Cup-Marks and Pre-Historic Rock Carvings: Portals to Other Realms
By Gary R Varner
What is the purpose behind the ancient stone carvings found around the world--a shaman's passage to the spirit world, healing or curses?
Cup marks are those shallow cup-like indentations ground into boulders and megaliths the world over. Their true purpose is unknown however they are probably tied to shamanic rituals and/or fertility practices. They are found from North America throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands and may have a common purpose and timeline. In the Scandinavian country of Uppland over 30,000 cup marks have been counted.
Many of these cup marks had been used by more contemporaneous people who would put holy water or milk in them as offerings to God—or to Faeries. Lewis Spence noted in his book, Legends and Romances of Brittany that many of the tombstones in Brittany have these cup-marks, as do the roof-slabs on ancient dolmens, and that they may have served as food receptacles for the dead. This may be true for some of the monuments but many are located on areas that are not associated with the dead—or at least the dead have not been located as yet. This theory falls short however when you consider that cup marks are also commonly found on the underside of dolmens, rock overhangs, cave roofs and on the sides of standing stones. Many researchers believe that these cup marks are representative of fire and the sun or part of the thunder cult. In support of this theory they suggest that many of the boulders that contain cup marks also have hand, foot and wheel carvings or paintings and that these are, as Maringer states, “symbols of the sky, or solar, cult.”
It is common in Scandinavian sites where cup marked stones are located to also have an association with foot and handprints. Lithuanian archaeologist Inga Marmaite of the Department of Archaeology, Vilnius University notes “it would seem that foot-marked stones are related to the cult of the dead, the fact, which could be proved by the not very clear but still distinguished connection with the burial monuments, as well as appropriate mythological parallels and folklore data.”
It appears that there are as many possible explanations for these objects as there are cup marks. Obviously there is no one explanation that fits all of these locations but I do not believe that we can assume that foot and hand representations are only associated with a sky-god but, rather, may represent the person and the person’s presence in time and space—be he dead or alive. In this light others have suggested that the hand and foot impressions found in Native American sites represent a shaman’s posting of a place as one of power and importance.
Archaeologist and rock art expert David Whitley wrote, “it is likely that the grinding of these depressions was related to larger beliefs about the rock and site itself; specifically, that the rock was the entrance to the supernatural world and grinding cupules into it allowed access to the supernatural power contained therein.” Other Southern California archaeologists theorize that these cup marked boulders “are related to fertility rites, and they represent the female genitalia.”
Ethnographic evidence points to other uses as well. A cup marked stone at Hospital Rock, in Kings Canyon National Park in California has a number of depressions approximately one inch deep and two inches in diameter that may have been used by shamans to induce rain or, “in some cases, by barren women who desired to conceive children.”
A cup-marked stone located in Roseville, California at an ancient Maidu village site is said to have been an entryway by shamans to the other world. After they had reached a state of trance they would fly through the cup mark to the nearby stream where they would then journey to the spirit world to learn new healing techniques. When they returned they would have learned those new ways and applied them to the people.
San Diego County archaeologist Gary Fink notes that the numerous cup marked rocks in San Diego County are often associated with villages and campsites and all date to within the last 500 years. Fink notes that “ethnographic explanations for cupule petroglyph sites include such things as “baby rocks” made by women desirous of offspring. Rain rocks…were made in the hope of bringing rain to an area.”
During extensive excavations in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in California in the early 1900’s two clusters of charm-stones in distinctive cigar-shapes were found. Measuring from two inches to over thirteen inches in length they were carved from non-native stone and were laid out in a radiating circular pattern. Some of them had been placed “in a small cup-shaped boulder like a golf-ball in a tee.” An old Indian, called “Old George”, was shown one of the cigar-shaped stones and became terrified, saying that it “may not be dead”. According to Old George, “such stones are alive and burrow in the ground like moles. To look at one would cause serious illness, perhaps paralysis. Only a medicine man could capture one and only he knew how to kill it.” The association of these stones with cup-marked boulders is uncertain—perhaps it was a way to control the “living stones” so that harm would not be visited upon the residents of the area.
