The sunken VW-sized boulder stood alone on the prairie, plunked down by a retreating glacier thousands of years ago miles from its birthplace.
Despite its isolation, peppered across the rock’s surface were incised hoof prints of bison, deer and elk as if they had stomped on the stone when it was still molten and soft. The images flooded my mind with questions about the past: who made these marks, why, when and why here?
These are questions that archaeologists, hikers and tourists have long pondered. From narrow canyons near the base of the Pryor Mountains to high rocky buttes on the eastern plains and caves along the Smith River, historic and prehistoric rock art sites adorn public and private lands across Montana and Wyoming.
There are two main styles of rock art: pictographs, which are paintings or drawings; and petroglyphs, which are chipped, scraped or otherwise incised into the rock. Sometimes, the two styles are combined.
The most simple way to date rock art is to put pieces into two major categories, according to Tim Urbaniak, Montana State University Billings Archaeological Field Team director: pre-contact, which is before Europeans came to North America, and post-contact.
More than 90 percent of the rock art found in the Northwestern Plains is pre-contact — prior to early European exploration of
North America in the 1700s — according to the book “Plains Indian Rock Art,” by James D. Keyser and Michael A. Klassen.
Yet there seems to have been an increase in rock art, or maybe just in rock art that has survived, from the late 1600s into the 1700s. This could partially be explained by the push of eastern tribes westward as they were crowded out by the European settlement of the East Coast. As eastern tribes went West there was an increase in fighting.
“Most of the art was drawn after there was so much diaspora and warfare,” said Larry Lahren, a Livingston archaeologist.
Some of the rock art sites found southwest of Billings in what’s known as Weatherman Draw, or Valley of the Shields, have been dated to 900 years old — around the year 1100 — based on tools used to make the art uncovered during archaeological digs at the base of the site.
Some of the subject matter, warriors carrying large shields, leads some researchers to argue that they were made before the introduction of the horse to the Americas from Spain. That’s because after horses were domesticated by American Indians — in Montana and Wyoming that was the early 1700s — they carried much smaller shields into battle since large shields would be too cumbersome to handle on horseback.
The presence of a bow and arrow in Montana and Wyoming rock art can help place the date no older than 1,600 to 1,000 years ago when the technology first arrived.
Some depictions of shield warriors show their lances tipped with what are believed to be metal points that could have been traded into Montana as early as the 1600s from Spanish explorers to the south or French fur traders coming from the east.
At Pictograph Cave State Park, just south of Billings, the oldest dated pictograph is about 2,000 years old — 100 to 200 B.C. Some of the famous cave art found in Europe is believed to date back 12,000 years. So it may be safe to assume that as long as humans have occupied Montana — estimated at around 14,000 years — they may have been making different types of art.
Certainly human artwork is nothing new. “ … The creation of petroglyphs may have been a cultural practice that originated in the Old World, where art as early as 41,000 years old is known,” writes David S. Whitley in his article, “Rock Art Dating and the Peopling of the Americas.”
Who made it?
Billings historian Howard Boggess believes that rock art wasn’t only made by medicine men and shaman, but also included the “average Joe.” He doesn’t exclude the possibility that some of the art could also have been made by women.
One Crow rock art site, known as The Baby Place, is said to be “primarily female,” according to Timothy McCleary, author of the book “Ghosts on the Land: Apsaalooke (Crow Indian) Interpretations of Rock Art.”
In Bear Gulch south of Lewistown women are depicted in the rock art by their wide hips and hairstyles, a birthing scene and ritual dances. Keyser, who studied the site, wrote that some of the art was “almost certainly” created by “at least a few women.”
The more recent rock art found in Montana and Wyoming were made by its inhabitants: the Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Sioux tribes to the east of the Rocky Mountains, the Salish and Kutenai to the west and in parts of Wyoming the Shoshone-Bannock people.
Older art made by Paleoindian people, the first to roam Montana and Wyoming following the last ice age, was likely made but has failed to survive thousands of years of weathering, according to Lahren.
