The Rock Art of the Blood of the Ancestors Grotto

Lenville J. Stelle

Parkland College
Champaign, Illinois

© 2006, 2008 by the Center For Social Research, Parkland College



I. Methodology:
Imaging the Pictographs

The paper presented at the
71st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology
San Juan, Puerto Rico
April 2006
was abstracted from the following discussion.


In March of 2005, while conducting a rock shelter survey in conjunction with the Shawnee National Forest, I had the uncommon archaeological experience of discovering an undocumented rock art site. Rock art in Illinois is rare. Of the more than 52,000 sites in our site files fewer than 100 include prehistoric rock art. Of these fewer than ten are either primarily or exclusively pictographic. Exploring a rugged little canyon, observing several intriguing rock shelters, and then finally a relatively robust water fall , I sensed that we had stumbled upon a special place. When I then noted a pool of a very thick, red slurry issuing from a block fault proximate to the base of the water fall, I felt that we were in a space that the ancients would have considered sacred.

I returned in May of 2005 with a field crew (1 , 2 ) and instrumentation that would afford proper documentation (Plan View , East-West Profile , North-South Profile ).

Located within a rather robust physiographic expression of the Hill Section of southern Illinois, the mile and a half long canyon was apparently never timbered. Formally designated a natural area by the Shawnee National Forest we find here remnant expressions of the oak-hickory forest that dominated the region until well into the historic period. The microenvironment of the Grotto's immediate locale suggests a more easterly mesophytic association that is reflected in the measurable expression of both sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and the royal fern (Osmunda regalis).

A Natural History of the Imaging Methodology
Employed at 11SA557

Our overall methodology for capturing the cultural information displayed on the walls of the Grotto involved several distinct phases and procedures: (1) a photo reconnaissance, (2) an "observe and sketch" pencil and paper drawing, (3) a complete and detailed still image collection of all bedrock surfaces in the Grotto, (4) photomicrographs of the pigment, and (5) video captures. We would observe that for purposes of detailed analytical investigation, emulsion technology is now part of an archaeological past. Digital images are required. It is our hope to offer a relatively simple, direct, and cost effective system of pictograph documentation.

A. The first operation was the digital reconnaissance. Of the many available cameras that could have been selected, our personal choice was a five megapixel, point and shoot, weather resistant Olympus Stylus 500. As all who have ever conducted rock shelter or cave surveys in eastern North America can attest, at certain times of the year these physiographic features can be quite wet. Indeed, such was the case in March 2005. A compact, point and shoot, weather resistant camera was required. The Olympus is light, quick, and very water resistant. The current study involved the capturing of 233 images with this camera.

However, the photo reconnaissance extends beyond the application of light, fast, and durable hardware. Once images are collected we recommend an analytical reconnaissance as well. Bringing the images into the industry standard software for photo manipulation, Adobe's Photoshop CS2, we played with color without preexisting cognitive constraint and with a willingness to explore the full range of possible colorization. For instance returning to the earlier photo note what happens when I convert the image to PSD format, the color space to CMYK at 16 bites per channel, and then create an image by manipulating hue, saturation, lightness, and color balance. The product was a false color image that provided very useful insights into what was occurring in the panel. We had clearly identified elements that were not available to the unaided eye. Such discoveries drove our final image collection strategy

The image quality of the Olympus was more than adequate for providing basic documentation and allowing for the development of a refined image collection strategy. However, the critical limitations of these images were that they could be no more than five megapixels in depth and must be in JPEG format. Allow me to illustrate the differences between the image depth of the Olympus and the dSLR that we would later employ by examining a small section of the Thunderer's left wing at a maximum Photoshop zoom of 1600X. The two images reference the same section of the wall. While a direct comparison is complex, the slide hopefully illustrates the significant difference in detail and color information extant between the two imaging systems.

B. The second step in our imaging methodology involved the production of a scaled, "observe and sketch" document. My strategy was to have one of my more advanced students, one that had some training in drawing technique, create such a sketch. I had two goals: first I was interested in what an informed observer could "see" of the art based upon a couple of hours' observation, and second I had correctly judged my need for a document addressing the general layout and composition of the wall art. As predicted she was only able to identify (N=14) a third of what we would later find using the cameras. While I fully realize that a more skilled and experienced observer (for instance, I found 23 elements) with more than two hours to study the subject area would undoubtedly have found and resolved more elements, I think her experience provides some informal measure of what is visible to the human eye. Indeed, I should point out that she actually recognized icons that I had failed to differentiate. Regarding my second goal of documenting general layout, the sketch proved very handy in maintaining my spatial orientation during later image manipulations. I would conclude by observing that I generally find pen and paper illustrations of prehistoric iconography to be dissatisfying. I always leave the drawing asking myself the question, "Yeah, but what was actually on the wall? How much of the illustration is artistic reconstruction and how much is truly wall applied pigment?" With this issue in mind and fully cognizant of the important reasons behind pen and paper illustration, let us now turn to my preferred way of capturing pictographs.

C. The third stage of our data image collection methodology involved a systematic still photographic imaging of all exposed bed rock surfaces. These images constitute our primary digital data set and include 514 frames. To date, this data set has allowed the identification of 46 discrete, prehistoric, iconographic expressions. Some of the icons are simple but many more are compound. The two fold increase in our information base, relative to that which was observed with the naked eye, is significant. I would like to describe our procedures in some detail.

The goals of this work were both simple and few in number: visual acuity and replicability. First we needed to be able to "see" the art element. At least in this context, the color contrast between the wall and the applied pigment was frequently very low, thereby making visual distinctions difficult. Secondly, we wanted to minimize interpreting the now compromised original art and thereby maximize the interobserver reliability of our data set. We wanted to address as best as we possibly could the reality of the pigment on the wall and the element thereby created. What we did not want to do is "help" the pictograph. Hopefully, we employed digital imaging techniques that other researchers could replicate and thereby discover the same cultural residues.

