In April 2019, I went on a field trip to see petroglyphs & pictographs in Harney County, in eastern Oregon. This is one of the many trips offered as a part of the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival. Our guides that day were Bureau of Land Management archaeologists, Scott Thomas and Carolyn Temple.
One of the first things we learned was the difference between petroglyphs and pictographs.
Pictographs, like the images shown below, are painted onto rocks. These works are generally drawn with red, black, white, or yellow paint.
Pictographs frequently include depictions of animals. For example, the drawing at the top of the picture below appears to be a lizard.
Catlow Cave artifacts, including sagebrush bark sandals, grass & bark baskets, and arrowheads & spearpoints, are displayed at the Harney County Historical Society Museum in Burns, Oregon. There are a couple pointed sticks that may be “knitting needles”, used to knit the sagebrush bark together.
These cave artifacts are between 9,000 to 10,000 years old. The Northern Paiute people lived in this region. There are several caves in the Catlow Valley cliffs. Petroglyphs adorn some of the rock faces.
An amazing example of petroglyphs can be seen on the road into the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Wow! I have seen petroglyphs before but never so many in one spot. There are more than 650 drawings on Newspaper Rock at this state historical monument. The dark desert varnish provides a nice contrast to the messages carved into the stone.
The first carvings at this site have been determined to be 2,000 years old. People of the Archaic, Anasazi, Fremont, Navajo, Anglo, and Pueblo cultures have carved their messages into the rock over the years. Unfortunately, it looks like some more modern graffiti artists added to parts of the scene.
The meanings of the messages here have been difficult to figure out. Do they tell a story or are they merely scribbles? The Navajo refer to Newspaper Rock as Tse’ Hane – translated as “Rock that tells a story.” It does indeed appear to tell many stories. Only the people who made the carvings know exactly what those stories were.
A sky streaked with clouds frames Fort Rock, rising from the sagebrush sea in central Oregon. This is the view from a cave where ancient sandals made from sagebrush were found. Sandals and other artifacts found there were determined to be 9,300-10,250 years old. Walking from the cave back towards the mountain, you can almost imagine some of the sights ancient people may have seen.
Looking out of the mouth of the Fort Rock cave at the Sagebrush Sea, one can only imagine the thoughts of those that lived there thousands of years ago. Sagebrush sandals, found inside Fort Rock Cave, were determined to be 9,300-10,250 years old. These sandals are the oldest ever found in the world.
A small hearth was found in the cave and it was radiocarbon dated to be 15,000 years old. Several stone tools were found nearby. Though that date was questioned by some, in 2009 human coprolites (fossilized poop) determined to be from 14,300 years ago were found in nearby Paisley Cave. In 2009 a multiple function tool made from agate was discovered in Rimrock Draw Rock Shelter, near Riley, Oregon. It may have been made as long ago as 16,000 years ago.
Other ancient sandals have been found but never in the quantity found at Fort Rock. Nearly 100 sandals were found ranging from child-sized to adult. They are all the same style with a flat bottom and flap covering the toe area. The sagebrush bark is woven in a distinctive twining style. Sandals of this type were found at various locations in southeast Oregon and northern Nevada. In more recent times, ethnographers found that members of the Klamath and Paiute tribes, who lived in the Fort Rock area, wore footwear woven from sagebrush and tule.
Inside Fort Rock Cave in the past and present
The location where the sandals were found was likely a lake shore 10,000 years ago. Native peoples may have lived there because of the easy access to game, fish, and edible plants. At the present time, the cave borders a huge expanse of dry sagebrush steppe habitat. The climate changed after Mount Mazama blew 7,600 years ago. A thick layer of ash from that eruption blanketed an area covering 500,000 square miles in western North America.
If you want to see this site, you will need to go with a guide since access is regulated by Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in partnership with the University of Oregon. Go here for more information – Fort Rock Cave.