Materials Used in Primitive Art
Primitive art has been rendered in every medium under the sun. Ancestral Art makes sculpture using a variety of sources for inspriation: images appearing on rock surfaces, both painted and incised; paintings on ceramics, and other sources.
The term "Rock Art" encompasses any human produced modification or adornment of a rock surface in order to produce an image, regardless of whether the image is produced by pigments or physically modifying the rock surface.
Images created using pigments or paints are called pictographs -- picto from the Latin pictus, past tense for "to paint", and graph from the Greek graphe, meaning "writing".
In addition to being applied to traditional surfaces, such as hides or birch-bark scrolls, pigments can be rubbed onto a rock surface, much as an artist would draw on paper with chalk or charcoal. When a pigment is suspended in a liquid, such as water or oil, it is called "paint".
Ceramics include any object made from fired clay. This page only describes the techniques used by primitive peoples to make the original art we used for inspiration for our sculpture.
Images created on the ground are called geoglyphs -- geo from the Latin geo, meaning "earth", and glyph from the Greek gluphein, meaning "to carve". These images are typically made by scraping away the surface in order to form an image in the underlying soil or by arranging stones to form an image. The famed Nazca lines in Peru are geoglyphs.
Pigments, Paints, and Crayons
Coloring a surface requires a pigment for color, and a way to apply that paint. Primitive peoples used pigment in a solutions, typically called paint, or paint suspended in wax, also known as a crayon.
Paint was made by primitive peoples by combining a pigment
, which provides the color, with a binder
, and a carrying vehicle
are colors, usually obtained from naturally occurring materials, such as surface deposits of metallic compounds, clay, and charcoal
. No matter what pigment is going to be used, it must be ground to a fine powder before being applied, to ensure that it spreads evenly and does not look lumpy.
The binder causes the pigment to adhere to the surface and it also stabilizes the paint. A variety of binders can be used, including water, animal fats, vegetable oils, egg whites, yucca juice, yucca syrup, white bean meal, piñon gum, plant fluids, saliva, blood, and even urine. (Some of these binders, like egg whites, oils, and water, are still used to make modern paint.)
Determining the binder from a pictograph or other painting is impossible, since no trace of it remains. Guesses about the binder come from oral traditions and other ethnographic information, as well as from experimentation. At Lascaux
the cave water was naturally high in dissolved calcium which forms a colored calcite when it dries. This calcite coating is very hard, and quite stable in low moisture air.
The vehicle liquifies the paint and allows it to be applied to the surface. It is usually water or oil.
Crayons were made by grinding the pigment to a fine powder, mixing it with a little water, molding it to the desired shape, and letting it dry. Fat or animal grease was sometimes used as a binder. Modern crayons are, in fact, nothing more than pigments suspended in wax.
Most pictographs in North America are painted in various shades of red, from a dull brown to a bright red. Others are made using black, and in rare instances, white. Multi-colored paintings in the Four Corners area (the junction of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) were made in a variety of colors, including red, black, white, blue, green, and yellow. Other peoples used red, black, and white.
Red pigments came from red ochre, or hematite, a form of iron oxide. Heating could be used to brighten the color. When hematite was not available, burned clay was often substituted. A blood red comes from oligist, or iron peroxide. Laterite, an iron oxide, provides a bright red or red brown. Lepidocrocite provides a red. Goethite provides a orange or red, as well as a dark red brown.
Red ochre was sometimes produced by baking or burning yellow ochre in order to change the oxidation state of the iron oxide. As yellow ochre is heated to 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius) the color changes from yellow to yellow-brown, red, red-purple, and then to black.
Yellow pigments came from yellow ochre, or limonite, an iron silicate. Iron silicates provide other yellows. Iron hydroxide provide yellow, xanthosiderite provides a yellow or red, stilpnosiderite provides a brown yellow. Glauconite, an iron oxide, also provides yellow.
pigments were obtained from charcoal, roasted graphite (a form of carbon), and manganese ores like hausmanite
, and polianite
. Black ochre is a combination of manganese dioxide and graphite. The artists at Lascaux
used black and grey magnetite, which are forms of iron.
