"According to Floyd Buckskin, a Pit River [California] Indian (personal communication) the concentric circles shown above mark the place where spirit beings or very powerful shamans can pass through the rock from one world to the next" (Benson and Sehgal 1987:6-7; cited in Patterson 1992:67).
One of the roles of ethnographic analogy and folklore is to generate hypotheses for testing against the archaeological record (Leach 1982; Lewis-Williams 1998). The first step in scientific reasoning is to "identify the available options" and to create a list of competing possibilities for analysis (Giere 1984:278). The goal of rock art research is to then apply its theory and methods to narrow this list and discriminate between competing hypotheses to determine which is the most likely explanation. The main methods available to archaeologists to test hypotheses are excavation, experiment, and ethnographic analogy. Archaeological interpretation ultimately seeks to the find the best fit between the artifacts and their overall context.
In most cases, archaeologists are unable to "prove" hypotheses in the sense that a physicist might prove that gravity exists by achieving a reproducible result, falsifiable by experimentation. Ethnographic analogies do not in themselves "prove" anything. If "the source of the relation of relevance," however, is biological and uniformitarian rather than only ethnographic, the "inferential arguments" will be stronger (Lewis-Williams 1998:172).To say that "we can never know anything" about the past is to avoid the interpretive problem entirely and to leave it to others. If archaeologists fail to provide interpretations for rock art, others inevitably fill the void with fantastic and non-anthropological explanations (Whitley 1992).
Ethnographic information can be very useful to test and debunk ethnocentric interpretations and to demonstrate the range of cultural variation in human behaviors associated with widely spread artifacts similar to each other in appearance (Lewis-Williams 1998:172; Ucko and Rosenfeld 1967:151).
In most situations, local ethnohistorical sources that relate to local objects will be more persuasive than analogies drawn from societies distant in space or time. However, an archaeological record distant in time may sometimes be illustrated more closely by contemporary cultural practices distant in space (e.g. Melanesia, North America, Africa Australia, etc.) rather than by anything in modern industrial society. An example of such a use of ethnographic "illustration" is Colin Renfrew's discussion of how megalithic tombs in Orkney, Scotland most closely resemble the living megalithic traditions and territorial markings of Polynesian & Melanesian megalithic tomb builders, such as the Kelabits of north Borneo (Renfrew 1974:120-142, 159-166). As Renfrew put it, "it is illuminating to look at some modern, non-industrial communities in other parts of the world: these suggest some further possibilities" (Renfrew 1974:138). Ethnographic analogies should not necessarily only be drawn from the country in which the artifacts are located. A global mind, rather than a localized one, is required.
In drawing an ethnographic analogy between the builders of stone temples in Malta and Easter Island, Renfrew described their similarities in social organization, thus demonstrating that chiefdom societies are capable of constructing large monuments. He cautioned, however, that: "The analogy between the two islands could easily be pushed too far" (Renfrew 1974:165).
The "direct historical method" uses ethnographic data in a different way. Where ethnographic information is derived from the cultural descendants of the artifact makers, there is a stronger possibility that a direct cultural transmission of information and meaning may have occurred. Occasionally some pessimistic archaeologists have become hypercritical about any use of ethnohistory in archaeology, citing examples of cultural change over time and cultural inventiveness. The response to such pessimism, of course, is to remind them of how Schliemann found Troy. Pessimistic archaeologists ignore ethnohistory at their peril.
It is true that there have been questionable methods used by some archaeologists in the past to analyze archaeological artifacts. These problems have included (a) decontextualizing and "lumping together" disparate finds or sites, (b) ignoring close sites that do not fit, (c) not recognizing that some physically similar objects can sometimes have completely unrelated functions or meanings, and (d) not recognizing that in some instances symbols develop multiple meanings, change their meanings with time, or change their meanings when framed by different contexts (Bradley 1997; Cox and Stasek 1988; Hodder 1992:11-23; Hutton 1993 110-8).
In some situations, the fewer the signs and symbols in use, the more meanings or referents become attached to each symbol. In Papua New Guinea the number of words in some vocabularies is relatively small but the native speakers look for multiple layers of meaning in what is said. There are also situations where an identical design has a different meaning to a different culture e.g. swastikas. The same motif may symbolize different things to people in the same culture, e.g. rainbows, and with time a functional object can become a political symbol, e.g. the hammer and sickle.
A few current interpretive issues illustrate the variety of ways ethnographic information is used in archaeology today. Modern ethnography has been used to argue for a wider range of meanings for prehistoric clay figurines. Presently there is a dispute about the interpretation of clay figurines found at many Neolithic sites in the Old World. Instead of viewing them all as "Mother Goddesses," Peter Ucko, has argued (using ethnographic information) that "all over the globe clay models very similar to those of the Neolithic are made as children's dolls. Just as in the modern West, most are intended for girls and are themselves female. Another widespread use of such figures is in sympathetic magic, to draw illness or danger from a person . . . many portray pregnant females, as without modern obstetrics childbirth is one of the greatest dangers women have to face" (Hutton 1993:38). According to Hutton: "Some tribes, like the Baluba, use clay models in mourning rituals" (Hutton 1993:38). None of these figurines have anything to do with portraying a divine mother goddess figure. Hutton indicates that "Ucko concluded that Neolithic figures may have had just as many different functions, and that if they apparently portrayed supernatural beings there was absolutely no need to interpret them everywhere as the same female or male deity" (Id.).
Another example of an issue in archaeological interpretation that incorporates ethnographic information is the interpretation of large funeral monuments which, when found, are often cited as evidence of the burial of "elites." Awareness of a modern cultural phenomenon casts doubt on this early assumption. Peter Ucko has pointed out that large burial monuments in contemporary cemeteries in Britain are sometimes those of carnival people and not "elites" or high status individuals.
Perhaps the most frequently encountered example where this needs to be done is the often reported assumption in the popular press that cutmarks on prehistoric human bone are clear evidence of "cannibalism." Up until the last century, Native Hawaiians defleshed their loved ones to save their bones, which they believed possessed mana or sacred power (Handy and Pukui 1958). They did not eat members of their family. The flesh was disposed of in the sea and the bones were carefully wrapped up and hidden in places such as volcanic lava tubes (Id.). The cutmarks on their bones had nothing to do with cannibalism.
Ethnohistorical sources have all of the problems associated with asking any informant about cultural meaning. An account may be only one individual's peculiar viewpoint and intentional misrepresentations do occur. Frances LaFlesche used several Omaha informants to cover the same topics and found that they sometimes argued with each other and denied what others were saying. Occasionally, one of his several informants was simply not familiar with a cultural practice or religious idea. Artifacts and cultural practices with multiple meanings and functions are sometimes idealized by informants, and there can be many kinds of problems with translation.
There are examples of long-lived "traditions" which have survived into the present day. These include the maintenance of the chalk Cerne Abbas giant, the Christian baptism ritual, Buddhist ideas from c. 600 BC, etc. (Bord 1979:35:36). There are also many examples of recently invented "traditional practices," e.g., Wicca, New Age rituals, the adoption of "Northern Plains" style dances by native groups across the United States, peyote cults in northern Minnesota, Highland Scotland and French traditional costumes, and so forth (Chapman 1995).
Ronald Hutton (1993) has urged greater caution by archaeologists in lumping disparate artifacts and beliefs together, including the application of folklore from the Iron Age to the Neolithic. He points out that academics statements about the Mother Goddess outran the evidence. Contemporary academics do not want to make the same mistake. The "new rigour towards evidence consists of a strong sense of the very different ways in which superficially similar monuments and rituals can operate, given different societies. It is the separate and distinct nature of peoples, places and periods which has been emphasized by mainstream scholarship of late" (Hutton 1993:124-5).
Hutton cautioned that applying Iron Age or Medieval practices in Britain and Ireland to the Neolithic and early Bronze Age is problematic. He argued that many cultural practices that seem old to us were actually invented in the Middle Ages and the 17th century. He pointed out that this was a time of great cultural inventiveness. This directly undermines any blanket assumption that folklore and ethnohistoric sources can be used in a directly historical way to reconstruct meaning in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. If a direct historical method is to be used, the date of the folklore's creation thus becomes of importance. The difficulty or ease of identifying the period of creation of an individual item of folklore will vary on a case-by-case basis.