In other areas of the world cupmarked stones were valued for their supposed healing powers. Russian researcher Vyacheslav Mizin wrote “In many places, water collecting in cupmarked stones or those with circular depressions, footprint stones and other depressions was considered to have curative properties, and touching some of the stones can also heal…”
In both Europe and North America many of these cup marked boulders also include lines carved out between the cups and beyond. Some theorize that the cup marks represent the womb and the straight lines pathways to guide the spirit to the womb of pregnant or barren women for a safe birth. Others think that these straight lines represent the penis or even semen entering the vulva. This form of rock art is more common in the Great Basin and is believed to represent the oldest style in the Basin, dating back to more than 7,000 years. Obviously the American and European cup marked boulders are from different eras and may have had different purposes. While the European and British archaeologists believe that they represent death the American archaeologists believe that they represent fertility and life. Both explanations may be valid. This patterning is also found in Estonia. One such cup-marked stone in the village of Valasti has 30 individual cup-marks, which “are linked together by long well-preserved channels.”
Estonia is one of those rare gems in the world. Christianized relatively recently, ancient folkways are still practiced as they have been for untold generations. By looking at Estonian folklore we may be able to glimpse the uses applied to these stones over time. As in other European and British sites where cup-marked stones are found, many of those in Estonia are also located near Bronze Age burials. However, as in these other areas these cup-marked stones were probably of a mixed usage—both recognizing places of death and of fertility.
Folklore collected in 1939 about cup-marked stones in the Estonian village of Kaaruka indicated that the cup-marks were “passages through which dead souls entered the other world, as in the past the relatives of the deceased used to carve a small hole in the stone”.
Andres Tvauri in his excellent article ”Cup-Marked Stones in Estonia,” notes that a large amount of the folklore concerning these stones indicates that they have been used as “offering stones”. “Sacrifices to stones”, writes Tvauri, was very common in Estonia as late as in the 19th century” with offerings still being made in the 1930’s. Offerings were made for the faery and to obtain healing. Offerings included fire, blood, milk, fresh meat and burnt grain. Many of the cup-marked stones are associated with sacred groves and the stones were probably used as altars.
These stones were also utilized in much the same manner as holy wells have been. For some reason diseases of the eye were often treated at these sites. Using the ancient transference techniques, individuals would touch their afflicted eye(s) with a coin or salt and then leave the coin or salt in one of the cup-marks—thereby transferring the disease to the stone. Rainwater that collected in the cup-marks was also collected and used to treat diseased eyes.
While the true original purpose of Estonian cup-marked stones remains elusive the most probable answer is that they were part of the agricultural-fertility rituals practiced the world over. Evidence indicates that each year, at the time of sowing, one cup-mark was carved into a chosen stone as part of a fertility tradition. The majority of cup-marked stones in Estonia occur in the coastal areas of the country where agriculture was the most intense. After the stone was carved and the grain sown the stone no longer had a sacred relevance for the people residing there. Tvauri notes that some Scandinavian rock art depicts female figures with cup-marks between their legs and as recent at 19th century India cup-marks were carved into stones situated along roads used for bridal processions.
In many sites around the world these cup depressions are accompanied with concentric rings around them. These occur commonly during the North American Late Archaic and Woodland eras as well as in Neolithic Europe and the Middle East. Some fine examples are also found along the Russian River in Mendocino County, California. On one recumbent boulder alone near Rothiemay, Scotland is an array of over 100-cup marks and cup and ring carvings. What do these symbols represent? Service and Bradbery wrote that the ring marks are similar to the representations of the spiral, which is found worldwide. “Where the spiral may represent the path of the life-bringer”, they say, “concentric circles may stand for stopping-places on that way. Where the spiral refers to the Great Goddess, so too does this concentric sign, symbolizing the belly or womb from which all life comes…it is also seen as representing the navel of the earth—the omphalos.”
Other theories proposed over the years suggested that these cup and ring designs were plans for stone enclosures such as Iron Age hill-forts, aligned with star groups—making an ancient star chart, or simply pre-historic doodles! Cup marked stones have many traditions associated with them as other megaliths. The Roch d'la Sguia, or sliding rock near Bessa, Italy is a large egg-shaped rock with a number of cup marks on one side. It is called the “sliding rock” because women over the years have worn it smooth sliding down its contours to ensure pregnancy. Bessa is a unique area with numerous megaliths—many with cup marks. Researchers have noted that cup marked stones are situated so that they are exposed to sunlight and many times are slanted towards the sun. The positioning of these stones, or rather selection of them, would give credence to the sun or solar disc association. The vast majority of these stones are also located near bodies of water but most megaliths fall in to this category as well.
