broken-wing trick to distract any predator that comes too close to the nest, leading the predator off far enough, and then takes flight taunting the predator with its call. (Larese-Casanova)

Although nominally a shore bird the killdeer is also found in dry areas throughout the West, this it could well be possible that the creator of this image had models available locally. Indeed, it has been proposed that during wetter climactic eras the dry gullies of the Canyonlands region were also riparian habitats and killdeers would have been natural inhabitants of that environment as well. So the killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) is my nominee for the identity of the bird on Newspaper Rock - Eureka. 


Mark Larese-Casanova,

Saturday, September 16, 2017


La Cieneguilla, New Mexico.
Photograph Peter Faris,
August 24, 2017.

On August 23, 2017, we drove down to Santa Fe for a few days to see long-time friends, do some museums, and eat good food. On the 24th we drove out to La Cieneguilla with Jeannie Gibson to look at some rock art on the side.

La Cieneguilla, New Mexico.
Photograph Peter Faris,
August 24, 2017.

La Cieneguilla rock art is located on a mesa above the Santa Fe River southwest of Santa Fe, past the airport. "Most of the petroglyphs were placed there by Keresan-speaking puebloan people living in the area between the 13th and 17th centuries. The descendants of these people now live down the Santa Fe River along the Rio Grande at Cochiti and Santo Domingo pueblos." (

La Cieneguilla, New Mexico.
Photograph Pat Price,
December 1991.

This site is home to a considerable amount of Rio Grande Style rock art with the common Rio Grande themes such as stars, flute players, insects, plants, and birds etc. As an easily accessible location it should be on any rock art student's bucket list.

La Cieneguilla, New Mexico.
Photograph Pat Price,
December 1991.

And while you are in the Santa Fe area try the carne adovada at The Horseman's Haven in Santa Fe, or at Soccorro's or El Paragua in Española. Go for the rock art, stay for the food and culture. A truly magical part of our country.


Saturday, September 9, 2017


Uffington White Horse, England.
Photograph Wikipedia,
Public Domain.

One uncommon type of geoglyph is known as a chalk figure. These are found in few locations because they can only be created under special conditions. In southeastern England areas where the topsoil overlays chalk or white limestone they are most common, and are primarily created by cutting away the layer of vegetation and topsoil on a hillside to expose the white rock underneath.

The oldest known chalk figure is the Uffington Horse in the county of Oxfordshire. "Documents as early as the eleventh century refer to the "White Horse Hill" at Uffington ("mons albi equi"), and archaeological work has dated the Uffington White Horse to the Bronze Age." (Wikipedia)

Measuring 110 meters long, it is archaeologically dated to the Late Bronze or Iron Age at 1380-550 B.C. Many archaeologists believe that it was originally created as a sign of ownership of the area by a local group, although University of Southampton archaeologist Joshua Pollard disagrees. "Both the form and the setting of the site led Pollard to
conclude that the White Horse was originally created as a depiction of a "solar horse," a creature found in the mythology of many ancient Indo-European cultures. These people believed that the sun either rode a horse or was drawn by one in a chariot across the sky." (Powell 2017:9)

The secret to its longevity is that local people have maintained the figure. "Over time, though its original purpose was lost, local people have maintained a connection with the White Horse that ensured its continued existence. "If it weren't maintained, the White Horse would be overgrown and disappear in about 20 years," says Andrew Foley, a ranger with the National Trust, which oversees the site. Historical records indicate the local community has long geld regular festivals devoted to maintaining the site. In 1854, some 30,000 people attended. Now, each summer, a few hundred local volunteers week the white horse and then crush fresh chalk on top of it so that it keeps the same brilliant white appearance it has had for 3,000 years." (Powell 2017:10)

This may be the origin of the custom of many college towns in the United States of creating a giant letter on a hillside with rocks and annually repainting it white with the labor of fraternity pledges, the football team, or freshman volunteers. On October 1, 2016, I posted Hillside Initials As Modern Geoglyphs about a number of these modern geoglyphs.