The instrument we selected for this work, the Canon Rebel XT, is a relatively high-performance digital SLR with an 8.0 megapixel CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) sensor and DIGIC II Image Processor. An admittedly crude comparison of the camera to the human eye would note that the human eye has three million color receptors (cones) while the CMOS provides 7,962,624. Simply stated, the camera provides more than two and a half times as many receptors.

Insofar as Canon and others produce much more expensive ($6,000 to $7,000) and presumably powerful dSLR's, we must point out that the quality of the images could be improved simply by purchasing the more expensive equipment. Nevertheless, as an experiment in what was possible with the current generation of cameras falling within a reasonable price range, we opted for the Rebel XT digital.

The collection and manipulation of the systematic still image data set necessitated the application of two discrete methodologies: the first for image collection and the second for image rendering. I would like to review each of them in some detail.

Protocols of Image Collection: The protocols for image collection involved eight discrete requirements.

1. All pictures were taken at ISO 200 with a EF-S 18-55 mm lens. An exception occurred when we employed a Canon EF-S 60 mm macro lens for documenting such extremely small expressions as the pecking. Nominal parameter settings included noise reduction off; auto white balance mode on; contrast, sharpness, and color saturation set at +1 (medium high); and color tone set at zero (normal). The camera recorded in standard color space (sRGB).

2. All images were collected in camera RAW format and were 3456 x 2304 pixels in linear dimension. Exact file sizes were dependent on the subject, ISO speed, processing parameters, etc..

3. Because we needed to measure, document, and describe the colors of both the art and the lithic background, the decision was made to employ Munsell Color Charts as the color scale. Their presence in the frame also facilitated later color manipulations. In my judgment none of these goals could have been achieved using the International Federation of Rock Art Organization's Standard Scale. While it is very cool and quite prestigious, it would not have solved my color issues. In fairness, had the art been polychromatic, I might have felt differently.

4. A 15 cm white plastic scale (Carolina Biological Supply, price $0.50) was attached to the rear of the Munsell color page using double sided tape. It provided metrical information, a high contrast region of the composition useful as a point of focus, and a mechanism for correcting white balance. I wanted to have a capability of making accurate measurements within the image to at least the closest half-millimeter. One of the technical problems in working in low light, low contrast environments is achieving correct focus. We hoped to be able to rely on the Canon's six sensors and the Auto Focus function. We hoped also to facilitate the camera's auto focus process by giving it a helpful, high contrast place to look. Lastly, correcting white balance is arguably the single most important operation in achieving accurate color temperature and therefore, renderings.

I should here point out that there was an exception to the use of both the color scale and the metric scale. When using the macro lens both were abandoned: the color scale because it was entirely too large for the composition and the metric scale because we could not determine how to employ it without having physical contact with the pictograph. While the application of scalar devices is standard drill, we have not yet satisfactorily solved these issues in this context.

5. The rules of methodological invasiveness were several but simple. One, at no time would anyone have direct physical contact with the walls of the Grotto. Two, when inside of the Grotto the student would wear latex gloves at all times in order to protect rock surfaces should one inadvertently violate rule one (for instance, stumble climbing around a tripod). Three, do as much imaging as possible with available light and, if it is inadequate, then use only the camera's small built-in flash. Lastly, because of the very limited interior space, no more than three people were to be inside the Grotto at one time.

6. While it is axiomatic in modern photography that "light is everything" we opted against the offer by one of my students to use her, "big, honkin' flash attachment." We remain uncertain about the potential negative consequence this type of light source might have on the pigment. To the extent that we are currently unable to estimate what fraction of the pigment owes its coloration to residues of iron-eating bacteria, we deemed it appropriate to error on the side of conservatism and employ only a minimum amount of artificial light.

7. We attempted to maintain some consistency in our distance from the subject so that areal dimensions and perhaps more importantly pixel densities might remain constant.

8. When possible a tripod was employed. Unfortunately, the elevations and exposure angles of the wall images often made this impossible.

Protocols of Image Manipulation: The protocols for the rendering of the images involved several additional considerations.

The first of these centered on downloading the captured images and creating the archival data set: I used Canon's software program Digital Photo Professional, ver.1.6 (bundled with the camera) to download and convert files from Canon's proprietary CR2 camera RAW format to Tagged Image File Format. The resulting TIFF files were in an image mode of RGB color at 16 bits per channel and with an output resolution of 2000 dpi. These files are typically 46 megabytes in size

The archival image data set profits by the inclusion of both the RAW images and the initial TIFF conversion images. The metadata (date, lens, camera settings, etc.) stored as part of these files is extensive and complete. Currently the SA557 project includes some 51 gigabytes of archival image data. Given current technologies of data storage, we would recommend that the archival images be burned on DVD's. In its current iteration the basic archival data set is arrayed over 15 DVD's. Our recommendation is that the backup should occur as soon as the RAW images are downloaded and converted to TIFF's and before the camera's memory storage device is erased.

The second consideration in the rendering of the captured images centered on their actual processing. For this task I employed Adobe Photoshop CS2. I do not consider myself particularly competent with Photoshop, indeed given its incredible power, the learning curve seems very steep. I am sure that one of you in the audience will come up after the session and advise me of a better or more efficient way of managing the work flow. However, after some considerable experimentation, a generic protocol was derived that involved several discrete steps. While there was also the realization that no one technique would likely be appropriate to all images, the basic process involved ten operational steps.

1. Open TIFF image (RGB color and 16 bits/channel), create a new layer, and save file under a new name.

2. Using the Lasso tool select a region of the picture for modification. The initial strategy had been to simply select a specific hue, value, and chroma combination from the included page of the Munsell Color Chart for manipulation. We thought that by selecting particular color chips and converting them to our default dark red replacement color a record of color manipulation could be maintained. While this was to an extent both true and useful, there were problems. One of the problems with this approach was that there was so much naturally included iron oxide in the sandstone walls that our attempt to tease out iconographic expressions remained compromised. We decided that after exploring a frame, better visual acuity could be achieved by only working with spatial subsets that evidenced cultural modification. One of the things that we discovered was that Photoshop CS2 provides much great tonal sensitivity than the Munsell Charts provide. After some experimentation we decided to color pick the pigment of a particular art element and then proceed with the color replacement. Small deposits of pigment only visible to the human eye at what was commonly 800 magnifications could consequently be efficiently located and modified.

