Monthly Archive: December 2015

Epiphany House Blessing – a Catholic Tradition

Austria Village Door with Epiphany House Blessing
Austria Village Door with Epiphany House Blessing

Austria Village Door with Epiphany House Blessing

While visiting Austria and Germany in August of 2014, I noticed curious chalk markings, seen in the photo above, on many buildings in the small villages we passed through.  Given the prominence of churches in these villages, I immediately assumed the writing had a religious significance, but knew little else.  As it turns out the practice is a Catholic tradition called an Epiphany house blessing, with the numbers and letters having a specific meaning centered around the current year.

20 + C + M + B +14

The 20 and 14 represent the year in which the blessing occurred, 2014, while CMB apparently has two different meanings. In one interpretation, they represent the names of the three magi (kings or wise men), in the Biblical Gospel of Matthew that visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. In the second interpretation they are an abbreviation of the Latin wordsChristus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless the house.”

Austria Village Door with Epiphany House Blessing

Austria Village Door with Epiphany House Blessing

The marking tradition generally happens during the Feast of the Epiphany holiday, which occurs on January 6th each year.


Top Pictograph/Petroglyph Sites in Utah

McConkie Ranch Petroglyph - Utah

For rock art hunters, Utah offers a veritable playground to explore, with hundreds, if not thousands of sites open to discovery. Some locations are well known, while others take a significant effort in both time and research to find. And I like many avid rock art enthusiats tend to keep the lesser known sites close to the vest. I do it for two reasons…half the fun is the research and discovery process. Nothing that is handed to you is as rewarding as finding it yourself. And second, there is little doubt that some among us hold this ancient art in less regard than others. Which has led to widespread vandalism of some of the more well known and easily accessible sites. With that, plenty can be said that will help those interested in exploring the wilds of Utah, and discovering a little bit of the history carved and painted on its sandstone walls.

horseshoe canyon great gallery

Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery

Pictographs vs. Petroglyphs

What is the difference between a pictograph and petroglyph?. The answer lies in the tools used to create the art. Pictographs are essentially paintings, using varies pigments that produce different colors. Ochre was a widely used example that produces earthy shades of orange and red. But explore enough and you’ll find other colors like white, yellow, blue and green. On the other hand, Petroglyph were created by artists that used rocks and other blunt instruments to chip a design out of their sandstone canvas.

In my experience different tribes at different periods of time seemed to favor one style over the other. But it would be incorrect to say that pictographs were created by one group of Indians, and petroglyphs by another. As there example of both styles being used at the same time, and taking on the same artistic characteristics and subjects.

What is the rock art telling us?

At this point nobody knows precisely, and chance are good we never will. There is no equivalent to the Rosetta Stone in North American archaeology, and even if one were found, the rock art one finds in Utah and throughout the American Southwest is spread over such a vast period of time, and many different cultures that one translation wouldn’t fit them all.That being said, I don’t think we need to look farther than our own lives to get a sense of what the ancient Native Americans were recording in the sandstone. Like us they were human beings with aspirations, struggles, and questions about their place in the Universe.

If you look closely enough at the rock art and make some educated guesses you will see at least three different things.

The Natural World
There are repeated depictions of animals found in the real world. Bighorn sheep, snakes, buffalo, deer, elk and lizards. No doubt the Indians saw these as either a food source, a predator to be wary of, or both.  If you look at the Native American mythology of today you can also imagine these creatures taking on a spiritual or earthly mythological component. The oral traditions of the Raven and Coyote as a trickster that one sees in modern tribes is a good example.

The Spirit World
As noted above, there also seems to be a clear spiritual, or mythological component to the rock art that depicts creatures and anthropomorphic figures that are clearly not realistic representations of something found on Earth in the present or during the period ancient Indian tribes lived in the West. No doubt these creatures find their origin in dreams, oral stories and spiritual beliefs about the world and the broader universe. Similar examples of such creatures can be found in the mythology of ancient Greece, the Norse, the Irish, etc.

The Celestial World
Finally, research has demonstrated that certain markings left behind were related to celestial events and observations. Such as arrows and other markers painted or carved onto rock faces where the sunlight only falls on key days of the astronomical calendar, such as the Summer and Winter Solstices, and the Spring and Fall Equinoxes. These markings alone tell us the Native Americans were keen observers of the night sky, and knew lunar, solar and constellation cycles well.

