Portable Rock Art, Face Effigies, and Stone Artifacts

Artsology's interest in the topic of rock art started way back in 2004, when I posted this feature on rock art, more specifically, a look at the differences between pictographs and petroglyphs. The first photograph on that page, along with this one below left - are my own photographs, taken while on a trip to the Southwest in 1993. I was taking both 35mm color and black and white photographs on that trip, and I'm pretty sure these pictures are from Horseshoe Canyon in the Canyonlands.

At any rate, after posting that feature on rock art, I started receiving emails from people who wanted to share the rock art that they had found in various parts of the United States. The picture below right came from a woman who found it in Tennessee, and after posting her story, more emails came in, more pictures, more stories, where now it is a steady stream of people telling me about their rock art finds.

You can find all of the related blog posts by clicking on the keyword tags at the bottom of each post, so for example, everything tagged "rock art" can be found here, and everything tagged "face effigy" can be found here.

So then, what is the purpose of this page? Let me explain ... scroll down to read more.

A Note to Readers: If you have pictures of rock art and stories about where you found it that you would like to share on Artsology, please e-mail both pictures and stories to us here.
* Please note: I can't guarantee that I can post everything, because I get a lot of submissions, but I'm certainly open to hearing from you. Please be patient for a response - the amount of emails coming in is quite subtantial.

Rock art seen in the Canyonlands in Utah and a portable rock art face effigy

First off, let me clarify that most of what gets sent to me can typically be called "portable rock art," and I'm not talking about more pictographs or petroglyphs like what I shared above left. I'm talking about rocks that can be held in the hand, and one definition of portable rock art is: human made markings or carvings on natural rock or stone that is of a size that can be carried or moved. It is often said that rock art of this variety likely had magical and or religious significance to prehistoric people.

With that being said, the one common thought that people who find these rocks tend to share with me is their belief that these portable rock art pieces are Native American artifacts. However, in all of the reading and art books related to Native American Indian art that I've seen to date, I've never seen anything like what people have sent (see below for two examples) that relate to any Native American art forms. What I mean by this is that if one is trying to identify or tie these to a particular group of people, whether it's Cheyanne, Pueblo, Apache, or other, I just haven't seen it in my research. My gut feeling is that if these rock art finds that people share with Artsology are indeed something that have been altered by a human hand, they're probably much older, like tens of thousands of years. If I'm wrong on this, please contact me and share your knowledge so that I can be corrected. My goal here is to put out accurate information, and I'm doing the best I can to find some for the people looking at the rock art blog posts on the site.

Rock art face effigy with an eye and nose and overall head shape

Abstract rock art face effigy

Over the years, the most common story told by the people finding these rock art pieces is when they share them with others, they are told that they are crazy, or that it's just pareidolia, or that it's "just a rock." While I have to admit that some of the pictures I get sent are very hard to distinguish what the sender is describing, the truth is that I've heard the same story so many times that I have come to the conclusion that there must be more to this, and I want to better understand it. When people send me their rock art finds, I tell them "I'm not a rock art expert, and I can't tell you anything definite about what you have, but I'll share it on the blog and hope that someone else will provide more information." That's still my basic answer, but this page will be the beginning of some more formal research in order to help us all better understand what all these people are finding and sharing.

For those who say "it's just a rock," one interesting explanation is as follows: some of these portable rock art pieces contain micro-etchings that can easily be confused with natural lines, layers or patterns in rocks. Furthermore, the idea that one is just "seeing faces in rocks," just like one might see animals in cloud forms or shadows that resemble something, is countered by the suggestion that ancient people might have had reasons to manipulate these rocks in a way that contemporary society - with academic concepts of archeology, anthropology and art history - might simply not understand, especially coming from a time period where written language may not have accompanied the making of these these things? In other words, how do we know what's going through the mind of a person who hunts woolly mammoths by day and sits around the fire at night? I'm not suggesting this is the case for any of these found stones, but am trying to open my mind to what might be, since I honestly don't know. Speaking of woolly mammoths, I read something that explained that the hunters would steer them into trap pits, and after using as much of the killed animal as they wanted or needed, they arranged the bones in deliberate ways that suggests certain rites or rituals. If I can wrap my head around that idea, that certainly one could possibly accept the idea of the same people making small marks in stones that also might relate to rites and rituals.

Below is an example of portable rock art sent to me by people who saw my Artsology Blog coverage of rock art and face effigies. As you can see on the second photo, Faces in the Stone even included some drawings to help explain how he was interpreting the visuals of this stone. Whether you agree or disagree with what he's seeing - and I'm not passing judgment either for or against what he's seeing - I respect the passion and attention to detail and the search for understanding.

Portable rock art face with a drawing provided by the finder of this stone

A little more on the definition and explanation of portable rock art: it is believed that these are a global phenomenon, and while most of the submissions that I've received here have been from locations in the United States, I've also received pictures and testimonials from a guy in the south of France who has collected similar stones there. When one considers that the oldest known stone-age tools are over 3 million years old, and have been found throughout the world, it would certainly suggest that these same people might have created these portable rock art pieces. The artistic and cognitive abilities of prehistoric people might be underestimated, and these artifacts might be a method of communication, storytelling, or simply an expression of their surroundings.

I think this video, by the Rock Art Museum in New Brunswick, Canada, has some excellent explanations that can augment what I've shared above. It's also interesting to see so many similar images in this video that relate directly to what people have been finding and sharing with Artsology.

Here's some other reference material for your consideration:

Smithsonian article on portable rock art found in Ice Age Indonesian Cave

Wikipedia entry on Portable Art

Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory article on Native American Effigies

Lastly, a National Geographic story (not linked due to not having a subscription) suggests that the oldest rock art in North America may be 14,800 years old, with ancient symbols found etched on the side of boulders found on a dried-out lake in Nevada.

I will continue to share rock art stories and examples of portable rock art pictures on the Artsology Blog, and I encourage you to read those posts and check the comments sections for more testimonials from people who have shared their stories but not always pictures of their rock art finds. This topic has taken on a life of its own and I hope to learn more going forward and hope you'll enjoy reading more as well!

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