3. Zoom the selected area to the point of pixelization.

4. Using the Eyedropper tool, set for either a Point Sample (one pixel) or a three by three sample, click on a glob of pigment inside the area that you have lassoed. This color now becomes the foreground color.

5. Using the Eyedropper tool, click on the background color symbol, and then click on the dark red (red 157) of the color swatches. Red 157 now becomes the replacement color of the pigment.

6. From the drop-down Select menu, click on "Color Range."

7. From this screen I first set the preview to gray scale and then address the issue of the fuzziness value. While a lower value is generally better, some experimentation with the current image may be required. The fuzziness option controls the degree to which related colors are included in the selection and as such is the operation for separating the pigment from the background. Fuzziness determines the color range of the pixels to be transformed.

8. From the drop-down Edit menu click on "Fill." From the associated pop-up, select "Background Color." Lastly click on "OK." Color replacement will now be achieved. Observe the transformation to the shamanic image as we go from "before" to "after." Note, for instance, how much more distinct are the power balls emanating from the shaman's left hand and their path.

9. Deselect and Save the file.

10. Steps 2 through 9 may have to be repeated several times in order to achieve satisfactory output. In general, we advise an incremental approach rather than all at once.

Allow me to emphasize that one of the special capabilities of high density digital images is the ability to work with eroded and weathered art. Having more information available and being able to massage the image affords the opportunity to discover that which is lost. In panels such as the one illustrated it is probably useful to begin the image analysis by selecting a glob of pigment and then doing a conversion for the entire surface captured in the photograph. Subsequently, one can perhaps tease out existing patterns of color and then go back to the original image for a final section by section work up. However, even digital imaging can't replace what is missing. Indeed filling in the blanks or connecting the dots is what we are trying to avoid. The conundrum is then to decide the conditions under which connecting the dots and filling in the missing pigment becomes appropriate. I would advise that we always inform the reader of when such decisions have been made with regard to a specific image and why. I guess that we don't necessarily avoid an interpretative component in our renderings but we are more specific in our differentiation of "their" art from "our" art.

In conclusion our basic problem was how to make the cultural expression more visible to the human eye. The problem was exacerbated by both the color similarities between the artistic application and bedrock wall and the weathering of the original images. Simply stated our goal was to locate the glob of pigment and convert it to a contrasting color that a human might better resolve it. We did not add to what was on the wall, we only rendered that which was present more visible. The achievement of these modifications obviously necessitated digital images and digital image manipulations. We think that the two offered protocols provide a viable solution.

Before we leave this discussion of the creation of the basic image data set, I would draw the listener's attention to four special imaging problems that were encountered.

The first of these was the issue of layered and sequenced art. Some of the art, for instance the seven disks, demonstrate sequencing. These seven elements indicate at least four episodes of activity. The first episode would have involved the application of a whitish pigment likely in the geometry of what we can today see. The source of this pigment is unknown. It is the only place within the Grotto where it is found. A second episode involved the application of the red pigment over the white. The third modification (shown in black) involved micro-pecking or perhaps the use of an intermediate chisel-like tool to create curving, sometimes bounding, petroglyphs. Lastly, the defined disks were robustly struck (shown in blue) leaving relatively large, cratered areas of petroglyphic modification.

The second problem was that of documenting the activity of lichens and mosses (entry anthropomorph and close-up in right circle under arm of anthropomorph). While we have been able to document the negative impact that lichens have had on the art, no immediate solution is forth coming. We cannot see through the lichen. Indeed this condition is in no sense unique to the SA557. One observation that we can offer however, is that people of the past were apparently willing to reapply icons over sheet inundations of lichen. The result may be a particularly unstable vertical series of lichen laminations. In fact the organic component of the iron-rich pigment may lend itself to lichen growth.

The third issue centered on how to capture variations in light intensities created by the entry of sunlight into the Grotto. After it became apparent that sunlight was going to move across the face of Walls A1 and A2, photo documentation was necessitated. The technical problems were of (1) high contrast, (2) movement, and (3) at winter solstice, low contrasts. While we feel that we were able to achieve baseline documentation, clearly, more work needs to be done.

The final special imaging problem concerned the creation of a panoramic view (400 kb file or 2 meg file). While such images are not likely to be the ones employed for detailed analysis of the art, they do serve the useful functions of providing the holistic overview and providing quantifiable information regarding spatial relationships between the elements of a panel or panels themselves. Honestly our technique was fairly simple. Maintaining a constant distance and elevation from the wall segment being documented (which, because the Grotto's walls are irregular and curved, is not exactly possible) and including the metrical scaling device so that in later manipulations scale could be corrected, we shot a complete series of overlapping images. The images were subsequently integrated within Photoshop to create a shingled, panoramic view. Two unresolved and perhaps unanswerable difficulties were lighting and camera angles. These two factors produced the rather abrupt transitions between discrete photo margins that you can observe in the stitched composite.

D. Returning to our discussion of the natural history of our imaging methodology brings us to the fourth procedure, namely that of microphotography. While the pigment, as evaluated by examination of specimens collected from the Pool of the Blood of the Ancestors, was presumed to be hydrologic in nature, a further analysis reveals that it may be primarily biogenic. Using a Reichert Microstar IV microscope connected to a digital photomicrographic system consisting of an Olympus 750 camera and the ATI Multimedia Center software, we were able to identify significant quantities of the chemolithotrophic bacterium Gallionella ferruginea. Gallionella ferruginea oxidizes dissolved iron. The iron is transformed into the insoluble precipitate ferric hydroxide [Fe(OH)3], or what we observe as the red pigment. If the red paint of the pictographs was sourced from the Pool, as we believe it to have been, then the paint may fractionally contain large quantities of bacterial residue. The prospect of each pictograph containing measurable amounts of organic carbon is both significant and intriguing.