A dark Brown pigment can be obtained from stilpnosiderite, turgite, or goethite, which are iron silicates.
. Copper is abundant in the American southwest, and has been extensively mined there. (One of the world's largest copper mines is south of Tucson, Arizona.) Turqouise was sometimes used by Native Americans in the American southwest for pigment, but this was uncommon since turquoise was scarcer and more highly valued than the common copper ores.
pigments were obtained from calcium sulfate, also known as gypsum
(common today in plasterboard), kaolin
a fine white clay (used today as the active ingredient in Kaopectate), and diatomaceous earth (the fossilized skeletons of tiny marine creatures).
Other colors were produced by staining clays with other minerals or vegetable dies. This allowed colors such as pale green, lavender, salmon, and various shades of pink.
Paint can be applied using a brush, fingers, or even by filling the mouth with paint and then blowing it through a straw. (A human powered air brush.)
Brushes were often made from leaves with the end shredded or chewed. The Mimbreños
used a yucca leaf
whose end had been chewed to remove the soft plant material leaving only the fibrous ends.
The peoples of the Lower Pecos River Region
used a shredded sotol leaf
which was folded lengthwise, wrapped, and then shredded at the ends. (The sotol, Dasylirion texanum scheele
, is a spiny-leafed member of the lily family.) The Pecos River peoples occasionally shredded the ends of woody plants and used them as brushes.
Durability of Pictographs
Research has discovered that pictographs are so durable because the paint actually stains the rock surface, with capillary action drawing the pigment into microscope pores in the rock surface. When the liquid carrier for the pigment evaporates the pigment is left behind and, over time, actually becomes part of the rock itself.
comes about by the deposition of minerals on top of the pictograph. Depending upon their type, rocks can contain calcium carbonate, aluminum silicate, and other water soluble minerals. Over time, rain water leaches these minerals out from the rock underlying the pictograph or washes the minerals onto the pictographs surface. When the water evaporates, the minerals harden into a thin film which protects the pictograph. If the film builds up too thickly, it becomes opaque and obscures the underlying pictograph.
Rock art images can be made by physically modifying the rock surface, such as by abrading, scratching, pecking, or carving. Such an an image is called a petroglyph -- petro from the Greek petros, meaning "stone", and glyph from the Greek gluphein, meaning "to carve". (A glyph has since come to mean any symbol imparting information.)
The most common rocks used for petroglyphs are sandstone, volcanic basalt, and granite. Basalt is a hard, dense stone of volcanic origin. The surface weathers to a dark, reddish-brown to black patina several millimeters thick. Underlying this dark surface is a yellowish brown to dark gray stone. Sandstone is a light, soft stone which lends itself to engraving. (Some sandstone petroglyphs are carved an inch deep.) Granite is a very hard stone, so chiseling it is much harder and markings therefore tend to be shallow.
Making a petroglyph involves removing a portion of the rock surface. This can be done by scratching a design into the surface with a sharpened stone or piece of bone, by using pieces of rock as a hammer and chisel, by repeatedly rubbing a hard stone against the rock to grind it away, or some combination of these techniques.
Striking the rock directly with an object in order to remove bits of rock is known as direct percussion. This technique is difficult to control. A hammer and chisel technique produces much more precise results than direct striking. This is, in fact, how sculptors carve stone. Using tools like a hammer and chisel is known as indirect percussion, since the striking implement does not contact the rock directly. The "hammer" can be a piece of stone or wood, and the "chisel" can be a piece of sharpened stone, bone, or even wood. One very common technique is pecking, which involves repeatedly hitting a sharpened stone held against the rock surface.
Each time the rock surface is struck a small piece of rock is removed. The resulting depression is usually lighter in color, since old rocks are covered by a dark patina
, or "desert varnish", produced by exposure to the elements. The patina often works to provider greater contrast with the portions of the rock that have been removed to form the design.
