Ancient Visions: Petroglyphs and Pictographs of the Wind River and Bighorn County, Wyoming and Montana

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Ancient Visions: Petroglyphs and Pictographs of the Wind River and Bighorn County, Wyoming and Montana. By JULIE E. FRANCIS AND LAWRENCE L. LOENDORF. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. 2002. xv + 239 pp., figures, tables, bibliography, 20 color plates. $35.00 (Hardcover, ISBN 0-8748-0692-5).

When social historians analyze American rock art research in the post-1960s era, they will draw parallels between the academy and high school. More than most other archaeologists, rock art specialists have trouble getting dates. Other archaeologists, especially those from the more macho processualist camp, give this reason for shunning rock art research. To them, archaeology is all about getting dates-and, if you can't get a date, at least quantifying the heck out of things. There is nothing wrong with that. The processualist team has scored many advances, bringing tough scientific standards and discipline to the field of archaeology. Their methodological equipment continues to improve and to give archaeologists new powers of observation. They have tackled questions with a precision and detail that leave little room for error. They have pinned down some of archaeology's slipperiest problems and have strengthened the accuracy of interpretations of the who, what, when, and where of the past.

But why the reluctance to consider rock art a part of the archaeological record? Is the lack of dates the real issue? After all, archaeology existed before the invention of radiocarbon dating-and judging by Raiders of the Lost Ark and the legends of our real forefathers, it was a thoroughly virile discipline. Or do those trained in the "stones and bones" mode simply not know what to make of data that seems more suited to a course in art history than one in statistics? Rock art-as "why" data-is complex and hard to force into a single interpretive stance. It can be more akin to poetry than to a football score.

Francis and Loendorf's comprehensive and richly illustrated treatment of the rock art of the Wind River and Bighorns has something for jocks and geeks alike. They present the most thorough and critical discussion of rock art dating techniques in print today. Because they focus the discussion on developing local chronologies for definable rock art types, the reader can understand in concrete terms both the promise and the complications of the dating methods. Those who think that getting dates is the rightful test of archaeological research will learn that new methods are being developed toward that goal. They will see that rock art sometimes can be directly linked to buried archaeological material, with each helping to illuminate the other. At the same time, they can get in touch with the nonquantifiable side of the discipline in discovering how rock art expresses particular religious traditions as the authors trace these back in time from an ethnographic starting point. The postprocessualists will learn the importance of placing rock art within solid spatial and temporal contexts, based on empirical data, rather than seeking fuzzy universal messages in what are, in fact, culturally specific images.

Francis and Loendorf's stated goal is to demonstrate the cultural complexity of the study area, which encompasses much of western Wyoming and a bit of south-central Montana. They clearly intend their book for archaeologists, and the archaeological jargon will be hard going for the general reader. The authors address a wide variety of issues, from how to take samples for AMS dating to how to recognize rock art that expresses shamanism. The book is attractively designed, well edited, generously illustrated, and well referenced.

Much of the book explores dating techniques, including older methods such as analysis of super-imposition and subject matter and newer methods such as cation-ratio dating and AMS radiocarbon analysis of microscopic samples of organic matter trapped under rock patina. Although the latter methods have not been successfully replicated, the authors provide readers with abundant information to gauge their future potential. …