E. The last step in our methodology involved an exploration of video imagining and ought correctly be considered a video reconnaissance. Frankly, video was an afterthought, but the Olympus camera provides this capability, albeit of very low quality. However, having viewed the image we created, we think that it can provide both archival and operational utility. Certainly, video provides a mechanism for documenting the space in not just a flattened, two dimensional panoramic perspective, but in a full three dimensional perspective. Indeed, it affords a forth dimension, time, as well as a second sensory channel, sound. We think that it has considerable potential. Video would be particularly useful in providing a holistic overview of a cultural expression like the Grotto. It would not replace still photography for the generation of the basic analytical data set, but three dimensionality and sound are definitely interesting avenues for further research.

Conclusions and Limitations

In conclusion we hope that we have been able to offer a relatively simple, direct, and cost effective system of pictograph documentation.

Importantly, I should observe that we are yet learning. With more experience I am sure that the quality and informational potential of our images will improve. For instance I was disappointed in the consistency of the image focus afforded by the Canon automatic focus function. While poorly focused images did not substantively affect the nature of the current work, it is an area about which improvement can be made.

Lastly, our exploratory investigation of 11SA557 has obviated a simple fact: much of the rock art extant within the Grotto was unavailable to the unaided eye and to traditional techniques of pictograph recording and processing. Our protocols afforded a two fold increase in what could be seen and recovered. The instrumental techniques employed in this study, when applied to archaeologically known rock art sites, would likely yield substantial increases in our knowledge of these most interesting cultural expressions of the past.

II. Description of Biophysical Environment and Some Initial Interpretations

The paper presented at the
72nd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology
Austin, Texas
April 2007
was abstracted from the following discussion.


We offer this paper with a considerable amount of fear and trepidation. The interpretation of prehistoric iconography is fraught with unspeakable intellectual dangers. As George Herbert Mead (1934: 47, 71-72, 268-269) indicated nearly a century ago, significant symbols have an arbitrary meaning conventionalized to the members of a specific society. If the society is dead and no recognizable cognitive bridges survive, then by definition, the meaning of the icon is lost. The best that can be offered is empirically non-falsifiable statements of meaning. Some relief from this derived cultural fact is the insight that arrived with the demonstration that rock art was not randomly distributed over the landscape. In the Midwest over the past quarter century, the articulation of rock art sites with elements of the natural environment has become a consistent methodological strategy (i.e., Swauger 1984: 256; Coy, et al. 1997: 25; Diaz-Granados and Duncan 2000: 49-62; Wagner et al. 2000:188-190; Fortier 1995: 96). Our presentation today will limit its focus to SA557's (S2-Plan View) biophysical context with but a pinch of ethnobotany tossed in for purposes of leavening.

As we embarked on this interpretative adventure, I was reminded of Patricia Galloway's (1998) searing indictment of Late Prehistoric Southeastern archaeology. In a short article entitled "Where Have All the Menstrual Huts Gone" she accuses archaeologists of the Southeast (and I would expand this to the entire eastern half of North America) of failing to archaeologically identify what 51 percent of the population was doing 20 percent of the time. She was right. Perhaps what we offer here can be viewed as a step in the direction of correcting past oversights. When I examine the rock art literature for the Eastern Woodlands I find little systematic attention directed at female qualities of the artists, the art, or the ethnographic analogies so commonly employed in the art's interpretation. Generally the ethnographic data attest to what Buckley and Gottlieb (1988) have labeled "blood magic." The literature provides abundant examples of both prescribed and proscribed behaviors, often ritualized, that were culturally ordained to provide spiritual protections from the biological fact of menstruation (Wallace and Steen 1972: 38; Waugh 1916: 21, 59, 131; Shimony 1961: 216-218; Vecsey 1983: 130-131; Dorsey 1940: 93-97). Indeed, I was reminded of surviving aspects of this concern during our work at the site, when my male Native American students and guests inquired if any of my female members of the crew were in their "Moon time" and where they were in their "lunar cycle." When I got past the shocking quality of the interrogative to my middle class standards and could respond, they observed they needed to know prior to initiating certain ceremonial activities. Blood magic is "…powerful, you know, we must be careful." But we find little literature addressing where and how the knowledge of blood magic was transferred from generation to generation. Perhaps pictograph sites that entail symbolic menses being finger applied to the walls of a vulva shaped opening into Mother Earth signifies a place where such transfers were achieved. But I get ahead of myself.

Interpreting the Pictographs

Initial impressions of the art focused on images both visible and familiar. As we have discussed elsewhere (Stelle 2005, 2006a, 2006b; Sadler 2005), much of the art was not available to the naked eye, but that which was visible evidenced stylistic attributes common to regional Mississippian through Early Historic contexts. For instance, 11 of the 58 motifs receiving focused attention in Diaz-Granados and Duncan's (2000:92-100) monumental study of the rock art of Missouri were observed. Examples would include: (S9-Composite) thunders, shamanic images, deer tracks, circles, vulvar image, hand, anthropomorphs, star, and lines of dots. We felt comfortable with the conclusion that while the grotto contained obvious Euro-American graffiti there was also iconography from earlier times. We were looking at the real thing.

Beyond similarities of stylistic attribute and the issue of authenticity lies the imputation of meaning. The strongest evidentiary line to the interpretations of the icons of the Grotto must necessarily be the site's remarkable biophysical context. Several of its attributes are compelling. It is a description of these attributes along with a small admixture of ethnobotanical data that constitutes the foundation of our presentation.

