Maya Numbers and Bear Claws My hike to Martha's Butte, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona.

Petrified Forest National Park is a truly remarkable place. The Painted Desert in all its colorful glory is on full display. Fragments, large and small, of multi-hued petrified wood abounds, often glistening in the sun like so many diamonds. Then, there are the remains of several millennium of human occupation. Hidden throughout the vast wilderness are a multitude of rock art sites, and countless petroglyphs.

My goal on this day was to taken one of the "Off the Beaten Path" hikes to view some of the petroglyhs at Martha's Butte. This destination was about a one mile hike through the desert landscape, traversing small hills and arroyos. About 10 minutes into the hike, the butte is readily visible, and is a easy 20 minute hike.

Martha's Butte

The top of Martha's Butte is capped with a small remnant of hard sandstone over the soft bentonite sediments. Along the sides of the butte, on eroded debris from the hard sandstone are located the rock carvings. There are no maps or displays pointing out the location of the petroglyphs. Half the enjoyment is the sense of discovery in being here for the first time. I know that I did not find all of the carvings on this first visit, and that just makes me want to come back and explore some more at some future time.

The base of Martha's Butte is strewn with boulders containing the rock art.

The most readily visible petroglyph is that of a spiral. Many people believe that this was a solstice marker. You definitely cannot miss this one. It easily visible from a distance as you approach the butte.

Solstice Marker?

Perhaps the most intriguing carvings are found on this nearly horizontal rock slab. I have never seen such a density of carvings as this. Even the dark surface of the rock set this apart from the rest. To me it feels as if there is a complex story being told here, and it will be interesting to learn more about it in the months ahead.

Rock Art Tableau

When I looked closely at some of the carvings, I was struck by a series of symbols that looked exactly like the line and dot numbering system of the ancient Maya. My first reaction was amazement that this could be some far northern occurrence of the Maya numeric system. But within a split second, my flight of fancy was replaced by the reality that this was something completely different. First, these were likely a Pueblo III period carvings, dating from around 1300 AD. The Mayan number systems date to a time around 400 years earlier than these carvings. Upon closer inspection of the carvings, I noted that there were always two bars, and 5 dots on top of the bars. Mayan number system only had a maximum of 4 dots--the count of 5 was always represented by a bar. So there was no way these were Mayan numerals.

Mysterious Line and Dot symbols

So what were these symbols? Fortunately I had a copy of the book "Tapamveni: Rock Art Galleries of the Southwest" by Patricia McCreery and Ekkehart Maltoki. Most of the rock art pictured in this book occurs in the area in and around Petrified Forest National Park.

It turns out that the line and dots are symbolic representations of bear claws. Bears are only rarely depicted in rock art of the region and then usually only the paws are shown. Mostly the tracks are symbolic representations, depicted as two bars and 5 dots for the bears digits. If you look closely at the lower right hand part of the picture, you will see what appears to be a more realistic depiction of a bear foot. Note too, on the left hand panel the bear tracks are aligned in a linear fashion, as though they are marking the path the bear was traveling.

Close-up of bear paws

Altogether I spend about an hour exploring the area around the base of Martha's Butte, finding several more rock art panels. While they were all interesting, I was most taken by the tableau with the bear paws. What did this panel represent? What stories could it tell? I plan on learning more.

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Created By
Daniel Seurer

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