16 December 2013

"Natural-looking" portable rock art precludes scientific examination despite earlier success at demonstrating human agency and deliberate incorporation of natural features

Artifact from Kostenki I site, Don River valley Russia
Source: Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1970), pp. 129-136

An object from Seneca County, Ohio, on display in the "Field Finds" contest case at the recent state wide meeting of the Archaeological Society of Ohio had some striking similarities to the artifact pictured above from Russia. It was labeled "See the face? (It's a joke)." I explained to the finder that it may not be a joke, that he might have an example of an intentionally worked stone. When I told him the two nostrils and mouth appeared to have been added (carved) into the stone he mentioned that someone else at the meeting had made the very same observations and comments to him. I provided my card and he indicated he would email some photos of the object but they have not yet arrived.

I received a note last week from a blog reader and it raises an important issue. The "natural looking" aspect of much of the suspected portable rock art identified by amateurs does seem to lead to prompt dismissal of claims of artificiality and precludes qualified scientific examination of the material.

"Hello Ken,

I regularly watch your updates, and this is very interesting reading your articles. In some cases, like in the last post, I have my doubts about  human modification of the stone. Of course I do not know how this rock behaves, is it soft, or is it hard, but from what I see it looks so natural and not at all carved.

In such case, I would not say it has no meaning for anthropogenic origins such as being a brought in stone (manuport), but the modification by humans I can either detect on the surface of this stone ( how would you make eyes on  hard surface? Using a pointed stone, it must be very small, carving of stones usual have been found back on stone types like lydite and sandstones)...

At the Oregon pebble I do not see any differences in the natural bending lines at the surface and the eyes/ mouth. If there would exist a possibility to carve such small pebbles / small stones, I am very interested in how they did it. Has this been done by experiments?

Maybe I just look wrong and cannot see the right technique. In my own observations of man-made modification, there is usually always a difference in the starting material and the modificated part, i.e. the surface looks different ( more dull, more smooth or more shiny, etc...). I am wondering why this is not the case on the presented rock art pieces.

- but this would not indicate the piece could not have been recognised as a man-s face and served as a manuport... ( to my opinion)

Meanwhile I continue with the search for Palaeolithic artifacts and besides of the recognition of some archaeologists in France, this  is also a subject of discussion. But so is archaeology, which makes it very interesting...!

With my regards,

Jimmy"

I am not able to answer all of Jimmy's questions as I often ask the same questions myself. The claim of "carving" of the stone in the last posting is made based on the assessment of the finder and then myself based on our experience with suspected worked art material, the context of the find, its possible expression of a known portable rock art motif (one eye-open, other eye shut or missing) and possible use of a small stone inclusion as the right "eye" which is seen in other suspected examples. It is a sum of our personally developed knowledge based on amateur field experience and the work of many others who have been investigating this subject in Europe and the U.S. for many years.

On this blog I am calling for scientific scrutiny of these similar observations of amateurs, including myself, to generate interest that might bring needed expertise and resources to suspected portable rock art art objects. I have not attempted experiments to duplicate the exact art technologies because they are not known and not accepted as legitimate and I'm a rather poor artist. I think microscopic work must be completed to prove the phenomena exists, it needs to be found in situ, duplicated in situ, then artisans and replicators might determine the lithic materials and techniques used in production of iconic portable rock art. Flintknapper Bob Doyle of Maine has does some art duplication in the "old world" style in chert material.

Here is some work which may inform amateurs and professionals alike on this important topic. From the paper "Polyikonic Sculpture from the Upper Paleolithic Site of Kostenki I."


"...in a series of cases, a surface which appeared to us untouched or natural, in actuality had traces of human handiwork (incisions and scratches) on it."
Source: Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1970), p. 136


Flint and crystal rabbit figure found by Ken Johnston at Flint Ridge, Ohio, was thought to be a geofact by a university lithics specialist but was recognized as an artifact by a top flint knapper very familiar with the Vanport Formation of chert there.

Two iconic flint objects I identified from Licking County, Ohio, were inspected by a senior archaeological lithics technician at a United States university. She determined they were not intentionally worked by humans but were the coincidental result of the chaotic forces of nature. When I showed the same two objects to Mr. Chris MiIller (Ohio) who to my understanding is regarded as a "Top 5" flint knapper in the world, he confirmed both were indeed artifacts and proceeded to explain how he made that determination. Mr. Miller said he and others who search for knappable quality chert at Flint Ridge, Ohio, were well aware of figures of "caribou, rabbits and people" which could be found in unnatural numbers on the ridge. I have learned to give more weight to expertise like Chris's than to the typical university lab.

There is strong desire among archaeologists, both amateur and professional, for portable rock art to be and look the way they expect it to be, or the way they think it should be. In a science, such personal bias and preferences must be dropped. Under proper and needed scrutiny, the suspect material itself will tell us how it came to be. Art is in the eye of the beholder and we are not the beholders of this ancient art. We are merely given these rare opportunities to have a small glimpse into the material life of Stone Age peoples and when we demand it be like the art we already know, we miss this entire supra-class of artifacts which can tell more about the lives of ancient peoples than anything else which remains to be found of them.

The "Oregon carved pebble" in the last posting and many others are available for further investigation. If intended iconography were to be confirmed on a quarter dollar sized pebble from Irrigon, Oregon, it might open a can of worms for North American Archaeology. It's time for those more brave and less squeamish to tackle this line of inquiry with the expertise and resources it deserves. Until then, amateurs will continue making and sharing their observations.