11SA557 is situated in a locale that we in Midwestern archaeology would consider to have been a sacred precinct for the ancients. For, as the Ojibwa elder and Methodist missionary Peter Jones (1861: 85) observed in the first half of the nineteenth century, "Any remarkable features in natural scenery…become objects of superstitious dread and veneration, from the idea that they are the abodes of [spirits]: for instance, curious trees, rocks, islands, mountains, caves, and waterfalls." There is here a waterfall wrapped by openings into the earth (S10). Many studies from the region have illustrated the importance of such locations and the high frequency of associated rock art (Wagner et al. 1999: 179; Wagner et al. 2000: 188-190; Diaz-Granados and Duncan 2000: 20-27).

Surface Water and Falls

The intermittent and unnamed stream lying proximate to the Grotto helps drain the western face of an eastward sloping cuesta. Water levels, of course, vary but the falls can be active even as the stream becomes buried below its canyon's mouth. At SA557 the stream cascades down a two tiered falls of approximately three meters height and two meters width.

Ground Water

The single most distinctive physical feature of the site beyond the earth-openings and the falls is our so-called "pool of blood" expressed in the meter's distance separating the Grotto and the base of the falls (S11-Detail of Blood). While we initially thought of the "blood" as chemolithiotrophic in origin, we now know otherwise (cf. Diaz-Granados 2000: 104-105). Here we have a permanent source of ground water with the distinctive chemical properties of being (1) anoxic, (2) neutral to slightly acid, and (3) rich in dissolved iron. This very narrow environmental niche supports iron eating bacteria to include Gallionella ferruginea (S12-F_BAG pool1b_40x). Gallionella ferruginea oxidizes iron dissolved in groundwater. The iron is transformed into the insoluble precipitate ferric hydroxide [Fe(OH)3], or the pigment in what we observe as a thick, reddish-orange slurry. While further instrumental study is planned, at this point in time we believe that the "pool" provided the paint employed in the creation of the icons. The technique of application, with but three exceptions, was, presumably, that of daubing one's fingers into the pool and then applying the material to the lithic canvas.

Important also to our understandings of SA557 however, are the small springs feeding the creek for a distance of approximately 60 meters above the falls (S13-Upper creek bact colonies). The ground water can be observed bubbling through the surface soils and issuing from fissures in the bed rock (S14-Bubbling spring with bact). Seasonally this ground water will also be anoxic, rich in iron, and neutral to slightly acid (S15-Bacterial colonies in creek). The consequence is a micro environment favorable to colonization by the iron eating bacteria just described. What happens here is that during an annual cycle, the creek itself will turn to an orangish-red color. Indeed, observe our waterfall at winter solstice (S16-Bloody falls). Ground water specialists at the Illinois State Water Survey and the Illinois State Geological Survey suggest that this phenomenon likely has an annual cycle and is a manifestation of groundwater reservoir levels (personal communication, H. Allen Wehrmann, Senior Hydrologist and Director, Center for Groundwater Science, Illinois State Water Survey 2006). At this point let me simply state that while the pool of "blood" seems always present, it is only, so far as we have been able to document, during the season of the winter solstice that the springs flow and the stream "turns to blood."

Lithic Context

The exposed bedrock of the locale is the upper boundary of the Pennsylvanian age Pounds Sandstone Member (Caseyville Formation). On one side of the falls we have the Grotto and on the other a rather typical, medium sized rock shelter (S17-Excavating test unit). While rock art was only identified in the Grotto, the proximity of the shelter was intriguing. We were able to demonstrate an acoustical and visual bridge that would have allowed the shelter to function as a listening and viewing area for rituals performed within the Grotto.


Further extending our connection to the female, a particular plant grows from and in association with the pool and the springs. The Royal fern (Osmunda regalis) can be seen growing in the pool (S18-May pool_Osmunda). Indeed in a slightly extended view, the phytogeography of the plant is co-terminal with the afore described anoxic springs (S19-Osmunda range). An even cursory examination of the ethnobotanical literature for the Eastern Woodlands reveals that this plant, as well as other ferns occupying similar niches, were frequently employed as a remedy for "female disorders." It is well documented, for instance, among the Six Nations of the Iroquois (Herrick 1977: 260; Shimony 1994: 218). Huron Smith indicates in his ethnobotanies of the Forest Potowotmi and the Minomini that the Lady fern (Athyrium filix-famina) and the Maidenhair fern (Asplenium trichomanes) were both similarly employed. Maidenhair fern was also exploited by both the Ojibwa (Hilger 1951: 92) and the Cherokee (Hamel and Chiltoskey 1975: 34) for such conditions as "breast diseases", "acrid humors", and "irregular menses." Our thought is that several different varieties of fern, observed by indigenous peoples growing in the context of iron eating bacteria like Gallionella ferruginea, were thought to have useful medicinal properties for issues of menstruation. While these plants can grow in what might seem to be a variety of environmental contexts, I believe that they can also be found in relation to where Mother Earth herself discharges "menses" and that for the indigenous people of the region, these ferns were considered to have useful medicinal properties for treating gynecological disorders. I would offer that it was the spatial relationship (S20-Osmunda spatial relationship) observed in the natural world that produced this understanding of the pharmacological importance of the plants. Lastly, Huron Smith (1933: 72) observes with regard to the Forest Potawatomi that the name "Lady fern" "…is the common Indian [Potawatomi?] word … for all ferns and is probably derived from the use to which they put many of the roots." Our conclusion is that women came to this specific location to extract a plant they thought curative of their gender specific medical circumstance.


While a full interpretation of the Grotto's imagery must await another venue, we would like to briefly explore just one motif theme, that of the circle. The circle in varying manifestations is the modal design form at SA557. It occurs as outline (S21-Circle composite), concentric circle, and as a filled solid. It occurs in isolation, in sets, and as an element of a more complex image. In its iteration as a solid, it has the distinction not only of visual prominence, but also of having been initially incised, then painted, then painted again, and finally of having been struck with a blunt instrument (one colleague has suggested that this is the first clear evidence of prehistoric PMS). If this is a female site, then one might logically offer that the circle must be considered a female motif. I want to take this opportunity to introduce you to a powerful and respected Medicine Woman. We don't know how her name was pronounced, but this is how she made her mark.