A design can require anywhere from five hundred to a thousand blows. The design usually starts with a series of small dots which are then connected together by continued pecking. Flat areas can be made by continued pecking or by rubbing the surface smooth with a flat stone.
The exposed surface of rocks in the desert are covered by a dark brown to black stain, or patina, over time. This patina is also known as desert varnish. (Rock exposed to smoke also develops a dark patina which can be removed to form an image, but this process is very different and the removal technique is rare.)
The patina may be caused by non-biological mechanisms, such as the oxidation of various metals in the rock or by the leaching of metal carbonates, oxides, and sulfates, such as iron and manganese, from the interior rock with deposition on the surface.
Direct sunlight also causes the exposed surface to darken, which indicates that the mechanism may be simply oxidation. It is possible that patination can only occur with ample moisture and sunlight, which would indicate that the rocks in the American southwest were patinated during the last glacial period, about ten to fifteen thousand years ago. Biological mechanisms, however, may also be at play, since some microorganisms oxidize metals in order to obtain energy.
The coloring comes about because metal oxides have different colors. Iron oxide, commonly known as rust, is a reddish to dark brown, while manganese oxide is black. The pantination process is a very slow one, and is measured in decades and centuries. When a patina is removed to make a petroglyph it begins to re-accumulate on the rock art over time. Pictographs are not affected by patination since they cover the rock surface, instead of exposing new areas. Other types of deposits
, however, occur on pictographs.
can exist only when water rarely comes in contact with it. Research has shown that when heavily patinated rocks were transferred from the Mojave to Santa Rosa, where the annual rainfall exceeds 30 inches and the winters are cold, that all patina vanished after two years. This has implications for dating rock art, which is described in the next section.
Dating rock art is extremely difficult since clues to the age must be deduced from related factors. Rock, after all, does not led itself to Carbon 14 dating. (All Carbon 14 dating provides is a rough idea when an organism ceased to acquire new carbon 14 from its food.) Physical factors -- such as the amount of rock weathering
, and lichen growth -- must be supplemented with cultural clues in order to form an accurate guess as to the age.
Patination may provide a clue to the age of rock art. If patination is removed by excessive moisture, which experiments suggest
, the rock art of the Mojave cannot be older than the last great rainy period which occurred three to four thousand years ago.
Lichens are fungus and algae living together symbiotically. Because they grow very slowly, the amount of growth gives a rough indication as to age. The problem is that lichen growth depends on many factors, including available water and weather conditions, so it only provides a rough approximation for the age. Growth rates of as little as a fraction of a millimeter in diameter per year are not uncommon.
Archaeological techniques often provides accurate dating, since the subject matter or physical circumstances provide clues.
Knowing which culture made the rock art is often useful because the time a culture flourished may be known by means of other artifacts. Cultural artifacts can often be dated themselves, if they are of biological origin, or they can be dated by organic materials they are found with or by the geological strata they are found in. Similarly, when rock art is found near an area used as living quarters it may be safe to assume that it was produced by the residents.
Rock art is occasionally buried, partially or completely, by sediment or other soil accumulation. Knowing the age of the soil, through Carbon 14 dating or by artifact dating, gives a lower bound on the age of the rock art.
For example, a petroglyph in Oregon was buried by the eruption of Mount Mazama about A.D. 4700 where it lay undisturbed until its discovery this century. The burial provides an accurate dating, unlike much rock art which cannot be dated with certainty, and shows that the Native Americans have been producing rock art for a very long time.
Determining age using weathering is an art, since site location results in different amounts of exposure to the elements. Some sites have such little weathering that photographs taken today show the images essentially identical to photographs taken almost a hundred years ago. In other cases, comparisons of photographs of pictographs demonstrating weather damage at the turn of the century with photographs taken today illustrate severe weathering.
The main effect in weathering is abrasion of the surface by small wind or water born particles, as well as by thermal heating. Over time these forces can change the shape of mountains, so it should not be surprising that they can remove a thin surface of paint or smooth away chiseling.
