Saturday, February 16, 2008

Petroglyphs and more

South Dakota has many more early Native American rock drawings and carvings than a lot of people realize. Several places in the Cave Hills region in the northwest corner of the state, and steep canyons in the Black Hills hold amazing examples of rock art.

While collecting, destroying or defacing the carvings and paintings is illegal and just plain wrong, photographing them is a great way to preserve what hasn't already faded into history.

One very interesting spot for photographing rock art is a remote canyon near Edgemont owned by John and Janet Koller. Edgemont is on the southwestern edge of the Black Hills, near the corner of the state that borders Wyoming and Nebraska. The Kollers operate Rock and Pine Adventures, giving guided tours of their ranch by appointment.

Even without the historical markings, the landscape here is spectacular with pine covered hills, red rock cliffs and a tributary of the nearby Cheyenne River wandering through the property. The place looks ready-made for a western movie location.

John grew up on this ranch and has also done a large amount of research into the history of this area, so makes a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide. Here he describes one set of markings on a rocky cliff wall.

Photographing the carvings is not extremely difficult, and you can get fairly close to most of them. A wide-angle lens allows a bit of the surroundings to be included while keeping the artwork relatively large in the shot. Side-lighting almost always is a good thing when shooting these kinds of formations. The shadows help the shapes stay defined. A flash on a cord can provide side-lighting in this kind of situation if the natural lighting isn't ideal when you are there.

While many of the Native American carvings are very ancient, one of the more intriguing markings is a bit more modern and left by a white man. Koller knows that George Armstrong Custer traveled through this area during his 1874 expedition into the Black Hills. (see He believes that the famous cavalry officer left this evidence of his passing high up on one of the cliff walls.

Humans weren't the only ones to leave their mark for us to find at the Koller Ranch. The immense herds of bison that once roamed this part of the country came to this valley to drink from the river and graze on the lush grass that grew around it. As they climbed back out of the canyon to the plains above, they made their way up this rocky slope and eventually created what John calls "buffalo stairs." It's hard to imagine how many hooves it took to carve these indentations.

For more information visit Rock And Pine Adventures. Similar opportunities are available at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary near Hot Springs, but I will leave that for future post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I guess it makes sense that South Dakota would have such artifacts, but I always associate them with the southwest for some reason.

Interesting post.

Hopefully illegal artifact hunters aren't reading your blog...