History

'Winged Monster' Rock Art Finally Deciphered

People have long debated whether the red pictographs of Utah's Black Dragon Canyon are images of humans and animals, or a large winged monster.

The mystery surrounding the ancient rock paintings of Utah's Black Dragon Canyon has finally been solved. For decades, researchers and creationists have debated whether the vibrant red pictographs are images of humans and animals, or rather, depictions of a large winged monster, possibly a pterosaur.

Now, using cutting-edge technology, researchers suggest the red paintings show five separate images, including a tall bug-eyed person, a smaller person, a sheep, a dog and a serpentlike figure.

"It is not a single figure. It is not a pterodactyl," said co-lead researcher Paul Bahn, a freelance archaeologist. "It's a beautiful set of images." [See Photos of the Rock Paintings from Black Dragon Canyon]

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The rock paintings belong to the agrarian Fremont culture (circa A.D. 1 to 1100). Other Fremont rock paintings - known as Barrier Canyon style - show abstract humanlike figures with elongated bodies and round heads, the researchers wrote in the study. These long figures are usually accompanied by tiny "attendants," including people, birds and four-legged creatures, such as hoofed animals, canines, felines, badgers and bears.

Amateurs discovered the painting in 1928, and soon after talk of the "winged monster" arose. In 1947, a man named John Simonson traced over the paintings with chalk and said the end result looked like "a weird bird."

Chalking rock art was a common practice in earlier years - ancient rock art is usually faint, and chalk can help make it visible - but today it's illegal, Bahn said.

"It's one of the worst things you can do, because it damages the art, it imposes what you think you can see on it, it messes up the chemistry of the rock, probably, and it just doesn't disappear," Bahn told Live Science.

Intriguing interpretations The chalking may have influenced subsequent viewings of the art. Rock-art specialist Polly Schaafsma said she saw a "beak lined with sharp teeth" in a 1970 report. In 1979, geologist Francis Barnes said it looked "very much like a pterosaur, a Cretaceous flying reptile."

The fossils of pterosaurs, flying reptiles that lived from 228 million to 66 million years ago, are found in the region. Some creationists began saying that the painting was a real-life impression of pterosaurs that lived at the same time as humans, and a few people even tried to identify the species, saying it was Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a reptile with a wingspan of about 39 feet (12 meters), Bahn said. (Many creationists believe the Earth is just several thousand years old, instead of about 4.5 billion years old, and as such humans and dinosaurs would have lived together.)

But to many researchers, the painted area clearly shows separate images, not a single image of a pterosaur.

"I myself visited the site in person a few years ago," said Phil Senter, an associate professor of biology at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, who was not associated with the study. "There's no pterodactyl there at all. It's a collection of other images."

Benjamin Smith, a professor of world rock art at the University of Western Australia, stressed that humans knew little about dinosaurs and other extinct animals until the 1800s, long after the Fremont culture people painted Black Dragon Canyon.

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"Since Native American art is of spiritual significance and holds significant religious content, images can also depict magical and mythical subject matter," said Smith, who was not involved with the study. "Not all animals in Native American art therefore need to depict real-world creatures. Some will be supernatural, but none will be dinosaurs."

Novel techniques Bahn and his colleague Jean-Loi?c Le Quellec, a rock-art expert at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, traveled to Black Rock Canyon for their new TV documentary series, "On the Rocks," in which they feature rock art from around the world. [Gallery: See Amazing Images of Cave Art]

Other experts have written studies that attempt to debunk the creationist pterosaur interpretation, but the new study is the first to use cutting-edge techniques, including a tool called DStretch and a portable X-ray fluorescence device, Bahn said.

With DStretch, researchers can photograph a pictograph and upload it onto a computer. The program then helps researchers highlight the original pigmentsin the painting, in this case ochre, even when the colors aren't visible to the naked eye. Users can also disentangle colors from unwanted additions, such as chalk.

"Where you've got paint that has faded over the hundreds or thousands of years, DStretch will make them very clear and very visible," Bahn said.

The DStretch results showed "very clearly that these are a set of separate figures," he said. "What was supposed to be one wing of this pterodactyl is actually two little four-legged animals. The so-called head and beak and neck of the pterodactyl actually a human figure with its spindly legs and its two arms stretching out."

Cave Paintings: Behind the Artists: Photos

Marvin Rowe, a rock-art expert and professor emeritus of chemistry at Texas A&M University, scanned the cave art with portable X-ray fluorescence, which reveals an artifact's chemical makeup.

"He showed that where there are paintings, you get a tremendously high reading of iron, of course, because it's iron oxide, this paint," Bahn said. "In other areas, between the so-called neck of the pterodactyl and its body, there's nothing, because there is no paint there."