I think that too much attention is paid to the form of the Uffington Horse which is admittedly quite abstract. Given an age of 3,397-2,567 years, the Uffington Horse must have been renewed many hundreds of times, with no precise measuring tools, and only volunteer labor. If shapes and lines moved only a fraction of an inch during each renewal the original shape must have been altered considerably by now, so speculating based upon its appearance is bound to be unproductive. Better we appreciate it for what it is, a special example of people's relationship with their land, and caring for its historical features.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet in 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 originals at the sites listed below.


Powell, Eric A.,

2017 White Horse Of The Sun, Archaeology Magazine, Vol. 70, No. 5., September/October 2017, p. 9-10.

Saturday, September 2, 2017


Photograph Becky Green Bowman,
August 21, 2012, Knoxville,

We were lucky enough to reach a location (Wheatlands, Wyoming) to view the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse in totality. I will omit any whining about the traffic, and the price gouging for motel rooms, and will focus on the ideas that came out of
observing this amazing phenomenon.

August 21, 2017 eclipse in partial
phase, the moon's encroachment on
the Sun is not visible. Photograph
Peter Faris, August 21, 2017.

One lesson that was immediately apparent as we watched the eclipse proceed was that the old wife's tale about explorers saving their lives from primitive natives by correctly predicting an eclipse must be totally untrue. As the moon proceeded to cover the sun the appearance of the sun did not vary. The world got dimmer, and cooler, but the brilliance of the remaining portion of the sun made it impossible to see a bright disk being consumed by the dark moon. The sun remained an unbearably bright light in the sky up until literally just a moment before totality. The process of a "sky monster" eating the sun could not, I repeat could not, have been viewed without proper eclipse filters.

I also believe that this would apply to eclipse mythology such as this.
"To the Vikings thought that an eclipse occurred, when a pack of wolves chased the sun across the sky and then captured the celestial orb. Meanwhile in Vietnam, it was a giant frog that devoured our nearest star. And in the Pacific Northwest, the Pomo Indians rationalized that the culprit was a giant bear. Even in ancient China, people believed that a giant dragon was the cause of the sun's demise." (

Photograph by Becky Green
Bowman, August 21, 2017,
Knoxville, Tennessee.

As was observable during the August 21, 2017 total eclipse, you do not see any sort of diminishing crescent during a solar eclipse, indeed you do not see anything removed from the disc of the sun until it is literally in the "diamond ring" phase of the eclipse immediately followed by the blackened disc of totality.

Pinhole projection of partial eclipse.
Photograph Peter Faris, May 20, 2012.

In order to see the bite being taken out of the sun you either need proper eclipse filters, or you need to use the pinhole camera technique to project its image on a white surface.

This realization should be applied to any rock art identified as a representation of an eclipse. If it shows a crescent it is probably not an eclipse, because the creator of the rock art would not have seen a crescent when observing the eclipse supposedly being pictured.

Raftopolis Ranch, Moffat County,
Colorado. Photograph Peter Faris,
September 1987.

Pecos rock art, Texas. 
Photograph Teresa Weedin.

On February 9, 2013, I posted a column titled A Possible Total Eclipse Of The Sun In Rock Art, showing a petroglyph from northwestern Colorado which shows the sun as a disc surrounded with triangular prominences or flames. This was followed on February 23, 2013, with another posting titled Another Possible Solar Eclipse Symbol In Rock Art about my identification of the Zia Sun Symbol as a possible representation of a total solar eclipse. Both of these cases show a symbol that can be interpreted as the totality stage of a solar eclipse. A definite disc surrounded by rays or prominances.

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
Public Domain.

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
Public Domain.

A widely reported recent example of a petroglyph from Chaco Canyon which supposedly illustrates a solar eclipse does indeed show rays or prominences (flames?) around its edges, but it lacks the circle defining the blackened interior of the sun obscured by the moon. For this reason, while I accept it as a possible sun symbol, I certainly cannot accept it as an illustration of an eclipse. To my thinking it just does not fit all the criteria to illustrate a total eclipse.


Faris, Peter
2013 A Possible Total Eclipse Of The Sun In Rock Art, February 9,

2013 Another Possible Solar Eclipse Symbol In Rock Art, February 23,