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The Fountain Bluff Site
Located on the north end of Fountain Bluff, this site is a case study that illustrates just about everything that can go wrong with a petroglyph site. Since this is the Bluff's most easily accessible and best known site it's the most visited... and also the most vandalized. And since it's on private property with absentee owners it's also the least protected. Initials are scratched into the rocks surrounding - and even on - the petroglyphs. Fires have been built directly under some of them. Broken glass litters the ground and the petroglyphs themselves exhibit damage due to chalking, charcoal-ing, and misguided attempts to "preserve" them. But in spite of all of its mistreatment the petroglyphs remain and it's still one of the outstanding and interesting attractions of the area.
This site was only discovered in 1954 when a brush fire burned away the enshrouding vegetation and unexpectedly revealed a large rock shelter housing a collection of petroglyphs and pictographs.
Irvin Peithman, a local archaeologist, recruited a number of boy scouts and members of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity who spent a weekend clearing away the brush and constructing a rude trail to the site. When they were finished Peithman gave his approval for the fraternity to carve their name and date in the center of the shelter to commemorate their participation - an unfortunate precendent. Since then others have added their own inscriptions. The carved hand print below the date is prehistoric, although it's been chalked. Peithman had a genuine love for the area and its prehistoric inhabitants but he made at least two serious blunders at this site and this was one of them.
The petroglyphs are located in a large but relatively shallow rock shelter approximately 75 feet wide and perhaps half that in height. The cliff that forms the shelter towers another hundred feet straight up. The petroglyphs are scattered all over the shelter but seem to concentrate in two major groups at the eastern and western ends of the shelter.
The Eastern Group
In the eastern group the most eye- catching images are two animals usually interpreted as a deer and a dog/wolf facing a Quartered Circle design. While the Quartered Circle was a common element in Indian rock art throughout North America it was especially favored by the Mississippian culture which flourished between 850 and 1500 AD in the river valleys of this area and the southeastern US.
Historic tribes using this symbol and presumed to descend from Mississippian forbears use it to symbolize many things - among them: deity or god-head, the sun, the cosmic divisions of the world and the Sacred Fire. Below the figure on the right is carved a circle that appears to be contemporaneous with the other carvings. The pockmarking on the figure on the left is partially the result of bullet holes.
When originally found these two creatures and the Quartered Circle between them showed faded traces of red paint. Mr. Peithman - in a totally misguided and incomprehensible attempt to "preserve" them - painted over them with blue and yellow housepaint. While the housepaint flaked off after only a few years it managed to take the original pigment with it.
Immediately east of the Sun-Sign animals are carvings of what appear to be birds flying around two unidentifiable creatures evidently caught in love's fleeting embrace. In Mississippian cosmology birds were sacred animals carrying messages to the warm lands of the Overworld ruled by the sun and are invariably linked with the sun and sky. These birds are usually interpreted as eagles and the interpreters may be correct. However the two images above the lowest bird seem to be more akin to turkeys, or perhaps they're hawk impersonators.
An interesting note on this group is that while the images aren't deeply carved they're free of the algae and lichen that stains the surrounding rock green. This is believed to be evidence of now- vanished paint which somehow suppresses plant growth within the petroglyphs since there is no evidence of scouring the images by visitors.
The final group of images on this eastern panel consist of two creatures: an obvious human hand on the left and something considerably less obvious - though I suspect it's another bird. Note the hole in the center of the palm.
This is another diagnostic Mississippian symbol: the Eye-in-the-Hand. This symbol, too, is believed to be representative of deity/godhead and is solar (and therefore Overworld) in origin. This motif is more easily recognized on pottery and shell artifacts since the detail possible is far greater those media.
This symbol is also encountered at the Whetstone Shelter site - an observatory of the Winter Solstice - where it is quite common. (See Archive - Ancient Astronomy).
The Western Group
At the far western edge of the site more bird images are found, along with the ubiquitous Quartered Circle on the lower right, as well as the ever-present initials and scratches this site is blessed with. These western bird images are more stylized than those on the east.
Just east of the western bird images and almost at ground level are these two. The one on the right appears to be a human form, or perhaps a human morphing into a bird. The other is what is termed an Ogee - which gives it a name but hardly explains what it is. While it's difficult to see in the photo, this Ogee (like most) has a depression in the center. Were it tilted ninety degrees it would appear to be an eye, however Ogees are always placed in the position seen here. Some authorities see them as symbolic vulvas, others as "weeping eyes". But whatever they are, this is the only one at this site.
This photo is a close-up of what I think are probably the most interesting images at this site. Located roughly in the middle of the western panel they seem to represent astronomical objects - the crescent moon on the left and a starburst design on the right, separated by a square with radiating corner lines. Of all the images on the bluff these seem most obviously astronomical.
Similar radiating squares are located just east of this group. One interpretation of these radiating squares says they represent animal hides stretched for drying - and they might. But their association with sky motifs (a bird image is just out of camera range on the left) and the previous photo's moon and "starburst" seem to me to indicate otherwise. The Quartered Circle in the lower left is a recent "improvement" left by another thoughtless visitor. The figure eight lying on its side below and to the right of the squares is unique to this site and the only one known on the bluff.
Large boulders also litter the site - apparently resulting from breakdown of the roof and bluff - and on these are found other images.
This Quartered Circle is probably the best preserved of the four that appear at this site. It's located on the large boulder immediately under the fraternity symbol at the site's center.
This image of the Quartered Circle didn't fare as well. Located at breast height on a horizontal bedrock outcrop it was apparently too tempting for some witless fool to resist.
On the back of a large breakdown block on the eastern side of the shelter is this row of human figures ... and parts thereof. These figures don't seem to match the rest of the petroglyphs at this site - they're hidden from direct view for one thing and seem to be done in a different style - and so may not be Mississippian.
Which just goes to show the difficulties inherent in investigating rock art sites. Some sites (including possibly this one) were used over long periods of time by several different cultures with different mythologies and beliefs and for different purposes. Since we have only the dimmest notions of their differing belief systems, and almost no idea of their mythologies, interpretation becomes problematical if not impossible...
And finally we have what may be an example of what some authors call "Bedrock Mortars" and what others call "Hominy Holes"... or it might just be a natural erosional feature of the rock. These depressions were (apparently) used for ritual purposes at community gatherings - at least that's the opinion of some. Others believe they were used to grind corn, sunflower or marshelder seeds, or nuts into meal. I've seen natural erosional features similar to this elsewhere on the bluff, but none so perfectly hemispherical as this except at one other place - and that was just below the Trestle Hollow site. Hmmmmmmmmm.
While no absolute method exists for dating petroglyphs nearly all the symbols and motifs at this site appear to be Mississippian in origin. Based on astronomically determined dates for two other Mississippian sites on the Bluff that share similar styles of carving and identical motifs they were probably carved sometime between 1000 and 1250 AD.
Please bear in mind
Petroglyphs and pictographs are some of the most enigmatic, compelling and fragile remains our pre-Columbian forbears left behind - we know that these were messages of some kind and even the most casual observers find themselves trying to decipher them. . They're also the most vulnerable. These images are at least twice the age of our own civilization and can be erased in the blink of an eye by thoughtless, ignorant or malicious individuals. Should you choose to visit any petroglyph site refrain from touching the images or "adding" anything to the site. Take nothing but photographs - leave nothing but footprints. And should you stumble over a site while hiking please notify this website. We'll see that the proper authorities are notified so that it can be identified, registered and studied.
Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung. All Rights reserved