BY CHRISTINE HENSLEIGH
Some 9,000 years ago, small bands of nomadic people—most likely family units—congregated at the Pictograph Cave complex. Early humans in the western hemisphere followed vast herds of wildlife, including ancient woolly bison with horns spanning 6 feet. The caves were a natural resting spot, thanks to a nearby spring and abundant native plants used for food, ceremony, and medicine near the trio of caves now named Ghost, Middle, and Pictograph. Humans have been there since before the time of the Pyramids. “It’s the most important prehistoric site in Montana,” says John Douglas, a University of Montana archaeology professor. “And it’s the touchstone for all prehistory in Montana since.”
Migratory camps for prehistoric people were likely scattered throughout Montana. What made Pictograph Cave appealing is the protection it offered from the elements. Fortunately, those dry and comfortable living quarters for early visitors also preserved the materials of their cultures. The sheltered climate of the cave eliminated the freeze-thaw cycle and preserved rare bits of rope, basketry, and even roasted turnips—all items of great interest to archaeologists.
The presence of abalone and olivella shells proves trading with distant tribes was common; gaming pieces indicate prehistoric man had the inclination for leisure and fun. The basketry is reminiscent of techniques used far away in the Southwest.
Dirt and rock sloughed off the caves’ ceilings at regular intervals creating a layered record that chronicles the four distinct eras of early visitors. Top layers date to 1750 AD, while subsequent layers neatly trap three more eras—500 AD to 1750 AD (when people used dogs to move belongings); 3,000 BC to 500 BC; and 7,000 BC to 3,000 BC (the oldest layer).
The colors in Pictograph are bold and expressive. Black was made from charcoal; reds, as an iron oxide; and the white from unknown sources. Early archaeologists believed the images were records of events; these days the scientists speculate the drawings were a way of communing with the supernatural.
Shield-bearing warriors, animal figures, and weapons (including rifles) are the dominant motifs of the cave images. Most of the thousands of pieces unearthed from the site are animal bones. Sadly, the pictographs are deteriorating. The same sloughing process that once preserved cultural material now threatens to collapse the cave. Time has faded the colors. Slow seepage from a pond above has formed a mineral skin over the images. Preservation efforts that removed graffiti erased several pictographs.
The lesson learned from those preservation efforts raises difficult questions: Allow nature to take its course? Use chemical seals to slow deterioration? Repaint the images? One option is to remove the mineral overlay, but that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Another option is to let nature take its course and be grateful we have the scale reproductions from the 1930s.”
Christine Hensleigh is a writer in Whitefish. From July-August 2009 Montana Magazine and Montana Outdoors.