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The Rock-Art of Eastern North America: Capturing Images and Insight
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The Rock-Art of Eastern North America: Capturing Images and Insight

by Carol Diaz-Granados (Editor)

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Showcases the wealth of new research on sacred imagery found in 12 states and 4 Canadian provinces.

In archaeology, rock-art—any long-lasting marking made on a natural surface—is similar to material culture (pottery and tools) because it provides a record of human activity and ideology at that site. Petroglyphs, pictographs, and dendroglyphs


Showcases the wealth of new research on sacred imagery found in 12 states and 4 Canadian provinces.

In archaeology, rock-art—any long-lasting marking made on a natural surface—is similar to material culture (pottery and tools) because it provides a record of human activity and ideology at that site. Petroglyphs, pictographs, and dendroglyphs (tree carvings) have been discovered and recorded throughout the eastern woodlands of North America on boulders, bluffs, and trees, in caves and in rock shelters. These cultural remnants scattered on the landscape can tell us much about the belief systems of the inhabitants that left them behind.

The Rock-Art of Eastern North America brings together 20 papers from recent research at sites in eastern North America, where humidity and the actions of weather, including acid rain, can be very damaging over time. Contributors to this volume range from professional archaeologists and art historians to avocational archaeologists, including a surgeon, a lawyer, two photographers, and an aerospace engineer. They present information, drawings, and photographs of sites ranging from the Seven Sacred Stones in Iowa to the Bald Friar Petroglyphs of Maryland and from the Lincoln Rise Site in Tennessee to the Nisula Site in Quebec.

Discussions of the significance of artist gender, the relationship of rock-art to mortuary caves, and the suggestive link to the peopling of the continent are particularly notable contributions. Discussions include the history, ethnography, recording methods, dating, and analysis of the subject sites and integrate these with the known archaeological data.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"More than simply mapping and describing rock art sites found throughout Eastern North America, this milestone study also focuses upon interpreting their functions within the societies that produced them. . . . Essential."

"A welcomed addition to the growing literature on the interpretation of prehistoric and historic rock-art. . . . (It) is a thoughtful and solid scientific introduction into the sacred landscape of Native America."
Arkansas Review

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University of Alabama Press
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The Rock-Art of Eastern North America

Capturing Images and Insight


Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5096-3

Chapter One

Native American Dendroglyphs of the Eastern Woodlands Fred E. Coy, Jr.

The term rock-art was popularized with the publication of Campbell Grant's book Rock Art of the American Indian (1992 [1967]). The term is now generally accepted for the study of pictographs and petroglyphs left on nonportable rock surfaces by our so-called preliterate ancestors. Charles Faulkner (1986) and others added mudglyphs to the rock-art vocabulary in 1986 with the reports of their discoveries in the caves of Tennessee. I would like to suggest that "dendroglyphs," paintings and carvings on trees, should also be included within the lexicon of rock-art. This form of picture writing on trees, although less durable, was probably the most frequent form of non-portable intercommunication used by the Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands. As far as I can determine the word dendroglyph was coined and first used by R. Etheridge, Jr. (1918:1), director and curator of the Australian Museum in Sydney. The word dendroglyph is composed of two words from the Greek, dendron, "tree," and glyphe, "carving"; ergo, a dendroglyph is a carving on a tree. In this chapter I will broaden this abit and define dendroglyph as a carving or a painting on a tree.

It appears that the frequency of reported rock-art diminishes as one progresses from the west to the east in the United States. This is especially true of pictographs in the Ohio River basin and the Northeast Woodlands. For example, fewer than two dozen pictograph sites have been reported in the entire northeast segment of the United States (Hedden 1996:8-9; Holmes 1890; Mallery 1893:121-122; Redmond 1997; Swauger 1984; Wagner and McCorvie 2001). The number of petroglyph sites reported east of the Mississippi is estimated at fewer than 300.

In the Eastern Woodlands, suitable exposed rock surfaces often were not conveniently available for painting and engraving. When adequate stone surfaces were found and used, the moist climatic conditions were conducive to surface degradation, blunting the carvings and eventually obliterating paintings. The vegetative overgrowth further obscured and eroded the rock, adding to the deterioration. A general indifference to the subject has been another explanation for the lack of reported rock-art sites in the northeast. Almost 40 years ago, when I was initially becoming interested in the field of rock-art, I wrote to Dr. James B. Griffin, dean of eastern United States archaeology (1905-1997), requesting information on petroglyphs. He returned my letter with "I know nothing about petroglyphs" penciled on the bottom. There has been a concerted effort to explore rock-art in the East only during recent years. Having said the above, I would like to proceed on the premise that the preponderance of picture writing on nonportable surfaces done by the northeast Native Americans was more often executed on trees rather than on rocks.

