Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An Absence of Eyes

Among the ten of thousands of petroglyphs in the Northern Great Basin you will not see eyes.  No human-like faces or forms with prominent eyes looking out.  Peering at you or past you. Yet, despite many rock art researchers obsession with typologies, styles, and motifs, this simple broad – even breathtaking - difference has not been studied or explained.
The absence of eyes in the rock art of southeastern Oregon and contiguous regions in the Great Basin is a compelling visual cultural distinction, indeed perhaps a defining and characteristic difference, from the powerful presence of eyes in rock art and other art forms of the traditional cultures of Columbia River Basin and the Northwest Coast.
Australian archaeologist Ben Watson offers an intriguing discussion, with a range of visual examples, of anthropomorphic faces with prominent eyes appearing in prehistoric rock art.  An emphasis of a frontal view with a high degree of symmetry derives from human perception and recognition, he argues. Watson highlights hunter-gatherer societies in many regions of the world and easily acknowledges faces with prominent eyes are comparatively rare in some regions [1].
For decades anthropologists have studied cultural change and the dynamics of human movements and influences spanning many millennia throughout the intermountain realms of the Columbia Plateau and Great Basin [2]. I hope they will look more closely at eyes – or their absence [3].  Rock art, ever elusive, is there to be seen.
[1] Watson, Ben. "The eyes have it: human perception and anthropomorphic faces in world rock art." Antiquity 85, no. 327 (2011): 87-98.
 (2] For example, the work of Luther Cressman, Mel Aikens and others at the University of Oregon and most recently the work of James C. Chatters, Kenneth Ames, Charlotte Beck, and George T. Jones, in books such as Meetings at the Margins: Prehistoric Cultural Interactions in the Intermountain West (2012) and From the Pleistocene to the Holocene: human organization and cultural transformations in prehistoric North America (2012). Also of interest: Don Hann’s 2013 paper “Is the Medium the Message?  Petroglyphs and Pictographs as Cultural Markers at the Interface of the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau in Oregon.” IFRAO 2013 Proceedings, American Indian Rock Art, Volume 40.
[3] There IS a curious exception - in the northernmost Great Basin near Petroglyph Lake on the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge.  See Eyes album.  More:  Eyes Petroglyphs along Puget Sound  and the July 19, 2013 blog.


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