An unresolved issue in some archaeologists minds is how to confidently move from the historic period back to the prehistoric period with evidence from folklore. This may be looking at the problem backwards. Folklore points the way for possible research. The archaeological record may support (or not support) the information conveyed in the folklore. The existence of Homer's Troy, for example, described initially by an oral tradition, was eventually confirmed through archaeological methods.
There is interesting new evidence for potential continuity in the British population. DNA testing suggests that the skeleton of the person known as "Cheddar Man" had ancestors living in the same area 8000 years later, although this conclusion has been criticized due to the large number of possible descendants.
The history of the British Isles is clearly one of repeated invasions, including the Normans, Vikings (Danes), Angles, Saxons, and so forth. Archaeological assumptions that there were probably also multiple prehistoric invasions based on this history and the earliest Irish myths describing multiple invasions have been questioned using a well known ethnographic analogy. "Thus, according to traditional archaeological practice, had modern Britain been an illiterate society then it would have been natural to have spoken of the invasion of the 'Washing Machine People' in the 1950's and large-scale Japanese immigration in the 1970's" (Hutton 1993:16).
Modern ethnographic analogy has been used to argue that real migrations can be archaeologically invisible. As Hutton points out: "A glance at tribal migrations during recorded history provides further reason for caution: for example, the Athabascans moved south along the coast of North America, retaining their language and their group identity but taking on the culture of the tribes with whom they collided. They would have been utterly invisible in the archaeological record" (Hutton 1993:16-17).
Another example of the use of ethnographic information to expand the number of possible explanations for an event regards the interpretation of material found at henges. Hutton asked: "Were the people who brought [ritual rubbish] to the henge consecrating it, after a fashion, with portions of their daily activities so that their whole lifestyle was represented in it? Or were they imprisoning evil spirits within the charmed circle, brought out of their homes in the trash, as people still do in present-day Indonesia?" (Hutton 1993:70).
Hutton argued that the folklore surrounding stone circles is also problematic. "Many of the rings are traditionally described as dancers or players of sport, petrified for breaking the Sabbath by performing upon that day. It has been suggested by some writers that this may be a distant memory of actual ritual dances or games performed there by the builders.. . . The idea is tempting, and the monuments would have been ideally suited to circle-dancing. But nobody who has studied the late Tudor and early Stuart campaign against profanation of the Sabbath can doubt that the sheer intensity of this may account for all the stories" (Hutton 1993:74).
Hutton ultimately argues that ethnographic information may not tell us much. "Modern anthropology adds weight to the supposition that the ancient British and Irish carried out astronomical observations" (Hutton 1993:110). "So the expectation that the Bronze Age British and Irish were concerned with the sky is powerfully reinforced but not confirmed by modern parallels, and the nature of the concern is made no clearer" (Hutton 1993:111).
With these general cautionary concerns as background, a literature review of the ethnohistoric sources associated with particular sites in Britain follows.
The thematic associations that folklore has attached to cup and rings in Britain include: fertility, "first fruits," disease curing, animism, weather control, associations with "little people," ringing sounds, and astronomy (Chappell 1999, MacKenzie 1899, Morris 1967, Simpson 1864). Graeme Chappell (1999) has suggested that it is possible that one of the reasons for the relative scarcity of published folklore sources may be the persecution of women for witchcraft who kept traditional lore.
As Ronald Morris pointed out, the primary region for early rock carvings in Great Britain is between Inverness, Scotland in the north and Yorkshire, England in the south (Morris 1981:3). Graeme Chapell, an amateur archaeologist with an active interest in Yorkshire rock art, has described three cupmarked stones that have folklore attached to them. His description is quoted here at length.
In Britain there are several cup and ring marked stones that have specific names and associated folklore which indicate their use in historic times and might possibly be an echo of their prehistoric use.
The Fertility Stone - This is the name given to a large cup and ring marked slab built into the base of a dry stone wall on a farm near Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire. The carving is situated on the southern valley side of the river Nidd with a fine view along the valley. Enquiries are being pursued to trace the origins of the name, which may connect the carved rock with some kind of folklore practices in the area.
The Tree Of Life Stone - This is the name given to a large flat rock with cup marks and connecting channels, one of a group of carvings at the edge of moorland and situated on rough grazing land overlooking the Washburn valley north of Otley, North Yorkshire. E.T. Cowling in his book "Rombalds Way" (1946) describing the Tree of Life stone, records that "it is one of the few known to local inhabitants, and marks the site of many May day religious services." What form these "religious services" took, is not recorded but the site is a strange one for any Christian Ceremony, being on a remote hillside, in an area populated mostly by hill farmers. So even if the service was a Christian one this is perhaps an indication that it was introduced to replace a popular and more "traditional" mayday activity at the site which the local clergy did not approve of. In the past, Mayday folklore and customs related specifically to promoting fertility in people, animals and the land, with trees, maypoles and foliage playing an integral part in these customs. The tree like arrangement of cups and channels on the Tree of Life stone may have made it a suitable focus for such customs and in the process led to the naming of the stone. (Interestingly the Washburn valley is also known for the activities of a group of women who were accused of being witches in the 1600's.)
The Witch's Stone - This was the name given to a now destroyed cup marked boulder on Tormain Hill near the village of Ratho (7miles west of Edinburgh) The sloping upper surface of the rock had a line of 24 cup marks and this surface had also become highly polished due to the practice of people sliding down the stone. A similar practice took place a few miles away in the kings Park, Edinburgh, which was the site of a large recumbent stone along which barren women slid in the hope that they would become mothers. Whether this was the reason for sliding down the Witch's stone is not recorded but this activity and the stones name suggests the possibility, before their persecution the town and village wise women (later deemed witches) were the keepers of traditional lore relating to fertility and barrenness (Chapell 1999).
Chappell summarized the folklore literature described in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland as follows:
To the antiquarians of the mid 19th century the rock cut cups, rings and channels were a complete mystery. At first it was suggested that the strange designs were maps of camps, burial mounds or star constellations, but as more information became available they eventually settled on the theory that the carvings [were] somehow related to the religious beliefs of the ancient Britons. Folklore and custom were mostly silent regarding the carvings but in a few remote areas of Scotland the antiquarians (and later researchers) found traditions still connected with cupmarked stones and rock cut basins which possibly pointed to their earlier use (Chappell 1999).
The rather lengthy folklore collected by Simpson (1864/1866), MacKenzie (1899-1900), and Morris (1967-1968) is described below with the addition of topic headers and bolding to identify and illustrate the themes described by Graeme Chappell.
Chappell cited the Rev. J. B. Mackenzie who described his efforts at recording some folklore regarding cupmarks in an 1899 - 1900 article entitled: Notes on some cup marked stones and rocks near Kenmore, and their folklore, published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
["Worship Stones," spirits, and supernatural powers]
But to return to the spot from which I have been looking at the cup marks at my feet, I am struck by the extreme scarcity of any real tradition regarding them. Only once do I remember hearing anything genuine. There had been a good deal of illness in some miserable old houses where I was visiting, and in speaking to an old man about it, I expressed my wonder that the people did not remove some boulders which obstructed the light out of the small windows, and the drainage about the doors; and added, that it could easily be done and would make the houses more healthy. No doubt it would he agreed, but then it would not do to destroy these old worship stones (Clachain Aoraidh). He said that there had been one near his own door which was very much in the way, but that he had, with great labour dug a hole into which he had let it drop and covered it up, for it would never do to incur the anger of the spiritual beings by breaking it up. This was more than thirty years ago. The boulders seemed to me natural and of no significance; but my attention being thus called to them I found similar stones at almost every old house or site - many of them, undoubtedly, placed there of intention. Some of them had cup marks, but on many I could find none. I also found that any sort of hollow in a stone, even when it seemed to me natural, was sufficient to give it a sacred character; and that some of these stones were undoubtedly ancient boundary markers, while others had been used in the preparation of food stuffs. All have a certain mystery about them, and several still preserve around them traditions of the possession of supernatural powers.