Big Horn Sheep Petroglyph - Nine Mile Canyon Utah

Big Horn Sheep Petroglyph – Nine Mile Canyon Utah

Different Rock Art Styles/Traditions

At least three major groups were involved in producing the rock art found in Utah.

Archaic Indian Period (7500 B.C. to 300 A.D.?)
One of the major producers of pictograph rock art in Utah were a group of hunters and gathers known as Archaic Indians that lived in Utah from about 7500 B.C. until possibly as recent as 300 A.D. The art they left behind is known as the Barrier Canyon Style, whose name is derived from Barrier Canyon (now called Horseshoe Canyon) which lies to the west of Moab in an extension of Canyonlands National Park. Dating estimates for BCS seem to vary widely, and are based on the difficult task of radiocarbon dating pigments and rock falls.

Fremont /Anasazi Indian Period (100 A.D.-1300 A.D.)

While the Fremont and the Anasazi were very distinct groups, they shared a number of similar characteristics, including a semi-nomadic lifestyle that incorporated village life and farming with active hunting and gathering. They also share a common time frame, which is why I group them together here. In general I think it can be said that petroglyphs were there preferred form of expression, but pictographs including hand print displays have been attributed to them.

Ute Indian Period (1300 A.D. – 1880 A.D.)

The Ute Indian rock art is best distinguished from earlier art by the depiction of horses and their riders, as well as other more realistic depictions of animals, humans, etc. While horses were once native to North America they became extinct eons before humans arrived. Their depiction in recent petroglyphs provides a fairly precise date no earlier than the arrival of the Spanish, who were the first to bring horses back to the Western Hemisphere.

Popular Utah Rock Art Sites

Sego Canyon
I mention Sego Canyon first because its a bit unique in my experience, offering three distinct displays of rock art from the time periods described above. This allows the visitor to easily compare the different styles. Sego Canyon is located north of Moab and close to Utah’s border with Colorado off I-70. Just find Thompson Springs north of the highway, and follow its main road toward the Book Cliffs. Signs will direct you the rest of the way. Keep in mind that while part of the land containing petroglyphs is owned by the BLM, some are also on private land.

Horseshoe Canyon
This canyon contains what has been described as the “Michelangelo” of North American rock art – the Great Gallery. Within Horseshoe Canyon (once called Barrier Canyon) resides the largest and best preserved examples of the Barrier Canyon Style, in a series of rock art panels. The Great Gallery the largest of the panels and over 200 feet in length, has anthropomorphs as tall as 7 feet and more than a half dozen of a similar height. The access point to Horseshoe Canyon is a dirt road on the opposite side of the highway from the entrance to Goblin Valley. Look for signs to Horseshoe Canyon. In dry weather the road can be traveled by any well maintained vehicle with proper precaution. The road is about 30 miles, and the hike into the canyon is 7 miles round trip. The best time to enter the canyon is in the early morning, this will help you to avoid most of the afternoon heat when you exit, and the sun should be in a good spot for photograph most of the panels.

McConkie Ranch Petroglyph - Utah

McConkie Ranch Petroglyph – Utah

McConkie Ranch (Dry Fork Canyon)
McConkie Ranch is to the Fremont Petroglyph legacy what Horseshoe Canyon was to the Archaic Indians. Hands down this along with Horseshoe Canyon are the most amazing petroglyph/pictograph sites I have ever visited. The petroglyphs are varied, detailed, pristine, and in some cases very large. However, unlike the other sites mentioned here, this one is entirely on private land, which for now remains open to those who respect the site and its owners. However as was indicated to me that could change at any time. So if you haven’t been here before I highly recommend visiting sooner rather than later. And when you go, if you are lucky you might get to see their collection of arrowheads, spear points, baskets, and metates.

Newspaper Rock
Newspaper Rock is probably the best known and most widely photographed petroglyph panel in the United States. It features an array of different creatures, anthropomorphs and symbols from a variety of different cultures. The Archaic Indians, Fremont, Anasazi, Navajo and other Ancestral Puebloan cultures. This particular panel is located on the southern edge of Canyonlands, along the highway that leads to the Needles section of the park.