Source for images seen here:
Polyikonic Sculpture from the Upper Paleolithic Site of Kostenki I
Author(s): E. E. Fradkin and Richard G. Klein
Source: Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1970), pp. 129-136
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40315747 .

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(PLEASE SEE 3 RECEIVED COMMENTS)

4 comments:

  1. Hi Ken and Jimmy...

    Ken, many thanks for unearthing that 1970 Russian publication! When I first stumbled upon the Figure Stones at 33GU218 back in 2003, I quickly thereafter discovered to my amazement that Europeans had being seeing the same kind of stuff for some time. But those were avocationals, and it's fascinating that Russian professionals had even earlier recognized and documented the phenomenon in situ, right down to the combined zoomorphic and anthropomorphic imagery. Apparently this did not receive wide attention. (Incidentally, Kostenki is not in Siberia, but in eastern Europe near the city of Voronezh.) I'm still hypothesizing that the production of Figure Stones migrated from Europe to North America via Siberia, quite likely originating elsewhere. (As you know, the things do appear in Siberia.) I hope I might sometime have the opportunity to poke around for the stuff in Africa. (In 2006 I did bring back such artifacts from Australia - some professionally verified as artifactual - bearing the same distinctive motifs and iconographic subcomponents.)

    It's hard to tell from the photo, and I could be quite wrong, but I think the side of the Kostenki marl piece (highly malleable material) interpreted as a lion profile may be a bear (a very common motif) with a sharply delineated open mouth from which a stylized ("smiley"-like) human face emerges frontally. (This is a likewise common motif in which the small face more commonly appears in profile.) Mac Poole in North Carolina recently sent me a possibly metamorphosed sandstone bear head with this same frontal image in its mouth. And last year I found a volcanic scoria stone in Dominica with a quite distinct frontal face emerging from the mouth of a nondescript (quasi-human?) creature. (I haven't yet photographed these pieces yet - alas far behind in what I should be doing.) To see some stones exhibiting this theme take a look at http://www.daysknob.com/Creature_from_Mouth.htm .

    Jimmy brings up a very good point, one I discussed briefly with Robert Bednarik here in Ohio last spring. Presenting Figure Stones of material like flint (smooth-surfaced, anyway) and quartz as "carved" is bad for our credibility, given the extreme difficulty of producing small high-resolution imagery in such hard material. (Softer inclusions in flint is another matter - I've seen probable artificial modification in this. And there are many quartz Figure Stones in the southeastern US, I think produced by bipolar reduction and subsequent direct percussion.) Stones like the Oregon find in question are best presented as possible manuports, given its likely natural anthropomorphic appearance (depending largely on context with other "cultural" material). Quite a few of these have appeared at 33GU218, where flint is not part of the local geomorphology.

    (Oops - too many words for this dumb-ass blog software. Continued in following comment.)

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  2. Regarding replicative experimentation with flint, several years ago Richard Wilson (Watford, England) quite successfully (documented with photos) deepened a natural shallow indentation in a smooth flint pebble using a pointed flint piece along with quartz sand and saliva. It can be done! And most assuredly our ancient predecessors, as full-time stone workers, could have done it when they wanted to. Indentations in at least one of the anthropormorphic flint manuports at 33GU218 have the appearance, under the 3D microscope, of possibly having been formed in the manner of Richard's experiment. (Again, I have not photographed this - must do.)

    Ken, you are quite right in calling for professional/scientific examination of this material, but expecting this of mainstream archaeologists in the current intellectual climate is wishful thinking. Aside from the lack of incentive (not to mention peer pressure), very few archaeologists have more than a very superficial understanding of geology and petrology. For a case in point, follow this link to my recent foray into a professional archaeologists' forum: http://archaeologyfieldwork.com/AFW/Message/Topic/30027/Discussion/artifact-or-geofact

    Regards, Alan Day

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  3. Hi Alan and Ken and other readers,
    This open discussion could be worth full for the discussion on portable rock-art. Of course portable rock- art has been recognized, but even when it wasn't it remains interesting in asking questions about the technical possibilities of carving or modification of stone rocks ( especially transformation into more complex figures). In my opinion, there are limits to this, determined by the raw materials, such as quartz, flint and chert. Flint and chert is more tough than steel and modification of the surface is impossible, the only way to make modifications is through the well- known reduction strategy and afterwards, at the most a secondary retouch is possible. The same for quartz and most quartzites, this is also too hard to carve, So modifications always remain possible e.g. changing the form of sharpened edges ( with notches) or the shape of the rock by battering it ( écaillée). Where nature makes geofacts presenting well -identifiable objects like faces, mammoths, bisons etc they coudl have brought in camps as manuports. Modification of quartz , quartzite, sandstone, lydite etc. into a rock art object still is a possibility, but the technical limits should be should always be taken into consideration. The same for questions about the anthropogenic origins of a portable rock art stone object which always should be part of the attitude to look at these stones, which are not only often very difficult to understand ( interpretation) but also difficult to examine in the technical part. At least for several rock art artifacts presented here I think it is impossible to produce them , so they should be interpret as geofacts. Still the attention for these objects is a very good case. So maybe in the future there will hopefully be more attention for such objects.

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