If this interpretation is correct and we are looking at a medicine woman icon, then is our seemingly unique site type all that singular? We think that others have been documented, if not interpreted in this fashion (S23-Composite of medicine women). At the Reedyville (15BT65) site in Kentucky, Coy, et al. (1997: 25-26) documents the state's only known (at the time of publication) anthropomorph petrogylph. It is in shamanic pose and standing on a circle bisected by a vertical line. We would like to confirm Diaz-Granados and Duncan's (2000: 166) speculation that the circle and vertical line is a female icon. A second possibility might be this unusual pictograph from the Leo Petroglyphs Site in Ohio (Swauger 1984: 101,105, 111). Swauger suggests that it may be associated with the Midewiwin (Swauger 1984: 111). Note both the circle between her legs and the close proximity of the vulvar form. A third possibility might be an anthropomorph in shamanic pose from the rock art of Missouri. Observe the circle appended to her left leg (Diaz-Granados and Duncan 2000: 94). Might we not be looking at medicine women in all three cases? The ethnohistorical record clearly indicates that such existed (Buffalohead 1983: 243; Jones 1861: 143) although students of regional rock art have been reluctant to identify their iconic expression.


In conclusion, our exploration of the biophysical context of the Blood of the Ancestor's Grotto affords a compelling logic that the site was female and that it was a place of learning and healing. We have attempted to document Mother Earth's menses, the cycle of her flow, and blood medicine. Of course medicine also involved spirituality and we conclude that this was also a very spiritually powerful place for females and males alike. Exactly what rituals were played out, what traditions were recounted, and for which more specific audience remains as yet unanswered.

Whatever the circumstance, we hope that we have successfully argued for a broader environmental analysis, corresponding to an expanded view of what constitutes critical contextual considerations. The interpretation of at least some rock art sites requires attention to environmental attributes beyond topography, lithic morphology, and the presence of water features. Ground water chemistry and periodicities, bacterial action, and floristic associates would all also seem worthy of investigation. To echo the concerns Galloway expressed almost a decade ago, we encourage others to a new sensitivity to the possibility of "female" sites.

III. Ritual Behavior

The paper presented at the
73nd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology
Vancouver, British Columbia
April 2008
was abstracted from the following discussion.


In March of 2005 (Stelle 2005) I had the uncommon archaeological experience of discovering an undocumented rock art site. Rock art in Illinois is rare. Of the more than 53,000 sites in our site files, fewer than ten are either primarily or exclusively pictographic. The site, known as the Blood of the Ancestors Grotto (11SA557), or simply BAG, displays at least 46 icons of interest to archaeology.

While we had many methodological concerns (S2-Parkland Students) (Sadler 2006; Stelle 2006a, 2006b), the issue of greatest importance to the present paper regards those procedures we used to manipulate the images of the pictographs. We captured a high density digital image in RAW image format (S3-"before" to "after") and through a process of color replacement, reconstituted the image that the human eye might better be able to resolve the wall painting. Note what we were able to achieve with color replacement in our transformation of a shamanic image.

The Dhegihan Sioux, to include the Omaha, Osage, Ponca, Quapaw, and Kansa peoples, were most likely the architects of much of what is here revealed. Their collective ethnohistorical intersect with the archeologically documented cultures of the Lower Ohio Valley (S4-Locator Map) places them in this locale between 1500 and 1625 A.D..

There are ethnographically attested indications that female puberty rites, now lost, were once one of the Seven Sacred Rituals of the Dhegihan Sioux (Stanley 2004:34; McDermott 1940:138). The BAG is a place where such rites de passage could have been performed (Stelle and Sadler 2007; Whitley 2000). Therefore, we propose to explore the Grotto as an expression of religious theater (S5-Ritual Complex) (Whiting 1978:283-434; Brockett 1974:455-619; Hatlen 1981:257-327).

Behavior in Ritual Contexts

As an anthropological archaeologist my purpose must ultimately be the description and explanation of human behavior. The analysis of material cultural remains is but an intermediate step in the realization of this final goal. I find that the literature surrounding the rock art of Eastern North America has faltered and stalled at this stage of developmental interpretation. Even when allusions are made to the broader behavioral contexts of ritual acts and ceremonialism and sacred precincts, what we find is a centering on the art itself, a focus on technique of artistic expression and rendered meaning (e.g., Wagner, et. al 1999:149-186). It is as though description, temporal location, and ethnographic assignment were the final goals in the study of rock art. While that might be appropriate to the description of a monument, I believe that the BAG rock art is dynamic and generally indicative of human interaction, the icons are picture devices useful in describing that which is transcendent and beyond the world of experience, and these sacred symbols as symbols of the Sacred were displayed here in order to facilitate the intergenerational transfer of sacred knowledge. What I am going to propose is the use of the lexicon of stagecraft as an analytical and interpretative framework. I do this first and foremost because what the BAG affords is the archaeologically recoverable cultural residues of religious theater. Perhaps the conceptual framework of theatrical production can guide and structure a more useful examination of the material cultural remains documented through archaeological technique. Whether this approach has useful utility is ultimately an empirical question. As students of human behavior we preside over a body of knowledge about theater and religion and rituals of transition. My goal is to apply some of those understandings to achieve a more complete exposure of the behaviors that have occurred on this landscape.

A re-examination of Emile Durkheim's, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (1947) affords a point of departure for viewing ritual activity. Once the Sacred had been separated from the world of the Profane, then direct physical contact with elements of the Profane would result in very dangerous spiritual pollution. The Sacred must needs be protected from contamination by the Profane. Ritual will tell the believer how the Sacred is to be approached and addressed. Ritual will specify when the Sacred is present or when it requires a particular behavioral response. Ritual will provide for the protection of the officiant as she mingles with powerful, unpredictable forces not of the world of experience. Lastly, ritual will serve to unite the participants as one body of believers organized around a single system of beliefs.