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Incised, pecked and painted images of battle scenes, a variety of animals, lodges, warriors and chiefs are just some of the depictions found at rock art sites.
Rock art shows how these “people worshipped, the way they perceived their environment, the ceremonies they conducted” and their “feelings about their place in the world,” Keyser and Klassen write.
“They were trying to tell a story,” Boggess said. “You sit in front of some of the pieces of rock art and you can piece it together.”
That’s also the contention of McCleary. He writes that the Crow see their ancestors’ pictographs and petroglyphs as text or writing.
Lahren said some of the art at vision quest sites would show what the person wanted the vision to be, or what the vision actually was.
Some sites were simple reproductions of battle scenes, portraits of warriors and counting coup, while others might depict a person’s spirit animal or clan animal, Lahren said.
Standing apart from these are the Dinwoody petroglyphs in Wyoming, which seem far from representative of daily life. The human-like anthropomorphs and animal-representative zoomorphs have “bizarre combinations of human and animal attributes,” Keyser and Klassen write.
A study published in 1993 dated the Dinwoody art to about 2,000 years old. The same article also notes the difficulty of dating some sites where newer pictographs were added to older ones.
Although more abstract in design, Keyser and Klassen write that some of the anthropomorphs “clearly symbolize a concept or an idea rather than represent an object” while more simple designs may be representations of images seen with the eyes closed or partially closed.
Such abstract designs may represent spirits, visions or were even believed to be created by spirits as a way to convey power or messages to humans.
The reason that rock art is often found in dramatic settings may be the simplest interpretation for modern humans to make.
“Although aboriginal cultures viewed nature as being charged with spiritual energy, this energy was often concentrated in specific natural features, including strangely shaped rocks, large glacial erratic boulders, narrow canyons, and isolated mountain peaks,” Keyser and Klassen write.
These are the same places that draw hikers who want to explore natural features. Even these modern folk feel the spirituality of such places — the vastness of nature, the beauty of their surroundings and the simple pleasure of a scenic view.
Keyser and Klassen take it a step further, writing that ancient artists may have been trying to “tap into the power of these sacred places through rituals, ceremonies, and rock art.” Fasting and vision quests would be two of these rituals.
McCleary writes that many of the sites he visited with Crow elders were places warriors made pilgrimages to during war ventures “either to produce the art or to read human or ghost made images.”
Rock art was also made along well-known trails. According to McCleary’s book, Castle Butte was along an oft-used River Crow route that extended from Pompeys Pillar northwest to Steamboat Butte and the Musselshell River. Rock art is found at Castle and Steamboat, both prominent sandstone outcrops, as well as along the Musselshell.
Lahren said the glacial erratic boulders, like the one in northeastern Montana, also could have been trail markers. Covered with bison, elk and deer hoof prints just north of a known buffalo jump, the rock may have been a stopover to either thank the spirits for a successful hunt, or to pray for success in an upcoming venture.
Lahren said one native elder told him that a red hand print on a rock wall near Livingston was a warning to others to stay out, or “if you come through this valley our hands will be red with your blood.”
No matter the message, design or placement, Montana and Wyoming’s rock art sites provide places for today’s people to contemplate a time long gone, when bison were so numerous that they blackened the prairie, when travel was solely on foot or horseback, when messages were conveyed not in print or by electronic texts, but by scratched, pecked or painted images on large slabs of rock, cave walls or sandstone outcrops.
“The images themselves often show a striking mastery of form and execution that belies their outward simplicity,” Keyser and Klassen write. “They are also frequently enigmatic and generally very old, hinting at an ancient, mysterious past. But most important, they connect us to the beliefs and cultures of the aboriginal peoples who first discovered and populated this continent.”
Although the styles of art and the subjects depicted are numerous, Keyser and Klassen write that by “recognizing the relationships between images, we can begin to see patterns in depiction. These patterns, viewed in the context of the cultures that produced them and the landscape in which they are found, help illuminate for us the meaning and significance of the rock art.”