With these two methods - the DStretch and the X-ray fluorescence - the researchers say in the study that they removed the "interpretational bias" that is inherent with eyeballing rock art, and used a scientifically replicable process instead.

But the pterosaur perception will likely continue to linger, Bahn said.

On the new documentary, the researchers invited a creationist to view their results. "We were all very polite to each other, and he showed us what he thought he saw on the wall," Bahn said. "We said, ‘It looks like a number of separate figures to us.'"

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"He said, ‘No no, no, I've had this checked out with infrared, and the whole thing is one single painting. It's a very detailed painting of a pterodactyl,'" Bahn recalled.

That idea is outlandish, especially because the separate images are easily seen with the naked eye, Bahn and other rock-art experts said.

"Things are sometimes exactly what they seem to be," Senter said.

The study was published in the August issue of the journal Antiquity.

Original article on Live Science.

Gallery: Europe's Oldest Rock Art Capitol Reef: Photos of Southern Utah's Majestic Beauty Creationism vs. Evolution: 6 Big Battles Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

A close-up view of the other "wing." Notice the white chalk lines that were added in the 1940s, and may have been re-chalked since then.

Oct. 5, 2011 -

The vivid rock art of the Rouffignac caves in the Dordogne region of France have captivated tourists for centuries. Although the caves have been known since the 16th century, it was not until 1956 that experts realized that some of the most striking art was prehistoric. And only recently have archaeologists realized that many of the prehistoric images were made by children. Sometimes the children were held up and even guided in their drawings by adults, according to new analysis.

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Dating to a hunter-gatherer culture that inhabited the region some 13,000 years ago, the drawings include striking depictions of mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, goats, horses and bisons. But the majority of the drawings covering the caves consist of single, double and triple sets of lines running in undulating, crisscrossing and curving patterns. "We found these marks everywhere, even in the deepest places," Cambridge University archaeologist Jessica Cooney told Discovery News.

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Made by people running their hands down the soft surfaces of the walls and ceilings, the markings are known as "finger flutings." The term was coined in 1986 by Australian archaeologist Robert G. Bednarik, who published images of such drawings from caves in western Europe and southern Australia.

In Rouffignac, the finger flutings were mostly made by children. Cooney and colleagues established the age of the fluting artists using a methodology devised by Leslie van Gelder of Walden University's College of Education in Minneapolis, Minn. (the current director of the Rouffignac finger fluting project), and her late husband, archaeologist and theologian, Kevin Sharpe. Developed after analyzing the hands of thousands of contemporary people, the technique focuses on measuring the width of the flutings made by the three middle fingers -- the index, middle and ring fingers. Three-fingered measurements of 1.3 inches or less indicate a child of 7 years or younger, while 1.1 inch measurements are consistent with children about 3 to 5 years old.

A five-mile cavern network created by river systems, the Rouffignac caves feature three levels, but only the top level has art. "This top level alone has chambers with a combined area of about three square miles, with the farthest part of the cave about 45 minute walk from the entrance," Cooney said. Flutings made by children appear everywhere. "Even those that are a good 45 minutes' walk from the entrance feature children's flutings. So far, we haven't found anywhere that adults fluted without children," Cooney said.

In several cases, children's flutings are high up -- about 6.5 feet -- on the walls and on the ceilings. "They must have been held up to make them or have been sitting on someone's shoulders," Cooney said.

Cooney and colleagues found marks by children aged between two and seven-years-old. The most prolific artist was a five-year-old girl. "We found her everywhere. She is in the most chambers with the most locations," Cooney said. The researchers established that the copious artist was a girl based on the ratio of her fingers. "A male hand has a ring (fourth) finger which is longer than the index (second) finger. A female hand has an index finger that is the same length or longer than the ring finger. This difference apparently happens prior to birth, in utero, and so it is visible in children's hands," Cooney said. "We have many clear profiles of the 5 year old and her second finger is longer than her fourth finger, indicating to us that she was most likely a girl," Cooney said.

The youngest artist was a two-year-old child, who was probably guided by an adult. "The flutings occur in places around 6 feet high, which could not have been reached without help. Also, some flutings are very deliberate and controlled, so we think that someone might have guided the child's hand," Cooney said.

Adults mostly fluted on the ceilings. In some cases, rudimentary depictions of animals appear. In this picture, the mammoth is fluted with a single finger, making it impossible for the researchers to determine the age of the artist. "We do find children's flutings near some animals but I believe that the flutings made across that particular mammoth are an adult's," Cooney said.

The simple, meandering lines are often accompanied by fluted hut shapes called tectiforms, which are believed to have a symbolic meaning. "This study allows us to begin to question some of the cave art theories, like shamanism or hunting magic, and re-evaluate why this very human activity began. It also shows us the importance children had in prehistory. We can give individuals who didn't have a 'voice' before the chance to be heard," Cooney said.