Our task in this section is to elucidate any archaeologically revealed behavior that might suggest ritual. We are here defining religious ritual as an element in a system of behaviors, imbued with symbolic meaning, the performance of which is prescribed by cultural tradition, and is itself part of the Sacred. The behavior is displayed because it is thought to produce spiritual outcomes either instrumental or expressive. Ritual actions can include, but are certainly not limited to, such varied acts as esoteric gesticulations and verbalizations; narration of revealed texts as script; performance of liturgically prescribed music or dance; procession; manipulation of theatrical properties or objects or the source materials from which they were rendered; prescribed costume, hair, and cosmetic device as well as the fabrication or application of same; and the proscribed or prescribed consumption of food and drink. Physical context or setting and calendrical and time of day considerations are often central elements in the where and the when of action. In the specific context of the BAG as religious theater, every aspect of observed or inferred behavior was an element of ritual action. Of course what we have archaeological access to is but the material residues of this much larger body of human behavior.

Behavior in the Ritual Complex of SA557

BAG has provided archaeological clues to twenty elements of religious theater. Allow me to present some of the archaeological support we have found for twelve discrete elements of dramaturgical endeavor.

The most basic architectural elements of a religious theater include stage, house or audience viewing area, chancel barrier, and sacred place. Together they represent a socially constructed space that I label a ritual complex. While I will not here reiterate the qualities of the SA557 that rendered it a part of the Sacred (Element 1), in this ritual complex (S6-Plan View) the Grotto is the stage; stage front would be in the direction of the creek bed below the falls; and the house would be in the facing rock shelter. Thinking of SA557 as a ritual complex within which female rites de passage were enacted affords significantly improved integration of the archaeological data.

The Grotto proper was the stage (Element 2) (S7-Tonie on Stage). Its curious morphology likely symbolized the "vagina" of the Dhegihan mythic character labeled "First Woman" or "Old Woman" (Dorsey 1904:21-30, 49-50; Duncan and Diaz-Granados 2004:193-194; Diaz-Granados and Duncan 2000:219; Diaz-Granados 2004:143). As such, it could only be entered by a designated religious specialist. Considered, disciplined, informed behavior would be required in this space. The Christian analog would be the sanctuary or chancel.

Because this is religious theater, the stage necessitated separation from the house by a physical and spiritual barrier (Element 3). Its function was to separate the uninitiated and impure from the Sacred. The running water (S8-Bloody Falls) and particularly the "bloody" water of the winter solstice has ethnographically recognized spiritual qualities associated with female. In Christian architecture this design element is labeled the chancel barrier or alter rail.

The audience viewing area or house (Element 4) would have been confined to the floor of the rock shelter (S9-Excavating Hearth) opposite the Grotto. It would have been relatively small. Archaeological evidence to support this locational interpretation derives from several considerations (S10-Rodger) to include the fact that there was no art on Wall C. Art, understood as scenery, placed there could not be seen from the house.

Scenic design (Element 5) refers to the distribution of the art on the wall surfaces (S11-Panorama). The three divisions of Dhegihan cosmology, the Upper World, Middle World, and Lower World (Dorsey 1888:378-379; Reilly 2004:127-129), are distinct in the spatial arrangement of the iconography.

Most obvious is the Upper World. (S12-Profile acad) It is situated on the upper sloping section of Wall A1. It terminates in the fissure created by the wall-ceiling block fault. The images located here most closely correspond to the interpreted iconography of the Dhegiha Siouan pantheon. (S13-Upper World Panel) Here we find: (1) the conflated Shawoman-bird (Whitley 2005:120-121); (2) the "Little Birds" who are Old Woman's messengers (Duncan and Diaz-Granados 2004:194); (3) the Medicine Woman; (4) the four rows of dots that may document a lunar cycle and constitute a device for predicting "Moon Time" (Diaz-Granados 1996:85); (5) the tracks of Deer Woman, another of Old Woman's female helpers (Duncan and Diaz-Granados 2004:198); (6) the vulvaform of Old Woman; (7) the Shawoman with Power; and (8) the Long Nosed God (a.k.a. Spring Boy), Old Woman's first son (Duncan and Diaz-Granados 2004:202; Mary McCorvie, personal communication 2007).

There is movement and directionality in the design of the panel. The movement and directionality (point out on slide, for instance, the deer tracks) were initially a puzzlement until I observed the Grotto at winter solstice. Mid-winter is when the creek turns to "blood" (S14-Winter Solstice 2005) and sunlight illuminates the upper section of the Upper World Panel (Wall A1). It is the illumination that reveals the significance of the directional indicators. The directional indicators point to where sunlight enters the ceiling-wall block fault. This region of the wall may signify the Grotto's "Sanctum Sanctorum" and I will henceforth refer to it as such.

On the lower section of Wall A1 we find the Middle World depicted (S15-Middle World). This is the location of the (1) Fern, (2) the Four Sisters and Sun, (3) the Seven Disks, and (4) Hand Print. Bridging the rock ridge separating the Middle World and Upper are the Thunderer and the combined Red Feather and Sack.

The Lower World is present on Wall A2 although our ability to resolve and interpret the images is compromised by both weathering and lack of ethnographic insight. One form that we have been able to re-establish (S16-Lower World) is the sets of Diamonds or Diamond and Interior Dot images.

Before a full performance could take place, the stage required the application of scenic painting by artists (Element 6). During this preparatory phase, the icons would have been applied. (S17-Shawoman-bird) Subsequent performances would have necessitated their being enhanced or reapplied.

Undoubtedly the crew member and religious specialist chosen to apply the tattoo or permanent mark (Duncan and Diaz-Granados 2004:214) to Old Woman's "vagina" was a personage of many qualities. Clearly she would have required religious training and had a demonstrated spiritual competence. For instance, she would have been allowed to take a measure of menses from Old Woman's pool of "catamenial flow" and then, with the tips of the fingers of her drawing hand, apply it to the walls of Old Woman's "vagina." Each step would have posed a very dangerous interaction with the Sacred and only proper ritual would have afforded protection.