A few years ago when searching the literature for historical reports of rock-art in Kentucky I came across several references to paintings on trees. Place names such as Paintsville (Rennick 1984:225) and Paint Lick (Rennick 1984:225; Scalf 1972:122-124) were so named because of the paintings on trees found there by the early settlers. From the number of references to tree paintings and carvings found in the publications of Garrick Mallery (1886, 1893) and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1851-1857: vols. from 1851 and 1855) it was apparent that carving and painting messages on trees was a common practice by Native Americans. However, this was not, and is not, limited to the Native American. We have all seen the "John loves Mary" type of carvings on trees in our parks. Early explorers carved their names on trees. The Filson Club Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky, has on display in its museum a section of a beech tree that was removed from one of the Louisville parks. Inscribed in the bark of this tree is "D Boone kilt a bar 1803."

The Native Americans used markings on trees to convey a variety of messages; they included directions for trails and campsites, deeds of accomplishment, warnings, identifications-about the same information as one would find along the highways today. The earliest reference to messages on trees is found in an unidentified illustration in Joseph Francois Lafitau's Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of the First Times (1724:plate III). The carving of messages on trees by native populations and others continues to the present (Blackstock 2001; Stein 1991).

Mohawk Chief Hendrick was an early Native American figure associated with dendroglyphs (frontispiece). Hendrick was born about 1680 and became an important Mohawk sachem or chief. In 1710 he was taken with three other chiefs to England to meet Queen Anne. While there, he was dressed in court costume and his portrait was painted. The English referred to him as "King Hendrick." During the French and Indian War, Hendrick joined forces with the British. Before the battle of Lake George, the aging Hendrick, comparing his small band of Mohawks with the larger force of the French and their Indian allies, made the now famous statement, "If they [his warriors] are to fight they are too few; if they are to die, they are too many." He did engage the enemy the next day and was killed, but the British won the battle (Josephy 1961:200, 1994:52, 252-253).


George Henry Loskiel, a Russian-born bishop of the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Moravian Church, wrote a detailed account of the marking of trees by the Indians for recording deeds and other information.

Their hieroglyphics are characteristic figures, which are more frequently painted upon trees than cut in stone. They are intended, either to caution against danger, to mark a place of safety, to direct the wanderer into the right path, to record a remarkable transaction, or to commemorate the deeds and achievements of their celebrated heroes, and are as intelligible to them as a written account is to us. For this purpose, they generally [choose] a tall well-grown tree, standing upon an eminence, and peeling the bark on one side, scrape the wood until it becomes white and clean. They then draw with ruddle, the figure of the hero whose exploits they wish to celebrate, clad in his armor, and at his feet as many men with heads or arms as fell by his own hand. These drawings may last above fifty years, and it is a great consolation to the dying warrior, that his glorious deeds will be preserved so long, for the admiration and imitation of posterity. As every Indian understands their meaning, a traveler cannot gratify the feelings of his Indian guides in a more acceptable manner, than by stopping to examine monuments of this kind, and attending patiently to their extravagant accounts of the powers of their warriors. But they are frequently so ridiculous and improbable, that it is a matter of surprise, how they should be able to invent such unaccountable fictions. The warriors sometimes paint their own deeds and adventures; for instance, the number of prisoners or scalps taken; the number of troops they commanded, and such as fell in battle. Other paintings point out the places, where a company of Indians have been hunting, showing the nights they spent there, the number of deer, bears, &c. killed during the hunt, &c. [Loskiel 1794:25].

Archer Butler Hulbert and William Nathaniel Schwarze (1910:114) edited the 1779-1780 manuscript written in German by the Moravian missionary David Zeisberger. The original manuscript is preserved in the Moravian Archives at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (Vernon H. Nelson, Archivist, personal communication, 1998). Zeisberger gives a brief description of the information that would be recorded on trees by a party of Indians: "If a party of Indians have spent a night in the woods, it may be easily known, not only by the structure of their sleeping huts but also by their marks on the trees, to what tribe they belong. For they always leave a mark behind made either with red pigment or charcoal. Such marks are understood by the Indians who know how to read their meaning."

Historian William Elsey Connelley, recounting the Indian captivity of Mrs. Jennie Wiley, described the area around Little Mud Lick and Paint Creek where she was held for a time:

When Johnson County, Kentucky was first settled there were found along the Indian trail from the mouth of Mudlick Creek to the mouth of Big Paint Creek occasional trees which had been stripped of their bark from the ground to a considerable height, sometimes as far up as thirty feet. Often a tree had the bark stripped from but one side, which made a dry hard surface on that side of the tree, while the other side still lived and preserved the tree. Trees thus treated were found all along the trail, but at some points there would be found groups of them all of which had been so denuded. The smooth surface thus provided was covered by the Indians with outline figures of animals and birds, put on with a tenacious and lasting paint of two colors only-black and red [Connelley 1910:110-112].

