Hunting for Ghosts: Rock Art Hiding in the High Desert of Montana | in the fresh air

About 470 years ago, a Native American painstakingly carved a warrior holding a shield into the shady side of a towering sandstone cliff.

The shield is almost completely round, as is the head of a small warrior engraved on top. Below the shield grows an image similar to an inverted stick – perhaps a leg. The leg is red, the head is chestnut.

There is a scene filmed elsewhere adorned with a warrior’s shield. Two animals emerge from a central hole opposite each other in a V-shape. The eyes of the animals and the hole are painted green. Archaeologists have interpreted the drawing as bears that arose from a den, an animal rebirth.

It was fitting to watch this shoot in the spring, when nature comes back to life. The significance of the faded images will only be revealed after the petroglyphs are left. Researching online, interviewing archaeologist Larry Leuendorf, and improving a friend’s photo of rock art broadened my view.

“The cycle of bear hibernation describes an event pattern imbued with symbolic meaning that begins with the bear’s ability to cross the boundary between the land of humans and the land beyond, the land of the nature god and deceased ancestors,” Linda McNeil writes in her book. Find the Ute Indian Bear Dance.

Archaeologists classify such images of shield-bearing warriors as ceremonial in style, compared to autobiographical ones that tell a story. “It is believed that ceremonial-style rock art has been used as part of vision-seeking activities,” David Muir wrote in his 1999 graduate thesis at the University of Montana.

At Weatherman Draw, Loendorf worked with digital photography specialists DStretch that promotes rock art.

“We have things where you can’t see anything on the rock,” he said.

So far, his investigations have identified 75 shield holders at 35 different locations in the Weatherman Draw area.

To see an artist’s depiction of age in Montana’s Weatherman sketch dimension added to the allure. Faded rock art isn’t easy to find, despite the many treks taken in the sandstone hoods, waterfalls, juniper, and sagebrush. Given the weathering the rocks receive in such a harsh landscape, it’s surprising that there are any petroglyphs (engravings) or pictographs (plates) left to see. But the picture is there, and next to it another picture, another, and more fragments of missing art below and to the side indicate the significance of the site.

“The main board has four legs, and between the legs are independent shields,” Loendorf said. “There are things on the left as well, including a character with a high knot like she’s tied into a ponytail over her head.”

Next to the bear’s shield is a shield of equal size with what appears to be the full outline of a grizzly bear in profile, its convex shoulder evident. Bear faces left.

Mavis and John Greer write in their report: “Bears were associated with the supernatural and were identified during rituals by most prehistoric cultures throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and with many northern Plains groups, the bear was considered distinctive and often associated with packages of medicine and therapy.” . “Bear Imagery in Central Montana Rock Art.”

In Montana, Greers divided ornamental bears into bodies and paws. They counted 54 bear carcasses statewide, seven of which had been identified. So this cliff face is extremely rare in Montana.

“It’s very much a Kiowa icon and also a Crow icon,” Loendorf said.

To me, it was strange that after about 20 years of searching the Weatherman Draw for these petroglyphs, parts of which are also known as Valley of the Shields or Valley of the Chiefs, a friend finally led us there about a week before I was due To give a talk about grizzly bears. Like ancient artists, my mind was focused on the bears as my body absorbed the warm spring sun.

My former colleague Lorna Thackeray wrote in 2004 about an archaeologist at the Bureau of Land Management investigating Haden Ice at a prehistoric site in the same area. There, he found a small piece of pottery that he identified as Fremont in nature, along with an elaborately crafted fire pit lined with rocks.

Fremont hunted and cultivated an area stretching from eastern Nevada to western Colorado and from southern Utah as far north as Idaho and Wyoming. Evidence of Fremont culture has been dated to about 2,000 years ago, and ended with their disappearance about 500 years ago. At about the same time Fremont disappeared from the archaeological record, a widespread drought occurred along the Colorado River.

“Could the finds near Bridger indicate that at least some people who hold to Fremont’s cultural traits have moved north?” Thackeray Books. Or were they trading in antiques?

“Why were they here?” Hadden asked. “That’s 300 miles from the heart of Fremont.”

He then speculated that “a combination of environmental factors and aggressive newcomers may have led to a move north and visit southern Montana,” Thackeray wrote.

Loendorf believes the area was a winter site for the Native Americans, rich in game and to this day snow is scarce. The rocks will provide shelter from the wind and keep the winter sun warm.

Large shields represent a time before Native Americans encountered horses. Once horses were available, large shields were unnecessary and cumbersome.

Why depict armor at all?

“One of the most popular theories about the cultural origins of shield-bearing warriors involves the Shoshone,” Muir wrote in another paper, A Study of Variation in Armor-Bearing Rock Art.

“The Shoshone got the idea probably through interaction, probably by war, with Fremont on their way to the northern plains,” Muir added, referring to earlier research.

The Comanche, Hopi, and Ot tribes also painted the idea of ​​the shield, indicating the popularity or efficacy of the subject.

Thor Conway wrote in his book, “Painted Dreams: Native American Rock Art.” “The very individual designs that adorn each shield bear witness to the owner’s dream – the source of his identity and strength. These shields tend to outshine warriors, who hardly emerge from behind the protective discs.”

In the Weatherman Draw, discovered by Loendorf over a 50-year period, the latest archaeological theory is that pixelated images of the landscape were made by 10 different tribal groups, including the Crow which is a preserve to the east of the area.

“Some of the ones in Weatherman Draw are of particular interest because we think they were made by Kiowa,” Loendorf said.

The latter hypothesis, he added, is that the Kiowa were descendants of Fremont who were reborn in what is now Yellowstone National Park before moving to the Black Hills. This would date their pictorial representations to around 1300 AD.

The shield warriors are also made in a style similar to those in Wyoming at Castle Gardens near Riverton, which also has one of the best examples of the bear shape on the shield, Loendorf said. There, the sandstone was first polished before the image was engraved and painted. He said the technology exists in about four to five other places in Montana.

“As a result, it becomes a bit more complicated in terms of sorting them out,” he added.

After many years and journeys in search of shield warriors, what now? Well, that’s the beauty of Weatherman Draw. No matter where I trekked, I’ve always found illustrative photos, what appear to be old animal traps, and stunning views of the surrounding Pryor and Bartooth mountains. Canyons and cliffs, each as individual as a fingerprint, are also subjects of awe that highlight another bond that modern hikers can share with ancients and their ancestors.

The trip made me realize that sometimes joy comes in searching, not just in discovery.

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