["Elf cups" and grains]
So far as I have examined them, these stones seem to fall into three groups :- The first group consists of rock cut cups, often single, but more generally in groups , with at times an elaborate arrangement of circles and connecting channels. The meaning of these is very obscure. Nothing which I have ever heard seemed authentic or simple enough - very simple the ideas must have been, or they would never have been so common or widespread. In the second group, the stones present a natural hollow, smoothed and shaped a little by art. This form may have been used, among other purposes, for the pounding and rubbing down of grains before the invention of the quern. The third group, which is almost certainly of later date, comprises the entirely artificial stone cups (small ones often called elf cups) and stone basins used for the manufacture of pot barley.
[Disease Curing and Weather Control]
The last two groups have generally some tradition associated with them. Many of these have been collected. They most frequently relate to the power of curing different kinds of diseases possessed by them. This, however, was not by any means their only power. There is one belonging to the second group, in a rock near Scallasaig in Colonsay, and the tradition with regard to it is, that by means of it the chief of the McPhees could get south wind when he chose. Hence it was called "Tobar na gaoith deas" (the well of the south wind). Another of this third group is at Kilchattan, also in Colonsay. Like the one at at Riskbuie it is of the pot barley type, and cut out of the solid rock. It is near the ruins of the church of St. Chattan, and of the house of the chief of M'Mhurich (Currie), who owned this portion of the island. His house was called "Tigh an tom dreis" (Bramble knoll house), and according to highland custom he himself was known as "Fear an tom dreis." As chief of the more fertile moiety of the island, M'Mhurich was, of course, a much greater man that M'Phee at Scallasaig. If M'Phee could get south wind, M'Mhurich could by means of his rock basin get any wind he liked. The basin was called "Cuidh Chattain." It is quite a mistake to say, as I have heard at times said, that any Currie could operate the well. It was only "fear an tom dreis" himself who could do it. He could get the wind to blow from any quarter he wished, by the simple expedient of clearing out any rubbish which it might contain on to the side from which the wind was desired. It was sure to come and blow it back again into the basin. Originally I am persuaded it was not any accidental rubbish which was cleared out, but (with undoubtedly certain appropriate ceremonies) the offering of food to the supernatural powers, which has been left in the basin when last used for its primary purpose of making pot barley.
Before passing from the subject of rock basins and cups, I may mention as bearing on the subject a tradition I heard from my friend, Rev. J. M'Lean of Grantully. We were about half way up Glen Lyon, when he pointed out to me some isolated patches of rock by the road side, remarking that they indicated the limit to which the plague had reached in the Glen; St. Adamnan, it seems, stayed its further progress by boring a hole in one of these rocks - catching the plague and stopping it up in the hole. In the time at my disposal I could not find on any of the rocks any artificial markings which might have started this tradition (Mackenzie 1899-1900:330, cited in Chappell 1999).
Perhaps the earliest rock art research published for Scotland, was written by Sir James Y. Simpson, who in addition to being medicine's "father of anesthesia," (by being the first surgeon to use chloroform), was an antiquarian interested in rock art. In the 1864/66 volume of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Simpson published an article entitled: "On the sculpturings of cups and concentric rings on stones in various parts of Scotland" and provided the following information.
[The naming of Achnabreck]
The rock upon which the first and largest collection of concentric rings and cups at Auchnabreach is placed has a Gaelic name, which, according to John Kerr, an old shepherd brought up on the farm, is "Leachd-nan-sleagher" - the rock of the spears. Mr. Henry D. Graham, to whom I am much indebted for drawings of the Auchnabreach sculptures and others, believes the word to be "Leach-nan-sluagh" - the rock of the hosts or gatherings. The rev. Mr M'Bride has perhaps more happily suggested it to be "Leachd-nan-slochd" - the rock of the pits or impressions. The rock itself, let me add, is in a position which commands a charming view of the waters of Loch Gilp and Loch Fyne, with the distant and magnificent hills of Arran as a gigantic background.. . .
[Standing stones and astronomy]
Cargill, Perthshire, - In the thirteenth volume of the first statistical account of Scotland, a description of the parish of Cargill was published about fifty years ago. It is therein stated, "near the village of Cargill may be seen some erect stones of considerable magnitude, having the figure of the moon and stars cut out on them, and are probably the rude remains of pagan superstition. The corn field where these stones stand is called Moonshade to this day. The stones thus marked, and standing in Moonshade or Moonbutt's field, were dug around and under, and buried some half century ago in the agricultural improvements of the ground. In Newbigging, which borders upon the Moonshades field, he raised a stone, a corner of which jutted from the earth. It is a slab of grey whinstone, three feet six inches in length, two feet one inch in breadth, and seven inches in thickness. Upon one of its faces - as represented in plate V. fig.3 - are five concentric circles and some isolated cups (Simpson 1864/66:54-57, cited in Chapell 1999).
More recently, Ronald W. B. Morris (1967-68), published the following folklore in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 100 (1967 -1968) in an article entitled
"The Cup-and-Ring marks and similar sculptures of Scotland: a survey of the Southern Counties Part II."
[Sound production and wishing ceremonies]
In hard sandstone or greywacke a cup one inch in diameter and half an inch deep takes ten minutes to make with a pointed piece of quartz - I have one I which I made myself. Others at different dates in history may have passed the time of day doing this too, for it is a soothing, if noise producing, activity. People in Islay are still deepening existing cup marks, which themselves may come from a pre-Christian era, in a wishing ceremony which seems to be a relic, perhaps of sun worship (list Nos. 46a, 49, and 50).
The large, smooth and carefully rounded cups on the very hard gneiss rocks along the coasts of Tiree and western Argyll, many of which were listed by the late L.M. Mann and other writers in these proceedings and elsewhere, nearly all occur on rocks which lie only a few feet above or below the present sea level. In view of the change in sea level since prehistoric times it seems probable that until not so many centuries ago these big cups were well below the sea, if they existed. I have however, statements from two elderly fishermen- crofters from different parts of the island of Tiree that they personally used these cup-marks in their youth, when fishing, for grinding ground-bait such as cockles, limpets, mussels, pieces of crab and the like. This ground-bait was thrown into the sea adjoining the cup-marks to attract fish. These two gentlemen, and indeed quite a number of other residents on the island of Tiree and in its vicinity, pointed out to me that practically all these big smooth cups are sited at the best fishing points of the area. .........This explanation seems to fit the facts very well. But no one on Tiree was able to explain to me why similar smooth round cups were made one and a half miles inland in one solitary instance on the top of a hill ...... or on the near vertical sides of the Ringing stones. I was indebted to the owner of Millport Croft (No.104) and Mr. J. Davies for the word "Croichtican" (or "Crotagan"), the Gaelic word for these big smooth cups. Perhaps bait mortars' might be a good name for them in English. They are probably between a hundred and several hundred years old, but in some cases, in western Argyll, they may be older. Knocking-stones, mortars and grinding-mills have as a rule been omitted, but some are included where carved out of the living rock, or in very large slabs.
[Spring Milk or "First Fruits"]
A rather special example is the rock basin or cup on Seil island (no.77) which has been used for what one might call neo-pagan purposes within living memory. The widow of the late farmer there states that in her youth, one day each spring this basin had by custom to be filled with milk. If it was not so filled, the 'wee folk' (fairies) would see that the cows gave no milk that summer. The Kerrera ferryman, to whom I told this, said that on Point of Sleat Farm in Skye when he was a boy there had been exactly the same custom. An Islay resident tells me that the same custom existed there, too, until not long ago and I have received a similar account from Miss Marrion Campbell concerning the cup marked stone near the waterfall beside the old chapel at cove,
Knapdale(NR 748767). In Argyll and its isles the pagan gods are not so long dead."