Sometimes rock art can be dated because it obscures an earlier image. This is called superimposition. (This technique applies to both pictographs and petroglyphs.) While it does not give the date the image was created, superimposition does set a lower limit of the underlying piece's age. Some cultures deliberately obliterated earlier art and repainted it as part of religious rituals.
, for example, ritually obliterated their kiva
paintings with new plaster from time to time and then repainted them. The Kuaua Kiva had 87 layers of plaster, 25 of which had elaborate murals painted on them. The Navajo
placed many of their ceremonial images on top of older Anasazi
images. This could have been done to borrow the "power" of the Anasazi image or it could simply have been done as a sort of signpost to indicate that area was now under Navajo control.
Dating also uses the subject matter of the rock art. For example, rock art depicting Spanish warriors on horseback must have been created after
of the Spanish in the New World in A.D. 1540. Similarly, rock art on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest
shows horses, which were not introduced in the area until A.D. 1720. Other images, some tens of thousands of years old, can be dated by various hunting weapons. Each culture discovers, or learns of, the bow and arrow, spear, atlatl, and dart at a particular time. Knowing the earliest time a culture adopted a weapon can be used to give an upper bound on an images age.
One problem complicating dating is that many images had religious significance to the native peoples, and were partially re-pecked over time to keep them visible.
Rock art is an important cultural inheritance. It is, unfortunately, being destroyed. Some of that destruction is natural; plant growth, water seepage, weathering
, decomposition of paints, wind erosion, and other natural factors result in the inexorable destruction of rock art.
Rock art sites on federal lands in the United States of America are protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906 (Public Law 59-209) and by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (Public Law 960-5). Both make it a crime to remove or damage artifacts.
Other countries have similar laws. Enforcement, however, is difficult as most sites are in remote locations that are not under constant scrutiny, and damage is not discovered until the perpetrators have long since vanished.
Windblown water or sand scours the surface of the rock, gradually removing pictographs or sanding down petroglyphs. Temperature fluctuations caused by bright sun can eventually flake small chips from the rock, damaging or obliterating the rock art.
Some sites are damaged by subsequent cultures. For example, the Navajo made new petroglyphs
on top of earlier Anasazi ones.
Great Lakes Region
An Ojibwan pictograph of Michipizhiw
, the Night Panther
, was destroyed
when the rock it was painted on was quarried for gravel. By 1838 only one figure was left, and in 1847 the entire rock face was removed. No photographs or drawings were ever made, but a description
of the fearsome image was written by a missionary.
The deliberate vandalism and destruction of rock art in the Americas began with the conquest of the New World by the Spanish, and their war against the native cultures. Destroying the native cultures and enslaving the peoples was crucial to the successful invasion of the new world and exploitation of mineral wealth using the labor of enslaved natives.
Don Carlos Fernandez, the captain of a Spanish war expedition, revealed the typical attitude of the Spanish towards Native American rock art when he wrote of actions taken on June 3rd, 1763 upon his orders:
"I went to the said district with the intention of destroying and annihilating, in as much as possible, the adoration sites, and places where they might have been [worshipping] or places where detestable idolatry, superstitions, or vain observations might be committed presently. ... I moved on to the northern part of the Pueblo, guided by the aformentioned Joachin, where on the right side of a cliff were drawn the figures. ... They were erased and destroyed by me; and in the surroundings we drew crosses and the place was exorcised by the reverend Padre Minister."
Destruction of Mayan Books
The Spanish enthusiasm for destruction of native artifacts was not limited to rock art, and they systematically destroyed the Native American's culture in order to better subjugate them and replace "heathen" religions with Christianity. Landa, the Bishop of Yucatan, and Zumarraga, Bishop of Mexico, built enormous bonfires to destroy the huge libraries of the Mayans since the books were "obviously" the work of the devil. Today, only the few volumes kept as souvenirs remain.
This destruction was simply cultural genocide to better control the Mayans. Whenever the Spanish, or Europeans in general, invaded they tried to obliterate the local culture as quickly as possible.
Cave pictographs can be destroyed by the very act of human visitation. The famous caves of Lascaux have been closed to visitors for over twenty years, because the moisture, salt, oils, and body heat from humans were causing the pigments to detach from the wall, and the lights were bleaching the pigments.
In order to save the paintings, which survived for twenty thousand years by virtue of being sealed in a cave, human visits were banned and the caves were again sealed.
Some destruction is attributable to stupidity and ignorance. Pictographs are sprayed with water in an effort to make them more distinct for photography. Not only does this often have the opposite effect entirely, in that a photograph cannot be taken until the now-indistinct image dries, but the water washes away pigment and loosens it from the underlying rock.
Chalking a pictograph or petroglyph to make it more distinct can damage the underlying image because the chalk often remains for decades -- not surprising in environments with little rain -- and a bad chalking can make it hard to distinguish the actual petroglyph from the mistaken perceptions of the individual doing the chalking. Even when the chalk does not remain, the abrasion can damage the underlying image if it is made on soft rock. The chalk also attracts vandals, since it makes the image more distinct. Chalking pictographs destroys them.
Rubbings can damage the edges of petroglyphs, and create small cracks in the surface and edges which leads to weather damage
. The adhesive on the tape used to hold the paper to the surface can damage the surrounding images, patina, and lichen when it is removed.
Some photographers build bonfires in order to obtain lighting effects, not realizing that the smoke and heat damages the rock. Others burn candles and incense as part of new age rituals, and the smoke and heat are particularly damaging to pictographs.
Touching rock art can damage it because of the moisture, salt, and oils on human skin. While each touch does only minor damage, many touches result in damage or destruction of the art.
Many sites are destroyed by hydroelectric and flood control dams. Rock art was commonly made in canyons, just above the high water mark. Sites in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and some of the finest sites along the Columbia River
in the Pacific Northwest have been totally obliterated by dams, railroads, and roads. Navajo Dam
and Navajo Lake, built between 1958 and 1963, are major components of the Colorado River dam system and provide water for the Navajo to irrigate. Navajo Lake also, unfortunately, flooded a number of important rock art sites
In some cases destruction is being done at the behest of real estate developers. Roads are being run through petroglyph sites -- on land deliberately set aside for preservation -- to provide access to new housing developments.
New Mexico, for example, is building two commuter highways through Petroglyph National Monument -- home to 15,000 documented petroglyphs and a national park -- which will not only result in the destruction of petroglyphs, but will also make the area casually accessible cars and trucks. The area, notably a national park, currently has limited access, which tends to preserve it from visits by thieves, vandals, and the simply ignorant.
Vandals destroy rock art using shotguns, hammers, and other objects, spray paint graffiti, and engrave their names on top of rock art. A pictograph
site at Hueco Tanks, Texas, for example, has been extensively damaged by vandals because it is close to a picnic site and thus accessible to casual criminals. Very little of the rock art of Texas has survived the past hundred years.
Other destruction is for personal gain. Rocks containing art are removed to decorate private gardens or fireplaces, often damaging or destroying the remaining rock art. Many times the vandal damages or destroys the desired image in process of removing it. Forrest Kirkland
commented on the vandalism to paintings on Paint Rock
"... the greatest damage to the paintings has been done by curious sightseers, who have written, painted, or carved their names all over the cliff, a favorite place being across the face of the best pictographs. Fires at the base of the shelters have destroyed many of the lower designs, and bullets from rifles have worked havoc on many of the designs high up on the cliff. Sixty-one single designs and forty-one complete groups have been destroyed beyond recognition -- about one-fourth of the original pictographs at the location."
No matter how cliched it sounds, the adage "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints" is the best way to interact with rock art.
Photographs are best made with no flash, since the flash saturates the incised areas in a petroglpyh and makes them less distinct. Earling morning or late evening shots will give dark shadows in the grooves. Pictographs photograph best in color.
The first thing a culture does after it discovered the durability of fired clay is to decorate it. Designs and decorations can be carved into the clay using a sharp object or painted on before firing.
Cultures in the American southwest raised decoration of ceramics to a fine art. The most famous are the decorated bowls created by the Mimbres
Clays are present throughout the world, in varying degrees of quality. In the American southwest, there are easily available deposits with occasional deposits of kaolin, a fine, white clay. (You may be familiar with kaolin as the active ingredient in Kaopectate.) The famous Mimbres
funerary pottery uses a kaolin coating to make the artwork stand out.
In the American southwest, pottery was made by rolling clay into a rod and then coiling it up in the desired shape. There was no use of the potter's wheel. While still wet the coils were smoothed together until they could no longer be seen as distinct entities. Using the coiling technique requires about an hour to make a bowl ten inches wide and five inches deep. This is the first stage in producing a pot.
Hopi woman and her pottery (circa 1910)
Smoothing and Burnishing a Pot
When dried to about the same hardness as leather, the pot would be scraped to smooth the surface and any cracks would be filled with with wet clay. After scraping the pot would be about 3/16 of an inch thick. The pot was then left to dry until hard.
Some cultures would paint the pot with a thin wash of kaolin clay called "slip" , in order to give the pot a white appearance which accented designs. Several thin layers of slip were used, since a thicker layer might crack as it dried. Once dry, the slip would be burnished with smooth stones until the finish was satin smooth.
The American Southwest has a variety of natural pigments in the form of copper and iron ores (such as hematite, limonite, and other iron ores). These ores were found as nuggets on hills and in stream beds, and as ochre, which was dug from the hillsides. Various ores give different colors
The decorative colors were made by grinding ore, usually iron based, into a fine powder which was mixed with water, and sometimes boiled plants, to form a thick paste. This paste was applied with a brush to an unfired clay pot, and the slip's porous surface quickly absorbed it. This meant that erasure was essentially impossible, as the only way to obliterate a design was to physically remove all of the ink-stained slip or to cover it over with new slip. Unless the ore was very finely ground, small grains of pigment would remain on the surface and fuse to the slip during firing, leaving a tiny raised spot much like a small grain of sand.
used brushes made from yucca leaves, which are readily available throughout the American southwest.
The leaf was first split to the desired line width, and then cut to about three to four inches. Approximately one inch was then stripped of the outer fiber and chewed until it was soft. The remains of the leaf would still be hard and fibrous, and served as a handle.
A yucca leaf brush has a blunt edge and square sides and readily takes up paint. Because the shredded leaf ends become floppy when wet, they closely follow the contours of the surface. When moved at the proper speed, the brush deposits even quantities of paint in a smooth line.
After painting, pots were left to dry in the sun for seven to ten days to ensure that any residual moisture evaporated. (As any potter knows, residual moisture turns to steam during firing, and the expansion can cause a pot to explode.)
Instead of using a kiln, the potter made a circle of wood about six feet in diameter covered with shards of previously fired pottery which either were broken because of defects or which broke during firing.
Each pot would then be covered by other shards until it was isolated from the fuel and from other pots. The isolation was necessary to prevent the pots from contacting the fuel, both to prevent the burning fuel from leaving a sooty spot and to prevent oxidation of the pigment. The pile of unfired pottery and shards would then be covered with more wood and burned. The fire would burn for about ninety minutes, and the pots would be cool enough to handle a few hours after that. (Present day Mexican potters who make pottery with Casa Grandes designs often use cattle dung for their kilns, as dung provides a hotter fire.)
The paint, slip, and clay all contain iron and other metals which oxidize during firing and changes color. The color depends on the degree of oxidation which, in turn, depends on the amount of air present in the kiln.
When air circulates during firing there is an oxidizing atmosphere, and this changes the paint to brick-red, the slip to pink, and the clay to tan. The reason for this is that, in general, the more oxygen bound to a metal the darker it is.
When air is not allowed to circulate, the firing occurs in a reducing atmosphere, and the paint turns to black, the slip to white, and the clay to gray. This happens because oxygen is effectively cooked out of the pigment.