Reviewed by Gordon Bronitsky (Bronitsky and Associates, Denver)
Published on H-AmIndian (May, 2002)
First, a brief caveat. Although the book is titled Plains Indian Rock Art, the coverage is limited to rock art of the northeastern Plains--primarily Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Alberta and Saskatchewan. With that understanding, I can recommend this book most highly. It follows up Keyser¹s thorough study, Indian Rock Art of the Columbia Plateau, to present a detailed survey of the origins, diversity and beauty of Plains rock art. It covers the natural and archeological history of the region, explains rock art forms, techniques, styles, terminology and dating, and offers interpretations of images and compositions.
Part 1. Introduction and Background, includes a very thorough assessment of different techniques that have been used to date rock art. The discussion of potentials and problems of cation ratio (CR) dating is especially good. Chronological placement of different rock art traditions later in the book are characterized by an informed understanding of the potential advantages and problems with the techniques used. A chapter on interpretation of rock art reviews contributions from stylistic and descriptive studies, semiotics, and analogy and iconography. The discussion of neurophysiological studies and entopictoc phenomena is especially intriguing, linking a variety of rock art forms such as wavy lines and starbursts to the phosphenes or flashes of light and color "seen" in the brain during altered states of consciousness, such as those most likely experienced by shamans and individuals undergoing vision quests.
Part 2. Most of the book is devoted to a survey of ten rock art traditions encountered in the region. Each tradition is characterized as to the history of research, motifs and compositional arrangements, dating and chronology, distribution and regional relationships, cultural affiliations, and interpretations. One of these, the Early Hunter Tradition, is linked to the Archaic Period, and feature detailed communal big game hunting scenes and the authors make a strong case for its use in sympathetic magic rituals.
The other traditions, linked in varying degrees to historic Indian communities, include the Columbia Plateau Tradition, Dinwoody Tradition, the En Toto Pecked Tradition, the Pecked Abstract Tradition, the Foothills Abstract Tradition, the Hoofprint Tradition, the Ceremonial Tradition, the Biographic Tradition, and the Vertical Series Tradition. Of these, the Dinwoody tradition is the most exuberant in its portrayals of anthropomorphs of bizarre forms and shapes, with many attributes of spirit beings, which the authors link to the spirit beings encountered by Northern Shoshone shamans on their journey to the spirit world.
Several of these traditions persist into the post-contact, historic period, based on depictions of horses and other Euroamerican introductions, even including automobiles. The authors do a good job of linking these to Plains art in other media, especially the Biographic tradition with the well-known robe and ledger art tradition of the Great Plains.
The book also includes a visitor's guide to Plains rock art sites, grouped by Province and State, which is quite helpful. Description of such significant sites as Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in south-central Alberta, for instance, includes information on guided interpretive walks, self-guiding trails, and brochures, as well as camping facilities, and directions from the nearest towns.
In sum, this is an outstanding contribution to rock art studies and will be of value to students of rock art, or those interested in the prehistory and history of the indigenous inhabitants of the Great Plains.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-amindian.
Gordon Bronitsky. Review of Keyser, James D.; Klassen, Michael A., Plains Indian Rock Art.
H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews.
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