Storied Stones – Prehistoric Rock Art of Montana

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I am fascinated by pictographs and petroglyphs. Are they 10,000 year old graffiti or a sacred magical symbolic code, a treasure map, a historian’s guide book in storied stone?

In 1806, while on their historic journey across Montana, the Lewis and Clark Expedition encountered several signs of the first inhabitants of this great land. Pictographs and petroglyphs were inscribed on rock faces by the tribes that lived in this area as well as nomadic tribes that followed the bison herds across the Great Plains. From Clark’s Journal “. . .on the face of this rock the figures of animals”. To an archaeologist there is a distinct difference between pictographs and petroglyphs. Pictographs are intricate designs painted on a hard surface, petroglyphs are chiseled or carved into the rock surface.

Cave walls and cliff faces bear witness to the travels, hunts and brave deeds of prehistoric hunters and their historic American Indian counterparts that 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 feel have magical significance; evocative and mystical, they fire our imagination and connect us with our past.

Distinctive remnants of the past can be viewed along the Sun River, the Smith River, in the Little Bear Mountains, the Lewis and Clark National Forest and in numerous other historic locations across Montana. Kila, Montana, near Kalispell is another site of exceptional renderings of warriors, buffalo and tribal culture. At Kila there are two sites with hundreds of images. Hellgate Canyon, a narrow passage from the Missoula Valley to the plains is an impressive viewing of Indian petroglyphs that grace the canyon walls. In neighboring northern Idaho, extensive storied stones are found on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille.

Most of the American Indian tribes of Montana created forms of rock art. Anthropological researchers interpret many of the drawings to be a type of calendar to mark important dates, documentation of successful hunts and drawing of battles or acts of courage. A hand print is one of the most common markings to signify the creator, similar to our practice today of signing our signature. These early artists would place their hand against a rock and then using a reed or a hollow feather, blow 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 have been inscribed with sharpened etching tools. Pigments were made from crushed minerals, clays and charcoal mixed with animal fats, plant extracts and blood.

Many of the paintings were made to seek favor from the gods, to protect the tribe and by telling their stories, educate the young. Located about 13 miles from Billings, Montana Pictograph Cave State Park documents life before Native Americans or the White man ever stepped foot on the land that is now Montana.

The drawings at Pictograph State Park are believed to be over 2000 years old. Over 30,000 artifacts that tell about prehistoric life, hunting and social structure have already been recovered from this amazing site. The images of warriors, wildlife 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 those many years ago, but the rock art gives us a glimpse into to 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 inhabitation.

Scientists also exhumed the skeletal remains of at least nine people in and about the area around the caves. This included one unfortunate individual who had been crushed by falling boulders. Several of the human bones recovered from Pictograph Cave State Park have the same teeth and burn markings as bison bones found in the caves. These burn and bite marks have lead anthropologists to speculate that these prehistoric residents practiced cannibalism.

During the early 1900’s many people were aware of the “Indian Caves” as they were located along a frequented route between Billings and the town of Coburn located on the Crow Indian Reservation. The curious would often stop and explore the caves and rest for a while on their journey. A cold, fresh water spring and welcome shade made the caves a popular camping spot for travelers.

Although decades of people living around Billings were familiar with the caves, they did not gain real notice until 1936 when a group of amateur anthropologists unearthed deposits of prehistoric artifacts in the cave floor. In 1937 the Montana Highway Commission acquired the site to preserve this impressive part of history for future generations.

Another remote area in southern Montana holds a wealth of storied stone. Weatherman Draw, also known as the “Valley of The Chiefs”, a two mile stretch of history, hides numerous multicolored depictions of people, shields and animals which scientists believe are over 1000 years of age. The mystical depictions are considered the best-preserved examples of rock in the High Plains. More than 10 Indian tribes hold the area sacred. Threatened by oil drilling in in the late 1990’s, the site is now preserved under a donation to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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