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Rock of Ages

by Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer
The Columbian, May 16, 2004

COLUMBIA HILLS STATE PARK -- Forest Service archaeologist James D. Keyser clambers up a basalt cliff to a ledge rubbed smooth over thousands of years by the backsides of visitors to this Columbia Gorge perch. "We affectionately call this butt polish," he says.

Imagine no dams, no freeway traffic, no fences, no railroad tracks. Imagine the roar of the free-flowing Columbia River, loud as a freight train as it races through a narrow gorge. Imagine a young Indian sitting on this ledge through seven sunrises and seven sunsets, singing and chanting and running up and down the cliff, waiting for a vision of the spirits that will guide his life.

The images painted and carved into the rocks surrounding this ledge, and the stories told by descendants of the first people of the Columbia basin, help Keyser imagine these things:

Mysterious white concentric circles. A cluster of barn owls on a flat rock near the ledge. Two black stick figures topped by halo-like rayed arcs. Red and white tally marks, possibly recording the days passed during those vision quests.

A short walk to the west, Tsagaglalal, the famous petroglyph popularly known as "She Who Watches," stares impassively from a slab of basalt.

Tsagaglalal is a few hundred years old. Figures of elk and mountain sheep painted onto these rocks date to as early as 5,000 B.C. Over the centuries, they have been exposed to blazing sun and hard frost, soaring hawks and denning rattlesnakes. More recently, some have fallen victim to humans, who have defaced some of the images in violation of federal law.

The Columbia basin Indian rock art near Horsethief Lake is the most extensive in the Northwest. That's because until the end of the 19th century, this area of the gorge was a heavily populated trading hub drawing Indians from as far away as coastal British Columbia, the Modoc country of Northern California and the Rocky Mountains

"There were dozens of villages," Keyser said. "You were probably never out of sight of houses in the 20 miles between The Dalles and Biggs Junction."

Yet the art at this site never has been professionally documented or recorded, and no complete inventory exists. That worries Keyser, author of the 1992 book "Indian Rock Art of the Columbia Plateau" and an expert on Columbia Gorge prehistory.

"These images have survived for thousands of years," he said. "One idiot with spray paint could destroy this irreplaceable art."

In 1957, the rising waters behind The Dalles Dam flooded this stretch of the gorge, inundating the Indian fishing site at Celilo Falls and tens of thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs in a canyon just upstream from Horsethief Lake. In all, according to Keyser, The Dalles, John Day and McNary dams, built between 1955 and 1968, drowned at least 45 archaeological sites that held half the known rock art between Priest Rapids and The Dalles.

Yet, despite the destruction, he writes, records of most sites survive, thanks to early scientific interest and the efforts of dedicated amateur researchers who photographed and made rubbings or tracings of many designs before they were lost.

Recording a legacy

The striking images etched and painted into the basalt cliffs here were untouched by the waters that backed up behind The Dalles Dam.

On a day in early May, Keyser showed these images to French archaeologist Valerie Feruglio, who is helping to document the 32,000-year-old paintings of lions, mammoths and rhinoceroses at Chauvet cave in the south of France. The cave, sealed for 27,000 years, was discovered by accident in 1994 when three explorers removed a jumble of stones that had blocked its opening.

The Oregon Archeological Society sponsored Feruglio's trip to the Northwest, hoping to learn new techniques for documenting rock art. During her visit, Feruglio held a workshop for archaeologists and gave a public lecture at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland.

At Chauvet, Feruglio traces images on thin clear sheets of plastic stretched on frames and set just centimeters from cave walls. Such tracings can reveal evidence of painted-over drawings and scratches made eons ago by bears and humans.

But tracing is being supplanted by sophisticated photographic techniques, she said, including three-dimensional scanners that adjust for the distortion of images caused by the shape of cave walls. Computer simulation allows archaeologists to enhance colors. Ultraviolet light can reveal images covered with calcite. Infrared light can bring out shapes and details not visible to the naked eye.

American and French archaeologists face very different challenges, Keyser said.