A third and more demonstrable quality of this religious specialist would be her considerable artistic ability. One example of her artistic skills is evidenced in the "swoosh" of the entry "shawoman-bird" glyph standing sentry at the entrance to the Grotto. The up-stretched forelimbs display a "swoosh" effect with both limbs pointing and then trailing off in the direction of the Grotto's "Sanctum Sanctorum." Descriptors like carefree, fanciful, and self assured come to mind.

However, there is also iconography that clearly demonstrates low artistic skill or a lack of concern over technique. It is arguably the case that the Grotto's most conspicuous glyphs (S18-Seven Disks and Evolution) are the seven large disks that visually dominate the Middle World. They seem not to have been very carefully applied. Moreover, they display at least three manifestations. First, they were micro-pecked as incomplete circles into the wall (a true tattooing of Old Woman's "vagina"). Secondly, they were defined by the application of the "blood" paint as a solid circle. There may have been multiple paintings only some of which are coincident with the micro-pecking. And lastly, each of the painted disks was struck a multiplicity of blows with a hard object, a blow of sufficient force so as to dislodge a flake of the sandstone bedrock. I think that what we are in fact witnessing archaeologically is evidence of the active participation of the audience members in ritual acts and a series of evolutionary changes in the liturgy.

Stage lighting (S19-Summer Solstice) (Element 7) involves the use of light to make visible the liturgical performance of the sanctuary or to affect mood. While we have no archaeological knowledge of artificial lighting, it is the natural lighting that is in many ways most intriguing and visibly related to the production. We initially noted the entrance of direct sunlight into the Grotto during a visit in May. The sunlight entered the Grotto by first illuminating the Fern and the Four Sisters icons. It continued up Wall A2 until the Seven Disks were reached. The icons of the Middle World were illuminated. Later, when we returned for winter solstice (S20-Winter Solstice), we found reflected sunlight illuminating only the Upper World and the "Sanctum Sanctorum." Sunlight clearly was important to the placement of the icons and the scripts that were performed.

There are two stone hearths (S21-Plan View) proximate to the audience viewing area. They may have functioned as house lights (Element 8).

Conceptual sound design (Element 9) reflects the determination of which sounds to employ in the creation of mood or setting. The element of sound design that we can demonstrate is that produced by the waterfall (S22-Waterfall). As we have previously reported, the soft tumbling of the water affords a consistent acoustical stimulus or soundtrack that in no way drowns human vocalizations even from the depths of the Grotto. Moreover, waterfalls have clear ethnographic connections to regional notions of female spirituality (Sadler 2006; Stelle and Sadler 2007).

At present our primary archaeological clues (S23-Familiar Icons) to the script (Element 10) are those which are suggested by the ethnographically derived assignment of meaning to the various icons. We recognize many images and can place them within an ethnographic context. There are scant archaeological guideposts to storyline or plot.

However, one other aspect of the script that is revealed archaeologically is that it changed over time and would likely have involved the participation of the audience. I call your attention to my earlier discussion of the Seven Disks.

While we have limited archaeological data bearing on the use of portable theatrical properties (Element 11), that which is revealed is most interesting. (S24-Seven Disks) We do have direct evidence of the use of both percussors and chisel or punch-like devices in the audience's participation in the creation of the Seven Disks.

One unresolved but extremely intriguing question has to do with the final disposition of the detached chunks of bedrock each evidencing some of the "blood" paint. I am here particularly reminded of the disposition of bread crumbs and residual drops of wine at the end of the Catholic Rite of Communion. The items, having been consecrated, are now part of the Sacred and require prescribed liturgical action. Perhaps chunks of material from the walls of Old Woman's "vagina" also necessitated special care. Rhetorically, what happen to the detached flake? Did it become part of a young woman's bag of "keep-sakes" or medicine bundle?

One last archaeologically visible prop was the "Pool of Blood" (S25-Pool) and the paint/pigment removed from it. During the second phase of the evolving Seven Disks ritual, the initiate may have been required to collect some of the "blood" on her finger and then apply it to the wall. This act would be consistent with the thematic attribute of novitiate participation. We can but speculate, for instance, on how the child was taught to remove the "blood" from her fingers.

I would offer that within an annual round, two performances were staged (Element 12). Each may have evidenced distinct qualities, but the two were bound by an underlying unity of transcendent concern. (S26-Osmunda) The first production would have been scheduled for the few weeks preceding and following the winter solstice. It is at this time that this 60 meter segment of the creek displays its most distinctive quality, that is, it "turns to blood" and the "Sanctum Sanctorum" is illuminated.

The second production would have been scheduled, although not necessarily with great precision, to coincide with the summer solstice sun and the florescence of the fern, Osmunda regalis with its ethnographically attested gynecological applications Stelle 2007).


The forgoing discussion (S27-Elements) of SA557 has examined the archaeological support that might be extended to twelve commonly understood properties of religious theater. The final site report examines twenty but these twelve are most distinct. My initial application of the model focused on identifying, in the archaeological data, behavior that might have otherwise gone unseen and, secondly, on providing a greater interpretive synthesis to this type of rock art site. We discovered any number of limitations to this approach including poorly revealed script plot; rehearsal; costume, hair, and make-up; qualities of voice; portable props; dance; song; and procession. All of which are theatrical components described time and again in the Dhegihan ethnographies as being of critical importance to both the performers and their audiences. However, applying the conceptual model of religious theater did afford a framework that led the interpretive assignment of archaeologically revealed elements of the ritual complex. Additionally, the disparate components of the site and its bio-physical context were integrated into a larger interpretive whole. I discovered behavior that I did not predict. I judge the strategy to have been useful and in need of further exploration at other rock art sites.