Rochester Panel
This panel is mostly of Fremont origin, but also displays art from other tribes, explorers, Mormon pioneers and unfortunately tourists. The acts of the latter though should not dissuade you from a visit,  as it is equal in caliber to Newspaper Rock in the amount and variety of art displayed in one spot. The panel is located just west of the San Rafael swell and east of the town of Emery.

Nine Mile Canyon
Nine Mile Canyon, located just north of Wellington in central Utah, was a vast artistic canvas for Fremont and Ute Indians. Its claim to fame is the sheer quantity of rock art that can be found along the canyon’s 46 mile length. To date over 1000 archaeological sites have been cataloged, including petroglyphs, dwelling ruins and grain stores. Examples of rock art include – Big Buffalo, Mickey Mouse, The Great Hunt, and the Sand Hill Crane Panel.

Moab Area
A variety of rock art can be found close to Moab, most of it outside the boundaries of Canyonlands and Arches. Cultures represented in the different panels include the Archaic Indians, the Fremont and Utes. Examples include Moab Man, Intestine Man, and Wolf Ranch

Sandstone Angel - San Rafael Swell - Utah

Sandstone Angel – San Rafael Swell – Utah

San Rafael Swell
The San Rafael Swell is a fairly vast area in central Utah and split by Interstate 70. While its known most for its amazing geologic display, it was also home to the Archaic and Fremont Indians. If you have the time, and know how to survive Utah’s brutal desert conditions, this is one place that if you spend enough time you will likely find something few have ever seen. Well known rock art locations include – Molen Reef Snake, Buckhorn Wash, Head of Sinbad, and Black Dragon Wash.

McKee Springs (Dinosaur National Monument)
The McKee Springs petroglyphs have been attributed to the Fremont Indians, who lived in the park over a thousand years ago. To reach the petroglyphs requires travel north of the Park’s main Utah entrance, and entering via the Island Park Road. The road should be in good condition during dry weather, but it is primarily dirt.  The Island Park area is also known for remnants left behind by European pioneers and is an access point for boaters traveling on the Green River.

Suggested Reading:

A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest – Alex Patterson
Ancient Peoples of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau – Steven R. Simms

Best Preserved French Star Forts

Star Fort Illustration

The star fort was a type of military fortification that emerged in western Europe during the late Middle Ages.  It was the military engineers response to a century of improvements in cannon technology during the 13th and 14th centuries that rendered the medieval castle obsolete.  The star fort included lower, thicker sloping walls that limited the effectiveness of artillery. Also, the angular shape of the fort, the ravelins that surrounded it, and the deep trench-works in between made approaching the fortress, and using its walls as a shelter against defensive fire, difficult for attacking armies.

Many of the forts found in France today can trace their origins directly or indirectly from the work of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. During his career as an military engineer (1667-1707) Vauban was responsible for building or upgrading the defensive fortifications of nearly 300 cities and military installations. These upgrades played a crucial role in conflicts such as the Thirty Years’ War and the Franco-Spanish War, when France engaged the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburg Empire, Britain, Sweden and other smaller rivals in battle across Western Europe.

They were also a symbol of how the nature of warfare had rapidly changed between the medieval period, and the Renaissance.

Fort de Bellegarde

Bellegarde is one of several fortifications built over the centuries to control movement of people and goods through the Col du Perthus (Perthus Pass) in the Pyrennes Mountains between France and Spain. The first historical record of the region originate from the passage of the Carthaginian general Hannibal and his army through the eastern Pyrenees in 218 B.C. Since then the fortifications of Bellegarde have changed in a variety of ways, with the star fort visitors see today, commissioned in 1679 by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a military planner of King Louis XIV of France.