"The French are the masters of recording rock art in the Old World," he said. "They have very few sites, but those they have are incredibly well-preserved. They have fewer than 400 caves. We have 4,000 sites within a two-hour drive of Portland and they're all out in the open. We have to do triage. Our recordings have tended to be rapid-fire."

In a recent project 10 miles upriver from Horsethief Lake, Keyser and his team recorded images at 26 sites over four long weekends, ranging from sites with single images to one that contained more than 600 images.

Another difference: Many American archaeologists have had the opportunity to interview descendants of the artists who created the images that decorate the cliffs and canyons of the Columbia basin.

"In France, of course, that is impossible to do," Feruglio said. Because the artists who drew the images in the French caves 32,000 years ago are unknown, "all we can do is record the rock art. We can't do ethnography."

In contrast, said Keyser, archaeologists working in the Columbia basin can draw on a wealth of stories and legends. "We have 150 years of Indians across the Columbia Plateau telling us who made these and how they made them. The ethnography of the Columbia River Plateau is the most extensive in the world."

The Paleolithic drawings of lions, rhinos and mammoths on the walls of the oldest French caves are highly realistic. In contrast, many Columbia basin images depict fanciful creatures that are part human, part animal.

On a basalt cliff above the Columbia River near Horsethief Lake, he points out one of these. It depicts a red and white creature with a human-shaped nose, a bear's ears and a mouth full of teeth. A zigzagging bolt shoots from the top of its head, ending in a fish tail. Keyser theorizes that this creature represented a spirit that led the salmon back home to spawn.

"Bears are always fishing for salmon," he said. "Bears act like humans, they sit up and walk on two legs sometime. It might be a bear-human morphing into a salmon."

The bolt might be the artist's attempt to depict the vision quest experience, he added. "Trance states are frequently described as like a lightning bolt shooting out of the head, splitting it open."

Water monsters and Spedis owls

Keyser leads the way up a trail that passes through one of the Northwest's largest prehistoric cemeteries, looted by pot hunters between the 1930s and the 1950s.

"Even in the 1990s the park ranger found someone digging up artifacts here," Keyser said. "We are stewards of this site just by being out here."

Relocated petroglyphs near the parking lot depict water bugs and strange creatures known as swallowing monsters, spirit guides for people who got sucked underwater.

The familiar Spedis owl, named for nearby Spedis Creek, and found at seven separate sites, represents a spirit being well-known in the mythology of the Lower Chinook.

"These were images carved by shamans," Keyser said. "Shamans in Columbian society had to announce their power. They had to have a greater power than the power that made people sick."

As the trail climbs into the cliff area, he points out the vision quest site. Human faces crowned by halolike rayed arcs possessed spirit power. A rock with a flaked edge likely was chipped away to make amulets or grind into a magical powder.

Pictographs here were painted almost exclusively in red, black and white. Crushed iron oxide, which bonds with the rock, supplied the red pigment; certain clays were used for white, and charcoal and manganese provided the black.

Studying the rock art of the Columbia basin has given Keyser a deeper understanding of the region's first human inhabitants. That understanding explains why he feels such urgency about documenting the fading images they left behind.

"These images tell us about ancient cultures that can't speak for themselves. This is the patrimony of humankind, the world history of humanity."

If you go

What: Guided tours of Indian rock art, including She Who Watches. Self-guided viewing of 41 petroglyphs and pictographs rescued from behind The Dalles Dam in the 1950s and relocated to the park this spring.

Where: Columbia Hills State Park (formerly Horsethief Lake State Park), off state Highway 14 approximately 1.5 miles east of Highway 97.

When: Guided tours at 10 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, April through October, reservations required; call 509-767-1159. Tour space is limited; first openings are in mid-June. Viewing of relocated rock art during park hours, 6:30 a.m. to dusk.

Cost: Park admission is free; parking costs $5 per day.

Kathie Durbin, Staff Writer
Rock of Ages
The Columbian, May 16, 2004

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