Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Exploring Petit Jean Rock Art

It’s a cool but sunny Sunday morning here in Arkansas, despite being in the middle of December. The perfect weather to grab some friends and go on a hike.

Which is quite fortunate, because my friends and I have already planned a day of hiking. A day of hiking at my favorite state park, no less. And of following trails that lead to American Indian rock art, no lesser. And guided by one of the state’s most respected archaeologists, not least.

Ten of us load up in two cars and head toward Petit JeanMountain State Park. Officially, this is a joint field trip between the anthropology clubs at Pulaski Technical College and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Unofficially, it’s a bunch of friends joining together to indulge our mutual nerdom.

A couple hours of driving and we’re at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Teaching Barn. This cute little barn houses the WRI Research Station, one of eleven managed by the Arkansas Archaeological Survey. We are greeted by station archaeologist Dr. Leslie “Skip” Stewart-Abernathy.

Skip supervised me at my first AAS Summer Training Program back when I was a freshman and I’m excited for some of our friends to meet him for the first time. After he shows us around the Teaching Barn and gives us a small presentation about the rock art we’re about to see, we head out to explore the park.

First, we head down the Rock House Cave Trail.


 Over the Turtle Rocks and around the bend we go…

Until we come to the mouth of the large rock shelter they call Rock House Cave.
Ever prepared, Skip has given us all papers with pictures of paintings in the shelter. We disperse and try to locate as many as we can.

From the inside looking out
I was the first to find this one:

Photo Cred: Laura Sue Whitehead

I call it The Bacon. Skip isn’t particularly impressed with my interpretation.

And here are some great shots of a woodland bison, and a human figure in a headdress, and a paddlefish next to a fishing trap:

These three photos were all taken from the Arkansas State Parks Blog, a great place to learn more!
Now, if you’re anything like us, you’ve got a number of questions….

When were these paintings done?
Well, nobody knows for sure. According to Skip, the popular assumption is that they date to the Mississippian Period, or about 1100-1700 AD.

How were they done?
Once again, a definitive answer isn’t really available, but the most likely answer is that they used a simple mix of red orange clay and water. “Maybe sometimes with actual iron ore/hematite nodules,” Skip tells me, “but ordinary red clay will do fine.”

After a while, we head to the Indian Cave off of the Boy Scout Trail. Here we see some amazingly well preserved pieces, like this fiddlehead fern and unidentified quadruped: 

Photo Cred: Laura Sue Whitehead
Photo Cred: Laura Sue Whitehead
American Indians also pecked pictures into the rock. If you look at the wall behind me in the picture below, you’ll see a concentric circle motif. 

This is just one of many symbols that were shared across groups.  “Many of the motifs seen on Petit Jean Mountain are commonly seen across North America: concentric circles, diamonds, curvilinear lines, hands, sunbursts, interlocking scrolls, atlatl drawings, some animals.”

Again, not even the pros can be sure. “Part of the problem in interpretation is ironically the commonality of these symbols.  The actual rock art elements certainly were not done by the same individuals who were doing rock art in the Southwest or Northeast, but they clearly shared a basic symbol system, much like we see variations on Christian crosses.”

Why did they make rock art? Did everyone do it, or only certain people?
Not surprisingly, Skip answers these questions with more questions. “Why does anyone make religious art?? Were they made by a priestly class, which was certainly present in Mississippian and even before? Or were they made by others as part of set rituals? I'd like to know but don't know.”

What kinds of information about past cultures can we glean from cave paintings?
“Rock art gives us insight sometimes into the most fragile and least preserved elements of culture: myths, stories, heroes, cognitive perceptions of the world, level of basic observation of nature as in the animal portraits, and even shared cultural patterns found among different groups. Except, this is art produced by cultures who had no separation between art, economics, religion, or politics.  Such a unification is almost totally unfamiliar to those of us in Western civilization.  We divide up everything, whether or not it can be divided in reality.  Our ability to separate religion and science has given us effective medicines, but we have no idea why we're here to begin with, if even "why" is an answerable question.”

Before heading back to the Teaching Barn we make one last stop at an overlook up on the mountain. Skip points out across the river and tells that if we had been standing in this very spot centuries ago, we would have seen a thriving community of American Indians going about their daily lives down the bank and across what are now open fields.

By time we’re back at the Barn our heads are filled with day dreams and questions about the beliefs and traditions that gave life to this mountain all those years ago. But I guess that’s what archaeology-or any field of science-is all about. Each generation passes to the next not only the answers they’ve found, but the questions they’ve found. The mysteries of the past were what drew me into archaeology as child…and I guess there will still be plenty there to see me through until the end!

Photo Cred: Carah Still

All quotes are from a follow-up email interview with Skip. Shout out to Skip for coming up on a day off to show us around and to Cameron Still for helping me get pictures and details together for this post!

1 comment:

  1. Whoa, this is sweet! Putting Arkansas on my bucket list now. :-)