Google Maps: Find it
Youtube: History of Perthus Pass and Fort Bellegarde

Citadel of Besançon

The strategic value, location and natural defensive features of Besancon, close to the Swiss border, and at the base of the Alps, were first noted by Julius Cesar during hist conquest of Gaul in the 1st century. Since that time, fortifications of various kinds have been built on the site. Construction of the current fort began in 1668, under the direction of the Spanish crown, and over the course of its creation passed between the French and Spanish Kingdoms several times. The primary designer of what is seen today, was Vauban, who built over the course of his life time many France’s star forts. Given its prominence high above the town of Besancon, the elaborateness of its design, and its superb condition, the citadel is considered one of the finest surviving examples of a Renaissance Bastion Fort in France. Nearly a quarter of a million people visit annually.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Photo Tour

Fortress of Salses (Forteresse de Salses)

Like Bellegarde, the Fortress of Salses was built to control a strategic north-south passage and strategic choke point between modern France’s Mediterranean coastline and the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. The original fort was built between 1497-1502 by the Spanish King Ferdinand II to defend against French invasions of Spain. It was the scene of three battles during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the result of which was a triumphant French army. But the conflict to control Salses also served to blunt any further advances of France into Spanish territory in this region. By the signing of the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, the fort had lost much of its relevance, and the current border of Spain and France was largely settled.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour
Official Website: Forteressee de Salses

Fort Carré

Fort Carre, located on the Mediterranean coast in the south of France, dates back to as early as 1553, when a defensive tower was added to the site of an existing chapel. The building of the tower and the bastion fort that soon followed in 1565 were part of a larger project by King Francis I and his heir Henry II to improve Frances defenses in Provence, and monitor the Duchy of Savoy, its rival to east. It was after the improvements commissioned by Henry II that the fort took on the star-shape common to many forts and walled cities in the era. Future improvements were added by the military engineer Vauban, who would later build Neuf-Brisach.

The fort saw conflict twice in its long history. During 1591 it was taken briefly by the Duchy of Savoy, before the French reconquered Provence. And in 1746/47 it was attacked from the Mediterranean by British and Austrian warships, but never taken.

The fort is also notable for the temporary imprisonment of Napolean Bonparte within its walls, and as part of the James Bond movie – Never Say Never Again.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Fort de Joux

While not a star fort in the purest sense, Fort de Joux is like many other fortifications of the time, a combination of the old and the new. Its history begins in the 12th century when the lords of Joux transferred an existing wooden fortification into one of stone. From there, over the centuries improvements were added onto the central castle, including by the famed Renaissance military engineer Vauban. The changes reflected the changing role of the castle, from a stronghold of feudal lords, to a border fort to protect France from its neighbors. For a time it even served as part of the Maginot line, the protective line of fortifications the French in vainly developed after World War I (WWI) to defend against another German invasion.

Today the fort sits on the border between France and Switzerland above the town of La Cluse-et-Mijoux.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Aerial Flyby

Fort des Têtes

The site upon which Fort des Tetes sits was first surveyed for its strategic value,  by Vauban in 1700. It wasn’t until 1721 that construction of a permanent fort began, under the direction of two of Vauban’s successors. The fort overlooks the valley of the Durance river, and allowed the French to defend Briançon  and the high valleys of Fontenil and Fontchristiane that surrounded it. The fort was part of the Fortified Sector of Dauphiné, a section of the Maginot Line that bordered Italy after WWI.  The French were able to defend against a series of Italian attacks up until 1940, after which Italian forces occupied Southeastern France.

Google Maps: Find It
Photo Gallery


Neuf-Brisach (New Brisach) was built after the loss of “old” Brisach to the Holy Roman Empire following the Treaty of Ryswick which ended the War of the League of Augsburg in 1697. Neuf-Brisach was envisioned by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a famous military engineer during the period as both the ideal French city as well as a ultimate defense against future attacks from German territory, which lay just a few miles away on the other side of the Rhine River. Neuf-Brisach offers a classic example of the star fort serving both a military and civilian purposes.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour


Villefranche-de-Conflent was founded in 1096 by Guillaume-Raymond, Count of Cerdanya, in part for its strategic location in a narrow pass through the Pyrenees Mountains. Offering an impediment to invading Arab armies from Spain, the town was quickly fortified, and has remained that way ever since.  As its position between two of Europe’s two great powers might suggest, Villefranche-de-Conflent has seen its share of conflict and upheaval. Multiple times over the centuries France and Spain traded control over the Pyrennes, with the last instance occurring during the Franco-Spanish War of 1793, in which Spain occupied the town briefly.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour
Website of Interest:

Further Reading Suggestions: