Painted Cave

August 9th, 2011 | Posted by Steve in Arizona | Prehistoric Man

Hi All,

This is the last email of photos from my trip in July.  In many ways the trip was my most prolific trip ever combining many interesting places with the ease and seduction of digital photography.  I shot 941 pictures from start to finish with 245 at this site alone.  That is probably way too many.  It will keep me busy for months.

I haven’t picked up my camera since the end of that trip so there is nothing new in the intervening 4 weeks, but maybe there will be something in September.  We’ll see.

The trip to Painted Cave was both special and a surprise.  Ron told me If I could spare a few days on the way back from New Mexico to home he would show me places that would make my jaw drop.  He kept his promise.  I was wholly unaware a place like this existed.

Sometimes photographers do not like to show their favorite photo sites.  Other times they cannot help but show a special place off.  So it was this time.  Painted Cave is well off the beaten track and is a somewhat obscure site of Prehistoric North American man.  One of the greatest concentrations of pictographs (wall paintings) in the southwest is found here with over 1,000 hand prints decorating the cave wall over a span of about 200 feet.   Besides hand prints there are animals, humans, reptiles, & geometric forms.  Artifacts such as mummies, basketry, stone tools, pottery, & clothing have been removed long ago and are now found in museums.

The word cave is probably a misnomer.  The site is a recess under the overhang of a sandstone cliff.  There are more spectacular ruins and deeper caves in the American Southwest, but very few with such a concentration of art.  Painted Cave lies part way up a giant rock face at the top of a steep talus slope, some 100 + feet above the canyon floor.  Grazing animals have taken shelter up there often.  Their tracks and droppings were quite evident.

This is a view of my truck down below.  The next is a view of the valley we are in.  The alcoves, recesses, & caves are quite common & prominent in this area.

At the top of the talus slope you see a few ruins.  Of the two hours we were up there this was shot during the 5-10 minutes when the clouds weren’t covering the sun.  This is ISO 640, 24mm focal length on the 24-105mm f/4 lens, f/14, 1/640th of a second.


Close up photos exist on the web of some of the more spectacular human pictographs.  What I call the “theme figures” are found on a few web sites.  This is ISO 640, 34mm focal length on the 16-35mm f2.8 lens, f/14, 1/80th of a second.  I probably didn’t need the depth of field at f/14.  I’m sure I could have shot at f/8 with a much faster shutter speed and still gotten everything nice and sharp.

One photographer on the web has a shot almost identical to this and is offering prints at $700.00 each.


This is a panoramic view of part of the pictograph wall.  The hands are found in light and dark shades of red, two shades of yellow, white, green, & black for a total of 7 colors in all.  The hands often appear grouped by color, but are sometimes placed in what seems a random fashion. Paintings like this are no means uncommon in southwest habitation sites, but as I said, they exist here in great profusion.  This photo is cropped top and bottom to make a panoramic view. Particulars are ISO 640, 18mm focal length on the 16-35mm lens, f/14 at 1/80th of a second.  With such a short focal length I was only about 3 feet from the wall.


These are a few interesting figures & paintings.

This composition particularly captivated me.  It will require a lot more work before I am ready to print it.  It is ISO 200, 85mm focal length on the 24-105mm lens, f/9, 1/100th of a second.


Most of the human representations in the cave are unique with only a few seemingly the same or nearly so.  This crested figure was interesting.  The shot was ISO 640, 105mm focal length on the 24-105mm lens, f/13, 1/30th of a second.  Here I was worried by how much depth of field I had. Even though it was a flat object I was shooting it at an angle.  It looks like everything turned out OK.


A different view of the crested figure.  This is ISO 200, 45mm focal length on the 24-105mm lens, f/9, 1/40th of a second.


This is a figure near some hand paintings.  It is ISO 200, 58mm focal length on the 24-105mm lens, f9/ 1/40th of a second.



This photo of colored hands is ISO 640, 82mm focal length of the 24-105mm lens, f/13, 1/40th of a second.


This is a group of figures & hands with a geometric at the top.  It is more of a snapshot than anything else, but shows the broad range of design at this site.


According to the printed academic literature most of the art dates to a pre-ceramic period of the Puebloan Indian culture.  Occupation at the site has had 3 main periods.  The first has been dated to ± 400 A.D.  The second period is determined by the Kiva roof beam.  The dating of tree rings is so precise that the Kiva’s main roof beam (shown below) was cut in 1247 A.D. During this time the site was inhabited during 100 years until about 1300.  The indians, thought to be ancient Hopi, left the area leaving it open for Navajo immigration. The Navajo moved in some 200-400 years ago. They used this site as shelter for their goats.  Layers of dried goat dung still litter the site.  Some of it is a foot thick.