There is some indication that solar associations were also seen in Native American cup marked stones. At the Miwok ceremonial site Chaw’se, located near Jackson, California, a huge slab of stone has been used to produce almost twelve-hundred mortars and cupulas along with over 350 petroglyphs.
This is the largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America. One of the mortars has solar rays emanating around it. Archaeologists have determined that the cupules are up to 6,000 years in age while the rock art which has been added to the stones are approximately 2,000 years old—showing a continuation of usage by different peoples over different times. Chaw’se is the only known location where mortars have been intentionally decorated with rock art.
Another very real possibility is that the cup marked stones were created as musical instruments. This certainly would be an important ritual tool and there are other locations around the world where “singing” stones have been found. A few years ago an American rock art enthusiast, on safari in Tanzania, was taken by her guides to a large rock outcrop. On top of the rock were a number of cup marks and, as she relates the story, “before I knew what was happening, one of our drivers picked up a stone and started rapping on the cup marks!
“It was a musical instrument. The rock was tuned! Every cup mark had a
different tone, and eventually the driver actually played a scale of notes. It was quite pleasing to the ear.” Her driver “explained that the cup marks were carved about 200 years ago by the Masaii. After a good rain, people would come to the rock outcrop. Leaders or shamans would climb the outcrop, and ‘play’ the rock with the cup marks, leading the rest of the tribe below in songs of thanks.”
Ethnographic information indicates that the Luiseńo Indians in San Diego County, California used cup marked boulders in girls’ puberty rituals—also to make musical sounds. However ethnographic information also indicates that there was no one purpose for these markings but were used in different ways by different groups and tribes. Not all cup marked stones are musical so this is only one possible reason for their creation.
It is also probable that many of the mortars (stones where food was ground and pounded into a paste) identified in archaeological surveys have been misidentified and are, in reality, additional cup marked stones. Some of the areas that I have seen identified as mortars were located in difficult places to reach and were also a ways away from any water source, which would have been necessary for food processing.
I cannot think that these cup marks and cup and rings are only coincidentally identical the world over and it may be that they once did have a common origin and common symbolism. We are a long way from determining what those are though. What we do know is those cup marks, or cupules, have been dated to 100,000 years ago and were used by Neanderthal groups. Such markings are perhaps the longest continuously created symbols in the world. Whitley notes that these sometimes-complex “pit and groove” carvings located in the American Southwest were “widely made during the historic period” and “that much (but not necessarily all) of it is relatively recent.”
Again we may ask why such an unusual symbolism would be found in identical representations across such wide geographic and cultural areas and extreme time periods.
Whitley wrote “Ethnographic evidence on this tradition is substantial—it demonstrates that there were widespread shared beliefs and practices underlying the making of this tradition in different parts of the state [California]”. We are prompted to ask how these symbols became universally used. What was it during certain ages around the world that created the need in humankind to produce the same identical symbols in the same ways? Was there a common religion—a worldwide religion at that time? Was there massive cultural diffusion that resulted in a rapid expansion of ideas and concepts that caught hold of the imagination? Was there a worldwide priest-class or ruler-class that was responsible for the same artistic and ritual traditions that occurred in Wisconsin and California as in Spain, Germany and Eastern Europe? Was a commonly held religion universally recognized around the world in such diverse cultural and geological settings? Are these similarities purely a result of the type of life lived at that time, the technologies available and the common hopes, fears and need that produced a commonly understood symbolic response? Have these traditions been carried by the human mind from place to place since our earliest ancestors began to explore the world and spread across its sphere? These are all questions that have not been asked and so far not answered. I do not believe that we will know the answer as long as these sites are only analyzed on a regional basis without comparisons of the similarities around the world being made. The majority of sites appear to date to the Late Stone Age and the Bronze Age, which only poses another question—what occurred during that time to ignite the creative spark in humans to produce these universal symbols? British archaeologist Colin Burgess summarizes these symbols appearing on British stone monuments:
“The use of cup and ring marks on stone circles and ring monuments suggest that, like passage grave art, they were part of the total religious fabric of the Third Millennium.”
There are, of course, other possibilities. Willcox noted that cup-and-ring petroglyphs found in North Africa were “used…for a well-known game.”