"No.46a Kildalton chapel. Kildatlton. NR458509. On the flagstone base of the Kildalton Cross 7yds. north of chapel. On flagstones NE corner was a cup mark, similar in size and
traditional use to that at Kilchoman (list No.50) - broken off and stolen c.1920.
[Wishing or Fertility Rites]
No.48 Kilchiaran 1. Kilchoman. NR204601. 20yds. north of road, 20yds WSW. of church. On flat slab (6ft x 3ft, 6inch high) over 18 cups up to 6.5 inch in diam., 4inch deep 2 cups
penetrate through slab. Cups said to have been enlarged by former 'wishing' rite. see No.50.
No.50 Kilchoman. NR216632. At foot of Celtic cross 20yds east of church in cemetery. On slate slab (3ft square 0.25 ft high, forming base of cross) 4 basins up to 7 inch diam. 6inch deep - still used in 'wishing ' or 'fertility' rite by turning a pestle 3 revolutions with the sun and leaving a coin. Full of pennies on 1968 visit. Church officer collects periodically. pagan sun worship relic?
No.77 Seil. Clachan Seil. NM776187. 550yds W. of road, 260yds W. of wall, 15yds E. of ditch. On ground level slate outcrop (4.5ft x 2.5ft) - basin 5 inch deep and cup. Until c. 50
years ago basin was filled with milk each spring for the 'wee folk'. Located by Mrs C. Leckie. legend if not filled, cows would yield no milk that summer.
No.82 Balphetrish 2. NM027487. 15yds above high water. 150yds N. of lochs NE. corner. On huge granite boulder (6ft high) - on all its surfaces except undersides - 33 cups of the
crotagan type, except some are on vertical surfaces. Locally known as 'The Ringing stone' or 'Clach na Choire' (Morris 1967-68:53, cited in Chapell 1999).
According to Evan Hadingham, there is living folklore in Ireland associated with large basin stones or "bullauns" and "cursing stones" (Hadingham 1974:95). These large basin stones are found next to cupmarks in Lordenshaws, Northumberland, England. According to Hadingham the water collected in basin stones was frequently thought to cure fertility problems, such as barrenness in women, or to cure illnesses such as rheumatism, or warts, or to cure sore eyes (Hadingham 1974:95). Churches have used them as baptism fonts and stones placed in them are turned during pilgrimages to Temple Feaghna, County Kerry (Id.). Cursing stones are large round pebbles placed in the cavities of the bullaun and were turned clockwise while uttering the curse.
At the monastic sites of Iona and Innishmurray, cursing stones lay on the pedestals of crosses and on the tops of altars. These were turned three times in honour of the sun, in the direction of its course across the sky, and the end of the world would not come until the supporting stones were worn through. Interestingly enough, among the numerous stones placed on one of the Innishmurray altars was a cup-and-ring slab with a double circle and keyhole carving.. . . It may well be that the practice of creating these basins is remotely derived from the cup-markings of prehistoric times, although the beliefs and legends associated with them are probably not as ancient. There are a number of instances where these customs caused offence to the church, for example, in the case of the marble cursing stones which were flung into the sea by order of the Iona Synod in the eighteenth century. (Hadingham 1974:95-96).
J. Collingwood Bruce (1868; cited in Beckensall 1983:19), Stan Beckensall (1983), and Evan Hadingham (1974) have traced the early history of the study of rock carvings in Britain and Ireland. A brief outline and timeline of some of the major Victorian researchers and their ideas follows.
|Before 1852||J. C. Langlands (England)||"Mr. J.C. Langlands discovered some worn and defaced figures incised on a rude sandstone block, near to the great camp on Old Bewick Hill in north Northumberland. Though strange and old-world looking, these figures then presented an isolated fact, and he hesitated to connect them with by-past ages; for they might have been the recent work of an ingenious shepherd, while resting on a hill; but on finding, some years afterwards, another incised stone of a similar character on the same hill, he then formed the opinion, that these sculptures were very ancient. To him belongs the honour of the first discovery of these archaic sculptures . . . " (From Tate; cited in Beckensall 1983:9).|
|1851 - 1852||
Rev. Charles Graves (Ireland)
Rev. Wm. Greenwell (England)
|"The existence of the cups and rings of Northumberland [England] and Cork-Kerry [Ireland] was reported at about the same time in 1851-52. By chance, also, the first major rocks to be discovered in both regions were situated close by the ruins of impressive forts of the Iron Age period. When the earliest investigators, the Reverend Charles Graves in Ireland and the Reverend William Greenwell in Northumberland, looked for an explanation of the curious patterns, it was natural to identify the circles with the outlines of prehistoric forts. They could not have known that perhaps as much as 2,000 years separated the builders of the defences and the carvers of the rings. In these circumstances, the Reverend Graves' 'conjecture that these carvings were primitive maps, representing the disposition of the neighboring forts' . . . was a logical guess and Greenwell made similar suggestions. Since Greenwell noted that barrows were frequently found not far from the Northumberland carvings, it struck him 'that the markings on a rock might be a sort of index to the interments belonging to the tribe within whose territory the rock was situated. That a hollow denoted one burial, say in a tumulus, a circle around it a second burial, and so on . . ." (Hadingham 1974:45).|
|1852||Rev. Wm. Greenwell||First rock art paper read at the Archaeological Institute of Newcastle. It was lost and never published (Bruce 1868; cited in Beckensall 1983:19).|
|1853||George Tate||Tate's first rock art paper was read to the Berwick Naturalists' Club indicating that the rock carvings had "a common origin, and indicate a symbolic meaning, representing some popular thought" (Bruce 1868; cited in Beckensall 1983:19).|
|1860||Sir J. Gardner Wilkinson||Noted circular carvings at Long Meg and her Daughters, near Penrith (Bruce 1868; cited in Beckensall 1983:19).|
|1863||Rev. W. Greenwell||"They differ from all other symbolised expressions with which we are acquainted, and seem peculiar to the Celtic tribes which once peopled all Western Europe" He urged investigation in Britanny and Spain ((Bruce 1868; cited in Beckensall 1983:19).|
|1864||Mr. Dickson of Alnwick||Dickson printed in lithography Notes relating to the incised stones found upon the Hills about Doddington, Chatton, Weetwood, Bewick, Beanley and other places. His theory of their Roman origin was not accepted (Bruce 1868; cited in Beckensall 1983:19).|
|1864||"[N]otices of the discovery of incised markings in Scotland and Ireland appeared in the Journal of the Archaeological Institute" (Bruce 1868; cited in Beckensall 1983:19).|
|1864||George Tate (England)||Read a paper to the Berkwickshire Naturalists Club. "Of this the President remarked that the subject was 'in its infancy' and that 'we want, and may have to wait long for, a key, which like the famous Rosetta stone, will enable us to read and interpret these remarkable inscriptions, engraven so long ago upon the Northumbrian rocks. Whatever may be their import, now so mysterious, they cannot fail to prove, when their meaning is discovered, of very high interest'"(Bruce 1868; cited in Beckensall 1983:19).|
|1864||Sir James Simpson (Scotland)||The 1864/66 volume of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Simpson published an article (based on a paper read in 1864) entitled: "On the sculpturings of cups and concentric rings on stones in various parts of Scotland" (Chappell 1999). This paper included references of folklore. Excerpts are quoted above and in Chappell (1999).|
|1865||George Tate||George Tate published The Ancient British Sculptured Rocks of Northumberland and the Eastern Borders, a major survey work for that region concluding from what others showed him "that the sculptures in Argyllshire are of the same age, and the work of the same people, as those in Northumberland" (Tate 1865; cited in Beckansall 1983:23). ". . . George Tate argued that the carvings were 'symbolic figures, representing religious thoughts' and explained, 'I cannot regard them as the ammusements of an idle soldiery, nor as plans of camps, nor as exercises of incipient engineers; for their wide distribution, and notwithstanding differences in detail, their family resemblence prove that they had a common origin, and indicate a symbolic meaning representing some popular thought . . . " (Hadingham 1974:45).|
|1867||Sir James Simpson||J. Y. Simpson published Archaic Sculptures of cups, circles, etc. upon stones and rocks in Scotland and England and other countries, a major work on cup and rings.|
|1868||J. Collingwood Bruce||"Mr Bruce . . . thought that one tribe made the marks, and that if one discovered many more in Europe it would be possible to trace the movement of such people. He found evidence of the period of the rock carvings in areas 'abounding in remains of the kind usually styled Ancient British' - camps, burials and (rarely) standing stones. He found there was 'no satisfactory answer' to the intention behind these carvings. However he rejected the idea that they were maps of camps, warned readers of the Druidical sacrifice theory and was not convinced that they were 'sun symbols'. What he did say was that 'it is highly probably that these incised markings are, in some way or other, connected with the burial of the dead'. He was supported in this belief by Rev. Greenwell. ' If we connect the circular marked stones with interments we advance a considerable way towards an explanation of their meaning; for this implies that they have a religious significancy.' . . . He also showed that the occurrence of so many outcrop rocks coincided with burial mounds, and compared such occurrences with finds in Argyllshire" (Beckensall 1983:20-21).|
|1876-8||Rev. J. Graves||The Rev. Graves published On Cup and Circle Sculptures as Occurring in Ireland, in JKAS IV 4th Series p. 283-296 and wrote: "In astronomical diagrams, one could hardly fail to recognize a single symbol conspicuous among the rest as denoting the sun or moon, or two such symbols denoting both these bodies. One might also expect to see some delineation, even by the rudest hand, of the phases of the moon. We look in vain for these indications of an astronomical rference in the groups of lines and circles . . ." (Graves 1876-8:291; cited in Hadingham 1974:49).|
These attempts at collecting the folklore surrounding particular cupmarked stones resulted in a variety of possible explanations for the meaning or purpose of the rock art. Even more numerous than the folklore based explanations, are suggestions that various writers have made in the past about the possible meaning or purpose behind the rock art. Since identifying the available "options" is the first step in Ronald Giere's model of scientific decision making, these too become of interest (Giere 1984:278).