The Kiva beam shows evidence of prior visitor(s) removing part of it [with a saw?] to carry off, hopefully for scientific study instead of as a souvenir.

A few walls and rooms are still standing and also shown in the photos.  These are views of the Kiva.  The first is ISO 640, 24mm focal length on the 24-105mm lens, f/13 at 1/125th of a second.

The Kiva view above I did in an antique B&W style for effect.  The burial sites are next to the Kiva and at the far left of center in the depressed area.  The mummies found were of a 25 year old woman and two infants.  I do not know if DNA testing has been done on the mummies to determine possible kinship.  This photo is ISO 200, 25mm focal length on the 16-35mm lens, f/8, 1/100th of a second.


While shooting I did a pose of Ron.  I am no portrait artist, but for available light I think it is very good.  For any of you single gals out there Ron is unattached, but very picky.

He shot one of me in roughly the same position, but so far refuses to show it to me.  If I ever see it I may send it along.



One of the largest figures is shown above.  It is about 5-6′ tall.  Here it is again [below] in false color to bring out the paintings from the background rock.


Despite the overwhelming reddish color of the site I did a few in B&W.  The first shows the ‘theme’ figures at center and a geometric near upper left.  I’m not too thrilled with this first one, but I did use the 15mm fisheye for the look.  I’m probably standing no more than 2 feet from the center of the frame.

This second B&W is a more classical composition of the cliff face & the top of the talus slope.  It is ISO 640, shot with the 16-35mm lens, 23mm focal length, f/13, 1/80th of a second.


Graffiti, defacement, trash, & natural wear & tear are a problem at open sites like this.  For instance, horses were reintroduced into North America by the Spanish Conquistadors.  The representations of horses I have seen both here and at other sites are Navajo in origin, maybe 100-300 years old.  That does not make them graffiti, but…

The rider etched into the rock at left who seems to be riding bareback does not appear in the scientific literature of the site.  Ron and I assume it is graffiti, 60 years old or less.

There is some additional evidence of graffiti.  Here and there is an occasional letter or chalk drawing that appears to be modern in origin.

Ron & I didn’t see it, but a prior visitor recorded that etched in the wall somewhere is

“VIII Bernheimer Exp. 1930 Am Mus Nat Histy NY   J.W.  G.O.  E.R.M.  C.I.B.”

Etchings could have been slightly misinterpreted.  If the CIB is really CLB then that could be Charles Bernheimer.   ERM is more probably EHM, Earl H. Morris who was with the expedition.  Bernheimer & Morris were well known in American Indian anthropology in the first half of the 20th century.  J.W. was probably John Wetherill, the guide.


Original photos of one of the Bernheimer expeditions of the American Southwest are at the J. Willard Marriott Library of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

A problem often faced at a promising photographic site is the mixture of chance and composition. I had never been at this site before and the only reason I was there was chance.  I happened to be in Arizona with time available to visit Ron.  Ron had nothing planned so we went afield.  I would like to visit Painted Cave again, but its remoteness and the time slice required for a visit makes a follow up trip questionable.

With or without a camera a place – any place – is what it is, and it will never really be the same again.  The light may have been better that morning, or it may be better next week, you don’t know.  Whether you visit again or not you don’t know if the future will be better or worse.

Because you have never visited a particular site before, there is little or no preconception of how to compose a shot.  Touring somewhere with a camera thrusts you into situations that are important, but fleeting in time.   You have to think quickly and work in a semi-automatic, but deliberate fashion.

Many photographers go back to a site over and over, year after year always hoping for a better shot, and hoping to cover any prior mistakes.  I have done this.  Sometimes you can schedule your timing and sometimes you don’t know when, or even if you’ll get back.  When you are at an interesting place you must make the most of it.  Using a mix of lenses and focal lengths is important, but using your experience and skill is imperative.  You try to make your shots count, and you try to mix them up so there is a choice when you have more time to think and edit.  So it was here.  I shot many photos.  I hope to go back.  I wonder if I could have done better.

Painted Cave definitely has a magic about it.  You get up there and you think it must be unchanged for the last thousand years, but all the while you know this is not true.  Then you wonder how it can be preserved for another visit.  Unlike many man made artifacts, drawings on a cliff cannot be cut out of the cliff and put on display in a controlled environment to stop natural or unnatural decomposition.  Visiting an ancient place like this always gives me a sense of awe, and a sense of responsibility to protect what I see.  I know others have been there before me, but I hope to leave the place as untouched as I can.  Ron felt the same way.  We tried to take only photos and leave as few footprints as possible.

Until next time,


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