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Storied Stones – Prehistoric Rock Art of Montana
I am fascinated by pictographs and petroglyphs. Is it 10,000 year old graffiti or a sacred magical symbolic code, a treasure map, a stepped stone historian guidebook?
In 1806, during their historic journey through Montana, the Lewis and Clark Expedition encountered several signs of the first inhabitants of this great land. Pictographs and petroglyphs were inscribed on the rock faces by the tribes that lived in this area as well as the nomadic tribes that followed the buffalo herds across the Great Plains. Excerpt from Clark’s Journal “…on the face of this rock, the figures of animals”. For an archaeologist, there is a clear difference between pictographs and petroglyphs. Pictograms are intricate designs painted on a hard surface, petroglyphs are chiseled or carved into the rock surface.
The cave walls and cliff faces bear witness to the travels, hunts, and bravery of prehistoric hunters and their historic Native American counterparts who inhabited the caves sporadically for a period of nearly 10,000 years. These early residents of Montana left behind a rich legacy of artifacts and painted images that many believe hold magical significance. Evocative and mystical, they ignite our imagination and connect us to our past.
Distinctive remnants of the past can be seen along the Sun River, Smith River, Little Bear Mountains, Lewis and Clark National Forest, and many other historic locations in Montana. Kila, Montana, near Kalispell is another site of outstanding depictions of warriors, buffalo and tribal culture. In Kila there are two sites with hundreds of images. Hellgate Canyon, a narrow passage from the Missoula Valley to the Plains is an awe-inspiring sight of Indian petroglyphs that adorn the canyon walls. In neighboring northern Idaho, extensive stepped stones lie on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille.
Most Native American tribes in Montana created forms of rock art. Anthropology scholars interpret many of the drawings as a kind of calendar for marking important dates, documenting successful hunts, and drawing battles or acts of courage. A handprint is one of the most common marks to signify the creator, similar to our current practice of signing our signature. These early artists placed their hand against a rock and then, using a reed or hollow quill, blew liquid dyes around the hand to trace its outline.
These early tribal artists also used delicate brushes made from feathers, twigs, animal hair and small bones. Many paintings were engraved with sharp engraving tools. The pigments were made from ground minerals, clays and charcoal mixed with animal fats, plant extracts and blood.
Many paintings were made to seek the favor of the gods, to protect the tribe and by telling their stories, to educate the young people. Located about 13 miles from Billings, Montana Pictograph Cave State Park documents life before Native Americans or white man set foot on the land that is now Montana.
The Pictograph State Park drawings are believed to be over 2000 years old. More than 30,000 artifacts that tell of prehistoric life, hunting, and social structure have already been recovered from this amazing site. Images of warriors, wild animals and tribal rituals tell a complex story of life thousands of years ago. The paintings are open to interpretation. We will never know exactly what happened many years ago, but the rock art gives us insight into the culture of prehistoric man. The two main caves – Pictograph and Ghost Cave were home to generations of prehistoric hunters. Middle Cave does not reflect signs of habitation.
Scientists have also exhumed the skeletal remains of at least nine people in and around the area around the caves. This included an unfortunate individual who had been crushed by falling rocks. Several of the human bones recovered from Pictograph Cave State Park have the same teeth and burn marks as bison bones found in the caves. These burn and bite marks have led anthropologists to speculate that these prehistoric residents practiced cannibalism.
In the early 1900s, many people were familiar with the “Indian Caves” because they were located along a busy road between Billings and the town of Coburn on the Crow Indian Reservation. The curious often stopped and explored the caves and rested for a while on their journey. A cool, cold spring and welcome shade have made the caves a popular camping spot for travellers.
Although decades of people living around Billings knew about the caves, they weren’t really noticed until 1936, when a group of amateur anthropologists discovered deposits of prehistoric artifacts in the floor of the cave. In 1937, the Montana Highway Commission acquired the site to preserve this impressive piece of history for future generations.
Another remote region of southern Montana is home to a wealth of legendary stones. Weatherman Draw, also known as the “Valley of The Chiefs”, a two-mile stretch of history, hides many multicolored depictions of people, shields and animals that scientists say are over 1,000 years old. . The mystical representations are considered the best preserved examples of rock in the High Plains. More than 10 Indian tribes hold the region sacred. Threatened by oil drilling in the late 1990s, the site is now preserved thanks to a donation to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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