Morris compiled over 100 "theories" about cup and rings which he ranked by what he perceived to be their plausibility (Morris 1979:16). The following is that list (without the commentary) and his personal ranking for an idea's plausibility based on a scale of 1 to 10, where a "10" means "certainty, or nearly so," a "5" means "a reasonably sensible idea which may or may not be true," and "0" means it seems impossible. Some "theories" are associations between cup and rings and other artifacts. A citation to the source of an idea was sometimes given and is available (Morris 1979).
1. Burials 10
2. Standing stones 9
3. Alignment markers 10
4. Astronomy 9
5. Re-use in burial 9
6. Early prospectors 8
7. Early prospecting aids 5
8. Belief in after-life 8
9. Religious 7
10. Magical 7
11. Uniform significance 6
12. Magical significance 6
13. Breasts 4
14. Mother goddess 4
15. Mother-goddess worship n.r.
16. Eyes 4
17. Phallic symbols 3
18. Fertility symbols - "sperm entering
the egg" 2
19. Fertility rites 3
20. Marks of sexual prowess 0
21. Circumcision ceremony 1
22. Sex symbols 0
23. Sun symbol 6
24. Sun god 5
25. Baal 5
26. Water divining 0
27. Mixing vessels (bronze) 2
28. Mixing vessels (pigmenst) 4
29. Quantity measures 1
30. Freemasons "earliest" marks 0
31. Sacred food and wine holders 5
32. Fertility rites (Indian) 0
33. Copies of worm casts 2
34. Copies of tree rings 2
35. Copies of ripples from a stone thrown in a pool 2
36. Druids 5
37. Use by druids 5
38. Blood sacrifice 4
39. Code 5
40. Water time-signals 1
41. Clocks 1
42. Pictographs or hieroglyphs 6
43. Early writing 0
44. Messages from outer space 0
45. Megalithic inch 9
46. All measured in or founded on megalithic inches 0
47. Right angle triangles 9
48. Equilateral triangles 6
49. Code 1
50. Spirals are two-centre half-circles or
51. Different races made them 7
52. Bonfire ritual site markers 6
53. Search for food 2
54. Seed production 1
55. Early pilgrimage marks 1
56. Dye-transfer moulds 6
57. Metal moulds 0
58. Maps of the countryside 1
59. Building plans 0
60. Star maps 1
61. "Emblems" 5
62. "Tattooists" patterns 5
63. Decorations 5
64. Doodles 2
65. An elderly man's "screen" 2
66. Boundary markers 1
67. Route markers 5
68. Tribal convention commemorators 3
69. Mithras worship 0
70. Shields 0
71. Gaming tables 3
72. Marbles 3
73. Annular brooches 3
74. Animistic carvings 0
75. Primitive lamp bases 0
76. Water worship 5
77. Cattle worship 2
78. Marks of piety 5
79. Re-use of a long dead superstition 5
80. Monuments to the dead 1
81. Natural 0
82. Hidden treasure 0
83. Plans for megalithic structures 0
84. Plans for laying out mazes 0
85. Field ploughing plans 0
86. Oath marks 5
87. Victory marks 0
88. Mason's marks 0
89. Adder lairs 0
90. Knife-sharpening marks 0
91. An early form of music notation 0
92. Tuning device 0
93. Early astronomer's night memoranda 2
94. Birth, growth, life and death symbol 5
95. A locked-up force 0
96. The stone circle builders carved them 8
97. Healing magic 5
98. Casts for making bronze 3
99. [Tools used by the person buried there] 6
100. Sea goddess worship 1
101. Mirror 5
102. Womb symbol 5
103. Wells 0
104. Child carvings 0
Richard Bradley (1997) commented on this list of ideas in the introduction to his recent book Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe: Signing the Land.
The late Ronald Morris, who spent many years studying the prehistoric rock carvings of the British Isles, heard many accounts of this phenomenon. In fact he listed more than a hundred separate interpretations of these images, marking them out of ten for plausibility. Applying his professional judgement as a lawyer, he awarded marks of six and above to just 22 per cent of suggestions; 53 per cent were marked between one and five, and 25 per cent failed entirely, with a mark of nought (Morris 1979, 16-28). Every archaeologist who has studied the same material would add to Morris's list and no doubt they would rank those ideas in their own ways. The important point is not that different people prefer different interpretations, or that many of those ideas are very subjective. It is that such ideas must be discussed in a disciplined manner if they are to inform prehistoric archaeology. One aim of this book is to offer such a discussion (Bradley 1997:4).
Morris's list is not "mutually exclusive" and "exhaustive," but is an interesting exercise and a good start towards widening the list of possibilities (Giere 1984:263).
Cupmarks are found all over the world and there are many cultural traditions associated with them. These further widen the list of possibilities to be considered (Cox and Stasek 1988; Hadingham 1974:79-80; Morris 1981:6; Parkman 1995:8-9). In India, for example, a dot with rings and a radial line coming from the center are chalked on stones by people marching in marriage processions (Hadingham 1974:80). In Australia, "the ground drawings are created as part of elaborate ceremonies re-enacting the descent of a divine ancestor to the earthly world, in which the circles represent the places where the ancestor rested and left his spirit children" (Id.). In Hawaii the cupmark is associated with long life, birth, and the navel (that "cuplike" anterior center point of human anatomy); cupmarks are a container for a baby's umbilical stump, much like cracks in rocks are. The Ojibwe of Minnesota keep their umbilical stumps so that "they know who they are" (Barber 1993).
The cup and ring rock carvings at the Carschenna site and Canton Grigioni in Switzerland are nearly indistinguishable from those in Galicia and Scotland (Hadingham 1974: 79; Morris 1987:6). Evan Hadingham has speculated that because of such similarities, "Sites such as Lambo da Costa or As Tenxinas [in Galacia] might be a plausible starting point for the impulse which led to Achnabreck or Roughting Linn" (Hadingham 1974:79). Gordon Childe discussed the fish migration route that links northern Portugal to Ireland and Britain as a route for cultural transmission. Could fishermen following a seasonal fish migration have been inspired by seeing Galician rock art? Hadingham argues for several reasons (related to the presence of representational axehead and deer representations in Galicia) that, "There is a distinct possibility . . . that cup-and-ring marks could have been introduced to the area from Ireland, rather than the other way around" (Hadingham 1974:79).
The themes and associations in the folklore described by Chapell, such as fertility, "first fruits," curing disease, animism, weather control, associations with "little people," ringing sounds, astronomy, etc. are familiar to researchers elsewhere in the world. A review of the folklore associated with cupmarks outside of Britain can, in theory, generate hypotheses for testing against the archaeological record in Scotland and broaden the range of cultural possibilities and expand the list of hypotheses.
Due partly to the availability of more material, a review of ethnographic sources from North America and northern Europe does illustrate a degree of richness of mental life associated with cupmarks that may have been lost or pushed "underground" over time in the British Isles. The similarities in folklore suggests the possibility, that the people in Neolithic and early Bronze Age Scotland were animists who may have believed in transmigration of souls. Julius Caesar described a Celtic belief that souls moved from body to body and Livy indicated that to the Celts, death was a pause in a long life.
Obviously the cultures of Neolithic Scotland and historic North America have no direct historical relationship to each other. I do not mean to imply nor endorse any "diffusionist" views of Native American culture coming from northern Europe.
There does appear to be a common biological underpinning to at least some cupmark production, as more fully described in the section below on pica and geophagy. Ethnohistoric sources from California and across northern Europe indicate that the rock powder resulting from cupmark production was ingested.
Pica, Geophagy, and Rock Art: ethnography from northern Europe and elsewhere regarding the ingestion of rock powder and clay by humans and its implications for the production of some cupmarks on a global basis.
Pica ("pie-ka") is the desire to ingest non-food substances such as rock powder, clay, chalk, dirt, and other material, by some humans, most commonly pregnant women, young, and patients with chronic kidney disease. It is a common phenomenon also seen in many animals. Geophagy ("gee-off-a-gee") has been defined as "a practice in rural or preindustrial societies of eating earthy substances ([such] as clay) to augment a scanty or mineral-deficient diet" (Merriam-Webster 1999:488).
"In Jamaica, in 1992, in a study on the dietary habits of rural women during pregnancy, it was noted that 15 of the 38 pregnant women questioned reported cravings" (Walker 1999). The most common craving in the study (20%), was not for crunchy pickles and ice cream, but was a craving to ingest stone. "The main reasons given for craving a food item were 'I feel like eating it' and 'I get to like it' " (Walker 1999).
This well documented medical and cultural phenomenon has a direct connection, according to ethnohistoric sources, to the production of some rock art on a global basis, in particular the production of some cupmarks or cupules, occasionally referred to in North American archaeological literature as "pits."
Cupmarks produce about a tablespoon of powder or 1 dose. Experiments show it is much easier to make a cupmark on a heavy solid rock or wall rather than something the size of a light field stone.
Globally, cupmarks appear on nearly every continent and have a time depth that extends from the present at least as far back as the Upper Paleolithic (Parkman 1995). During the late nineteenth century Charles Rau (1881) reported that across Germany and in Sweden "cup-marks" and "grooves" or "furrows" had been inexplicably carved into the outside brick walls and sometimes the mortar of many churches, usually on the south side, near entrances. The reason for the association between European "ecclesiastical structures" and these cupmarks was a mystery to Rau. Rau seems to have viewed it as the continuation of a pagan custom, which it may very well have been, however, knowledge of the medical phenomena of pica and geophagia in humans might have added support to another perspective about this unusual and compulsive appearing behavior on the sides of religious buildings across Germany and Sweden.
Charles Rau recorded that, "The cups on churches in Germany seem to to have been thought to possess healing qualities. Fever-sick people blew, as it were, the disease into the cavities. According to other accounts, the patients swallowed the powder produced in grinding out the cups" (Rau 1881:88).
Rau also described two stones in France attached to or actually inside churches where people ground holes in the stones and drank the powder to cure fever and impotency. He also identified a location in Switzerland where "ailing persons drill into the stones of a certain chapel, and swallow the dust thus obtained" (Rau 1881: 88-89) He then mentioned a citizen of Greifswald, Pomerania who reported "that the cups were still resorted to in his time for charming away the fever" (Rau 1881:89).
In at least one African study similar behaviors were observed. The walls of houses were actually the first place non food items were sought by those practicing pica.
Jannie Loubser (personal communication) has told to me that in Namibia he has seen multiple rows of cupules on the sides of painted shelters and apparently cupules can be found on the sides of the Easter Island Heads and, if the photos can be trusted, the Sphinx of Giza. Cupmarks have also been reported to have been carved on the top of Olmec Heads as well.
Animal studies by Mitchell, et al., in 1976 on the etiology of geophagia concluded that the phenomenon "may be a response to mitigate the effects of toxic agents that have been introduced into the body" (Simon 1998:654). In similar studies, in 1977, Burchfield, et al., "reported studies on rats that indicated geophagia increased when rats were made acutely ill. They concluded that geophagia 'may occur in response to any . . . (stress state)'. In particular, the authors noted that geophagia occurred in response to induction of arthritus and as a response to acute gastrointestinal illness" (Id.).
Ethnohistoric information in North America directly associates some cupmarked rock art with couples seeking to enhance fertility (Parkman 1995:8-9). Some production of cupmarks has also been reported to have occurred near the time of births (Id.).
E. Breck Parkman, for example, working in California, has reported that in Pomo society the powder resulting from cupmark production was sought after by couples wishing to have a baby that otherwise were facing sterility and childlessness (Heizer 1953; Merriam 1955; Parkman 1995:8).
In Pomo and Shasta ethnographic accounts, cupmarks are sometimes equated with fertility and are referred to as "baby rocks" (Id.). According to Merriam the powder from cupmark production was ingested by women in the belief that it made them more fertile (Merriam 1955). The production process for cupmarks was thought to release the underworld's spiritual power that resided in the rock. The action of making the cupmarks was also believed to be able to bring benefits such as game and rain (Loubser,in press; Merriam 1955). The Pomo of Northern California also used dirt in their diet. They mixed it with ground acorn and this neutralized the acid (Rosenberg 2000).
In Sweden, women wishing to become mothers deposited small gifts at cupmarked stones. In Sweden, cupmarked stones are called "elfstenar" and unlike in children's stories, the elfs are described as "the souls of the dead" who "frequently dwell in or below stones" (Rau 1881:86). Furthermore, it is believed that, "If their quiet is disturbed, or their dwelling-place desecrated, or if due respect is not paid to them, they will revenge themselves by afflicting the perpetrators with diseases or other misfortunes. For this reason people take care to secure the favor of the 'little ones' by sacrifices, or to pacify them when offended" (Id.).
In many animistic religions, underground spirits are associated with curing sickness and fertility so there are pervasive religious aspects as well as practical uses for the rock powder medicines found in nature. Native American shamen were knowledgeable about the health benefits of minerals as well as plants. For example, Ojibwe shamen undertook vision quests to determine from the underground spirits which, of 40 minerals of the earth, should be used to treat their patients (Rajnovich 1989). Jack Steinbring has told me that the northern Ojibwe ground up imported conch shells and drank the powder in a tea considering this a spiritual event (Jack Steinbring, personal communication). Antler and bone are well known traditional non-food medicinal items in Chinese medicine which threatens endangered species.
In my field research in the Upper Midwest region of the United States I have noticed that cupmarked boulders such as at Fort Ransom, North Dakota and Blood Run, Iowa are rather predictably composed of granite next to a large chunk of quartz and are typically situated near natural springs and below hills with burial mounds. The ethnohistoric accounts of the Dakota clearly indicate that to the Dakota boulders were not considered inanimate objects but were the occasional dwelling place of spirits such as Inyan and Taku Skan Skan (Callahan 1999).