Baby Rocks and Rain Rocks
Archaeologist Campbell Grant wrote, “in many parts of the West isolated boulders are covered with the distinctive pit-and-groove markings. Such carved boulders are especially abundant in northern California, and in the Pomo territory were known as ‘baby rocks’ and were used ceremonially by women wanting children.”
McGowan notes that these rocks in the Pomo territory were frequented by childless couples that would “grind off a bit of the rock in one of the cupules and make a paste of the dust. A design was drawn on the abdomen of the woman and some of the paste inserted into her vagina. Intercourse at this time ensured that she would become pregnant.”
"Rain rocks" were utilized by shamans as tools to control rain and weather. Rain rocks in Northern California were inscribed with meandering lines, grooves, cupules and carvings of bear claws and paw prints.
The Shasta Indians in the Klamath River area carved long parallel grooves on rain rocks to make the snow fall, and cupolas to produce rain. To stop rain they covered the rain rock with powdered incense-root. According to rock art researcher Campbell Grant the Hupa Indians of California “had a sacred rain rock called mi. By this rock lived a spirit who could bring frost, prolong the rainy season, or cause drought if he was displeased.” The Hupa would cook food next to the rain rock and provide a feast for the spirit to ensure that the spirit would continue to help them. “If the end of a rainy spell was needed”, continues Grant, “powdered incense-root was sprinkled on the rock.” Rain rocks were fairly universal among early cultures. In Australia’s Northern Territory it was “essential” for certain types of rocks to be scratched to ensure rain. Although rarely found in Southern California, a five foot rain rock marked with hundreds of small, drilled holes was located on the slopes of Palomar Mountain in northern San Diego County. The site was originally a proto-historic Luiseńo village called Molpa. Just below the rain rock is a small spring, which was a steady source of water. Because the decoration or alteration of rock material is difficult to date we do not know when the use of “rain rocks” began. We do know that the Tolowa, Karok and Hupa tribes on the North Coast of California used rain rocks predominantly to control the weather at least from 1600 CE and the practice continued into the early 1800’s and may in fact continue today.
The use of special stones to create rain appears to be a fairly universal one. Rain-stones were used by the Samoan Islanders, Australian aborigines, by people in Central Africa, Japan, and Great Britain, as well as North America. In most cases these stones were dipped into or sprinkled with water by priests or shamans and treated to elaborate rituals. Sir James Frazer wrote that in North-western Australia “the rain-maker repairs to a piece of ground which is set apart for the purpose of rain-making. There he builds a heap of stones or sand, places on the top of it his magic stone, and walks or dances round the pile chanting his incantations for hours, till sheer exhaustion obliges him to desist, when his place is taken by an assistant. Water is sprinkled on the stone and huge fires are kindled. No layman may approach the sacred spot while the mystic ceremony is being performed.” In North America the Apache Indians in Arizona would carry water from specific springs and throw it on the top of a certain rock “after that”, Frazer continues, “they imagine that the clouds would soon gather, and that rain would begin to fall.” Similar rain-stones were used during times of draught in ancient Rome as well. The stone called lapis manalis was kept near the Temple of Mars and “dragged into Rome, and this was supposed to bring down rain immediately.” Just what is the power in these stones that is believed to cause rain? In most instances the stone contains the spirit of divinity or acts as a conduit to the divine to plead for rain.
Russian Geographical Society member Vyacheslav Mizin has extensively researched ancient dolmen and other archaeological sites in Russia, the Ukraine and other locations in Eastern Europe. Vyacheslav wrote of a “rain rock” comprised of a cupmark located on the river Ojat, 300km east of Saint-Petersburg. “The name of this stone – ‘Humbar-kivi’ means ‘a stone with a deepening for washing.’ We were there in 2009 with two Estonian ethnographers from university of Tartu. Local residents speak that when the person goes to this stone always the rain begins – and has occurred! The rain has sharply begun and also has sharply ended when we go away from the stone.”
Cursing stones of a different form were used until recent times in Ireland. Individuals would place smooth stones in the cupmarks anciently carved in boulder surfaces and turn the smooth stones three times against the sun thus ensuring that the curse would be effective. Evans wrote, “I was told of the example illustrated at Killinagh in Co. Cavan, that ‘you would think twice before turning the stones, because the curse would come back on you unless the cause was just’”.
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