John P. Hale wrote of the painted trees in eastern Kentucky:

The La Visee, or Levisa, fork, as commonly called, or Louisa, as sometimes erroneously called, is said to mean the picture, design, or representation. It was so called by an early French Explorer in the region, from Indian pictures or signs, painted on trees, near the head of the stream. The present name of Paint Creek comes from painted trees, blazed and stained with red ochrous earth, by the Indians, to mark their early trail. It is also said that at a point of crossing of trails, near the head of the creek, returning raiding parties used to record on the trees, in this red paint, the number of scalps taken, and other important events in characters understood by them [Hale 1886:47, 50].

Garrick Mallery (1893:347) excerpted a quote from "the curious manuscript of Gideon Lincecum," written with Roman characters in the Choctaw language about 1818 and referring to the ancient customs of that tribe:

They had a significant and very ingenious method of marking the stakes so that each iksa could know its place as soon as they saw the stake that had been set up for them. Every clan has a name, which was known to all the rest. It was a species of heraldry, each iksa having its coat of arms. The iksas all took the name of some animal-buffalo, panther, dog, terrapin, any race of animals-and a little picture of whatever it might be, sketched on a blazed tree or stake, indicated the clan to which it belonged. They could mark a tree when they were about to leave camp, in their traveling or hunting excursions, with a set of hieroglyphs, that any other set of hunters or travelers who might pass that way could read, telling what iksa they belonged to, how long they had remained at that camp, how many there were in the company, if any were sick or dead, and if they had been successful or otherwise in the hunt. Thus, drawn very neatly on a peeled tree near the camp, a terrapin; five men marching in a row, with bows ready strung in their hands, large packs on their backs, and one man behind, no pack, bow unstrung; one circle, half circle, and six short marks in front of the half circle; below, a bear's head, a buffalo head, and the head of an antelope. The reading is, "Terrapin iksa, 6 men in company, one sick; successful hunt in killing bear, buffalo, and antelope; that they remained at camp a moon and a half and six days, and that they have gone home."

Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan, a mid-nineteenth-century physician practicing medicine in Albany, New York, was a well-published historian of the area. In volume one of his four-volume The Documentary History of the State of New York (O'Callaghan 1849), he included a section on the Nine Iroquois Tribes describing the information that the Iroquois posted on trees.

When they go to war, and wish to inform those of the party who may pass their path, they make a representation of the animal of their tribe, with a hatchet in his dexter paw; sometimes a sabre or a club [Figure 1.1]; and if there be a number of tribes together of the same party, each draws the animal of his tribe, and their number, all on a tree from which they remove the bark. The animal of the tribe which heads the expedition is always the foremost. On their return, if they have prisoners or scalps, they paint the animal of the tribe to which they belong, rampant, (debout) with a staff on the shoulder along which are strung the scalps they may have, and in the same number. After the animal are the prisoners they have made, with a chichicois, (or gourd filled with beans which rattle), in the right hand. If they be women, they represent them with a Cadenette or queue and a waistcloth. If there be several tribes in the war party, each paints the animal of his tribe with the scalps and prisoners it has made, as before, but always after that which is head of the party. When they have scalps they give them to one or two men who suspend them behind them to their girdle. These men who carry these scalps follow the others at a distance, that is to say, at a quarter of a league, because they pretend that when they retreat and have scalps, if these precede the others they cannot march any further because they are seized with terror at the sight of the dripping blood. But this is only the first day, sometimes the second and third when they are pursued. When they have lost any men on the field of battle they paint the men with the legs in the air, and without heads and in the same number as they have lost; and to denote the tribe to which they belonged, they paint the animal of the tribe of the deceased on its back, the paws in the air, and if it be the chief of the party that is dead, the animal is without the head. If there be only wounded, they paint a broken gun which however is connected with the stock, or even an arrow, and to denote where they have been wounded, they paint the animal of the tribe to which the wounded belong with an arrow piercing the part in which the wound is located; and if it be a gunshot they make the mark of the ball on the body of a different color. If they have sick, and are obliged to carry them, they paint litters (boyards) of the same number as the sick, because they carry only one on each litter.


A. [Figure 1.2 shows these lettered drawings] This is a person returning from war who has taken a prisoner, killed a man and a woman whose scalps hang from the end of a stick that he carries.

B. The prisoner.

C. Chichicois (or gourd), which he holds in the hand.

D. [letter missing] These are cords attached to his neck, arms and girdle.

E. This is the scalp of a man, what is joined on one side is the scalp-lock.

F. This is the scalp of a woman; they paint it with the hair thin.

G. Council of war between the tribe of the Bear and that of the Beaver; they are brothers.

H. A Bear.

I. A Beaver.

L. [letter missing] Is a belt which he holds in his paws to avenge the death of some one and he is conferring about it with his brother, the Beaver.

K. Council for affairs of state.

M. The Bear.

N. [letter missing] The Council fire.

O. The Tortoise; so of the other tribes, each ranges at its own side.


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