In the April 2000 issue of National Geographic, an article on "medicines in nature," has a full page photograph of a woman from Georgia chewing white clay for morning sickness (Swerdlow 2000:98). The caption indicates that the woman "swears by the old-time remedy of eating kaolin, or white clay . . . some women crave it, especially during pregnancy" (Swerdlow 2000:98).
There are extensive anthropological observations of geophagia in Indonesia, Oceania, Africa, and among African-Americans of North America and, like cupmarks, geophagia has been observed on nearly every continent (Anell and Lagercrantz 1958, cited in Simon 1998).
Sometimes non-food consumption was undertaken for religious and magical purposes and frequently by pregnant and lactating women (Laufner 1930, cited in Simon 1998).
"During pregnancy, the body requires 20% more nutrients and 50% more during lactation" (Rosenberg 2000). Although especially common in pregnant women geophagia "also occurs in both sexes and at all ages up to 80 y[ears]" (Simon 1998:654).
Geophagia can be a famine food or a regular part of some diets. Native Americans of the U.S. Southwest - eat clay with bitter raw potatoes and Native Americans in southern California - bake bread with clay and corn (Id.). Potatoes are thought to have been initially poisonous and humans learned to eat potatoes with clay. Like other animals, humans appear to instinctively know to ingest clay and rock powder for stomach problems.
The enteric nervous system in the human gut, with 100 million neurons (more than the spinal cord), is described by doctors as akin to a second human brain that learns, remembers, and produces feelings and has a long evolutionary history (Blakeslee 1999).
Mitchell "concluded from rat studies that pica [and geophagia] is an 'illness-response' behavior and is analogous to vomiting in other species" (Mitchell et al. 1976). The potato that first poisoned some hungry South American was probably instinctively followed shortly thereafter by a dose of clay. In historic times, Zapotec Indians in Oaxaca, Mexico manufactured tablets of clay for medicinal purposes, formed in shapes of religious images (Green and Jones 1968, cited in Simon 1998).
As has been observed many times, religious activity and the number of charms and amulets in the archaeological record appears to increase during times of stress. Part of the physiological reaction to stress is generated by the enteric nervous system so there is a deep biological connection between that part of the human nervous system, our gut feelings, and religion. Both the ingestion of rock powder and religious behavior serve to help reduce and relieve discomfort from intestinal discomfort and stress. Their intertwined appearance in ethnohistoric sources should come as no particular surprise since both strategies serve to reduce the intestinal discomfort being generated in part by the enteric nervous system responding to external stress or gastrointestinal illness. Fasting for religious reasons, extreme nausea from peyote, and the ethnographic descriptions of San shamans's stomachs "boiling" just before going into altered states of consciousness are just three examples of the profound connection between the gut and religion. Intuition might also partly result from this dimly understood influence on human consciousness. An instinct has been defined as "1: a natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity . . . 2a: a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason [and 2]b: behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level" (Merriam-Webster 1999:606).
A review of the medical literature indicates that pica in humans has a long history. According to Boyle and Mackey,
Pica ingestion has occurred for centuries. Ingestion of clay lozenges to treat illness and poisoning was documented as early as 40 B.C.E. in Greece, . . . The underlying cause of pica is not known; however, pica is associated with a higher incidence of malnutrition. Several theories have been advanced to explain the reasons for pica, including the body's need to acquire certain missing nutrients, hunger, cultural tradition, prevention of nausea, and attention seeking. There is also a strong link between pica and iron deficiency; however, the exact relationship is not clear.
Pica is thought by some researchers to cause anemia [and] . . other researchers believe that depleted iron stores lead to pica--that pica is a consequence, not a cause of iron deficiency.. . .Women have related that if they are unable to ingest their nonfood substance, they become worried, upset, and/or anxious . . .
[S]ubjects recounted a variety of reasons for ingesting nonfood substances, such as 'craving,' 'It tastes good,' and 'It's dry and crunchy.' They 'wanted it,' 'liked it,' and 'It smelled good,' . . . (Boyle and Mackey 1999 65-67).
According to an article by Dr. A.R.P. Walker,
Early descriptions of the habit were given in Aristotle and Hippocrates.. . . The Roman physician Soranus described how pica was used for the alleviation of subsequent symptoms and the unpredictable appetite in pregnancy, which can include a strong desire for extraordinary foods. He noted that the need began about the fortieth day of pregnancy and persisted for some four months or more.. . . In the 18th century, when it was learned that the Sultan of Turkey ate a special clay from the island of Lemnos, the Europeans quickly adopted the product as health food . . .
The practice of pica is widespread throughout the world. Geophagia is particularly common in tropical areas.. . . Contributing factors include hunger, poverty, starvation and famine . . . Pica may function as a bulking agent to supplement a poor diet . . . In southern Germany, quarrymen partook of 'stone butter' derived from clay, with their food . . .
While the eating of clay is strongly connected to folk medicine and social custom, it also has the quality of compulsive behaviour . . .
In Australia some Aboriginals eat white clay . . . similar to the clay used in kaolin preparations. Clay is . . . eaten to 'line the stomach' before eating yams, or fish that may be poisonous, to allay hunger and to treat hookworm infestation . . .
In the southern states of the US pregnant women . . . believed that such substances helped to prevent vomiting, helped babies to thrive, cured swollen legs and ensured beautiful children. Birthmarks are thought to be the result of an unsatisfied craving
The practice of pica is widespread in Africa and is variously associated with spiritual ceremonial behaviors. In Malawi it is reported to be surprising for a pregnant woman not to practice pica 'since this is how a woman knows that she is pregnant'. The taste of clay is claimed to diminish the nausea, discomfort and vomiting in 'morning sickness'.. . . In rural areas [in some African countries] an estimated prevalence level [for pregnant women who eat clay] is 90%.. . . There are few women who never take clay. One woman in rural Zimbabwe, 23 years old, married, did not take clay--from the fact that she had never conceived she regarded herself as barren.. ..
Although nutritionists and other observers have tended to view geophagy, and pica in general, as a compulsive craving and as a medicine to alleviate discomfort in some respects . . . Clays could absorb dietary toxins and bacterial toxins associated with gastrointestinal disturbance associated with pregnancy. Geophagy could play a useful role in its proper context and could be appreciated as a normal human behaviour . . . (Walker, et al. 1997:280-4).
According to Rosenberg, "The clay commonly ingested in Africa contains important nutrients such as: phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, copper, zinc, manganese, and iron" (Rosenberg 2000). "For females, . . . white clay, at an upper consumption rate of 100g per day, would supply 322% of Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for iron, 70% copper and 43% of manganese" (Walker, et al. 1997:280-4).
Thus, ethnohistoric sources clearly point to a connection between pica and the production of some cupmarks, but our knowledge and understanding of the extent of this phenomenon is far from complete and there are other related reasons for making cupmarks, such as death stones, where fertility may be sought for rebirth of a recently deceased soul, i.e. transmigration of souls (Callahan 1999).
It is my hope that by increasing awareness, and triangulating both the cultural and biological reasons for the ingestion of rock powder by humans, that rock art researchers will have an additional hypothesis to add to the discipline's explanatory "toolkit."
A review of the ethnohistoric literature on North American cupmarks indicates several themes similar to those found in northern Europe including complex religious and medical associations with the products of cupmark production. This geographical digression from the folklore of Britain is undertaken because it generates several hypotheses about cupmarks from an area with a sizeable ethnographic base. It also demonstrates the apparent complexity of cultural beliefs that are associated with cupmarked boulders, rock powder, and clay.
Cupmarked boulders are found in several places in the Upper Midwest. Geologically, all clay comes from the weathering of granite. In a prairie environment, fine white clay, or kaolin, can be produced by pounding the surface of weathered granite boulders and mixing in a little water. One possibility then is that the fine white clay powder (like talcum powder) that resulted from making a cupmark on weathered granite was both a functional and a symbolic item with protective supernatural "power."
A Kansa man in mourning "was required to fast, wandering about and crying in solitary places, having clay on his face" (Skinner 1916:750). According to Robert L. Hall (1997):
White clay was used at one time in mourning ritual for a large block of tribes in the central and northern Plains, among them the Mandan, Atsina, Blackfoot, Eastern Dakota, Western Dakota, Assiniboine, Omaha, Ponca, Kansa, and the Crow - all of these being speakers of Siouan languages except the Atsina and Blackfoot. William McLeod has said that in the Plains "the use of white [paint in mourning] appears to belong to a level of culture earlier than the use of black, and to be receding before the use of black (Hall 1997:46).
Hall pointed out the antiquity of this practice when he wrote: "White marly clay was puddled over Hopewell burials in mounds east of Newville, Wisconsin, which is located at the outlet of Lake Koshkonong, and liquid white clay was applied to the faces of two burials in another middle Woodland mound excavated near the outlet of Lake Monona, south of Madison, Wisconsin" (Hall 1997:19).
White clay was used in the mourning aspects of the Crow Sun Dance and in the Hidatsa Sun Dance (Hall 1997:46). According to records of Stephen H. Long's expedition, the Hidatsa Medicine Stone pictographs were painted or made with white clay. Linda Olson has recently pointed out to me that her research seems to indicate that white paint was used when asking spirits for a blessing or favor and red paint was used when thanking spirits. (L. Olson 1999, personal communication).
Luther Standing Bear (1978) wrote that red face paint was used daily by Dakota women and more fair skinned children to protect the face and body from sun and wind. He also noted that this was the origin of the term "red man" since Native Americans have brown colored skin (Standing Bear 1978). Standing Bear described his Lakota grandmother, who was anticipating the birth of a child, baking red earth clay and pounding it into a fine powder to mix with buffalo fat. This rendered it into a creamy paste which "served as a cleanser and also a protector to the tender skin of the child. . . [G]randmother . . . gathered the driest of buffalo chips and ground them between stones to a powder as fine and soft as talcum. This powder was a purifier, and soothing to an irritated skin"(Standing Bear 1978:118).
The Omaha put clay on the head and face and wore very little clothing during a vision quest (LaFlesche 1889:3). White clay gives a ghostlike appearance.
Many Plains Indian tribes visited a sacred well in Kansas and clay and paint were sometimes mixed with the sacred water from the well to make body paint (Gatschet 1891:68). This may have provided protection from the sun and insects but also would have been symbolic and protective since paint had supernatural power (Rajnovich 1994).
"Mine Soto" in Dakota means "whitish water" and according to Mary Eastman (1849) this was a reference to the white clay in the Minnesota River from which the state took its name. Paul Durand has indicated that a Dakota man once told him a story that a portion of a bluff in western Minnesota had caved in sprinkling white clay in the water and that is where Mine Soto or the name whitish water originated. This seems to correlate well with Mary Eastman's account from 1849.
Clues to answer the riddle of why the Dakota might have noticed and then referenced the white clay in the water of the Minnesota River when naming one of the most important rivers of the Upper Midwest can be found in the ethnohistoric records of nearby tribes in Wisconsin. "The Winnebagoes believed that their horned water spirits dwelled in dens carved out of shining white clay" (Hall 1997:19). "The Potawatomis believed that when drowned persons were found with white clay in their mouth, nostrils, and eyes that it was a sure sign that the horned water panthers had drowned them" (Hall 1997:19).
Bob Hall has pointed to the antiquity of the symbolic and religious associations between mud and clay and death and world renewal when he wrote that:
The sods in Cheyenne and Arapaho Sun Dances explicitly represent lumps of mud brought from beneath the primordial sea by mythical Earth Divers. . . The importance in northern midwestern Woodland burial mound architecture of mud and sediments from watery environments implies that Woodland mound ceremonialism may have had a hitherto unrecognized relationship to World Renewal ritual. These mortuary and World Renewal connections lead in several directions (Hall 1997:22).
High quality clay powder also would make an absorbent material useful as an internal medicine or presumably as an external absorbent drying agent for weeping wounds such as result from nettles. Kaolin with pectin is still the active ingredient in Kaopectate which is used to treat diarrhea and can be found in any drugstore. Kaolin is the fine white clay used in the finest porcelain ceramics and to make 18th century white clay pipes.
In northern England there is a site with cup and rings on a vertical rock surface suggesting that cupmarks were not functional mortars. All of the surfaces of the Blood Run boulder have cupmarks, including the vertical surfaces, so the cupmarks were not made to hold something and were not a functional mortar and pestle for grinding grain, grinding acorns, cracking nuts or mixing paint.
Although the powder might have been used as an earth pigment, the cupmark was probably not the mixing mortar - at least on those vertical surfaces. The action of repeatedly striking the same spot may have been a ritual or trance enhancing activity during a birth or death vision quest, prayer, or sacrifice.
There is some indication that rock art was produced to mark or record deaths in at least one Plains Indian culture.
Frances La Flesche, in the Journal of American Folk-Lore stated:
There is a belief in the [Omaha] tribe that before the spirits finally depart from men who died of wounds or their results, they float toward a cliff overhanging the Missouri, not far from the present Santee [Dakota] Agency, in Nebraska, and cut upon the rocks a picture showing forth their manner of death. A line in the picture indicates the spot where the disease or wound was located which caused the death. After this record is complete, the spirit flies off to the land of the hereafter. It is said that these pictures are easily recognized by the relatives and friends of the deceased. This place is known as . . . Where the spirits make pictures of themselves (La Flesche cited in Dorsey 1894:420).
I presume this rock art was produced by relatives or shamen at night.
Cupmarked boulders have been extensively studied in California by archaeologist, E. Breck Parkman (1995) who has reviewed and summarized ethnohistoric sources regarding their cultural significance in the Far West.
They may have been associated with good fishing (i.e. salmon renewal) and "world renewal" ceremonies. In southern California there has been some suggestion that cupules were associated somehow with archaeoastronomy (Parkman 1995:8). One cup marked boulder was known to the Yokuts as "Pahpahwits, Sounding or Ringing Place" and "it was struck or 'rung' by those passing along the trail" (Latta 1977:196-197; cited in Gordon 1990:230). There is some ethnographic and archaeological data to suggest that cupules were used as territorial markers, and to mark each new death or burial.
This latter use may explain the large number of cupmarks on the Blood Run, Iowa boulders since there are so many burial mounds on the plateau just above them. Early accounts described over 275 circular mounds at Blood Run and 68 are intact. At the Fort Ransom Writing Rock in North Dakota there are fewer mounds on top of the hill above the cupmarked boulder than at the Blood Run site and there are also fewer cupmarks. Otherwise the sites are quite similar in their layout and the cupmarked boulders may be related to the funerary nature of the area.
In California, cupmarked boulders that were used to mark each new death were called "death stones" and in some cases these boulders also made a ringing sound when struck. At Blood Run, sounds travel quite well to the boulder and communication across the Big Sioux River was probably easy from that spot.
In northeastern California some cupmarked boulders commemorated mythological events and may have been used in vision questing. As Parkman put it: "Cupule boulders found atop these mountains may represent places where visitors left offerings or made prayers" (Parkman 1995:8). According to Parkman, among the Kumeyaay, cupules may have been used to produce powder for paint.
I personally interviewed one of Breck Parkman's informants at the 1995 International Rock Art Congress in Flagstaff, Arizona. She was a shaman and was over 90 years old and, although in a wheelchair, could remember the use of cupmarked sites in California from her youth. After a death, or the birth of a baby, the young fathers in that culture, after deprivations of several days, would typically run downhill from a cup marked petroglyph site and jump into a cold spring.
Admittedly, the ethnography from the Far West comes from a different culture than the Upper Midwest or Scotland but it raises the possibility that cupmarked stones could be "death" stones used to record deaths and perhaps were symbolically associated with a belief in rebirth or transmigration of souls. Such a belief was recorded for some of the Dakota (Callahan 1999).
A review of ethnography, folklore, and medical literature reveals a large number of hypotheses regarding cupmark production and a variety of possible uses for the rock powder that results. By triangulating the cultural and biological reasons for cupmark production with the archaeological "artifacts," it should be possible to discriminate between competing hypotheses.
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