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The Writing on the Rocks: Petroglyphs in Our Back Yard

Southern Idaho's canyons are billboards of the past

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Taking a left onto Map Rock Road south of Nampa, I realized I was following modern road signs to find a set of ancient road signs: petroglyphs, which are intricate carvings found up and down the Snake River canyon outside of Boise. They are often located on the flat faces of boulders left where prehistoric Lake Bonneville once was. The petroglyphs, created by ancient indigenous people, are most often outlines and stick-figures etched into car-sized boulders. The lines curve, make circles and sometimes form shapes of animals and people.

I recently took my son to Map Rock for an introduction to the etchings. It was a simple enough lesson to get to. We pulled off the road at an unimproved parking area and looked up at the boulders. It was instant immersion into Great Basin archaeology, and it was interesting enough to hold the attention of a third grader for quite some time.

Map Rock is not the only nearby area with petroglyphs. Celebration Park near Kuna features a host of amenities, including self-guided and guided tours of the rock art located near the park. It also has restrooms, boat ramps, a visitors' center and fresh water. You can view 12,000-year-old Native American rock art without ever leaving a paved road.

Celebration Park can be a full-scale immersion into ancient times. The guides not only share the history of the area but can also talk about the geology and flint knapping, as well as offer atlatl throwing instruction. An atlatl--a kind of a dart-throwing spear--was, according to Celebration Park's website, man's first machine, developed 45,000 years ago to help throw a spear farther than possible with a human arm. The park even hosts an annual atlatl state championship at its spear tossing range. All of the great features of the park coalesce around the rock art.

But possibly the best and most plentiful example of petroglyphs in the valley are at Wees Bar. Cross the Guffy Bridge--built in 1897--south of Celebration Park and head upstream about four miles. Be careful in this area in the warmer months because it is home to rattlesnakes and scorpions. The area has more than 90 boulders covered in symbols that vary from bird and animal shapes to complex geometric forms.

Staring at the white squiggles at Map Rock, my son asked a simple, yet difficult to answer question, "So, Dad, what do they mean?"

"I don't know," was the best I could come up with, other than pointing out the obvious animal shapes. I promised to find out.

When we returned home, I asked Boise State's Dr. Mark Plew, an expert in the field of Great Basin archaeology, to tell me what the signs meant.

"It has been widely believed that animal depictions serve as signs ... markers of game trails and/or presence of particular resources," said Plew.

But, as my 8-year-old pointed out, not all rock carvings are so identifiable. Some are complex geometrical shapes and others look like scratches on stone. Plew said that some are most probably artistic.

"David Whitely at the Rock Art Institute at UCLA has argued that some art is associated with shamanistic activity or rituals ... indeed [they] may have been produced by shamans for or during rituals," he added.

Now that I knew what the rock art might be about, I might also now have to explain art and shamanistic rituals to my third grader. This ought to be an entertaining conversation opening up the possibility of counseling sessions.

But it's important for him to know that the petroglyphs do mean something, that they aren't simply "you are here" signs or doodles. Taking the time to scrape shapes and animals into the sides of boulders had to take some commitment.

But what is the record trying to tell us? Is the rock art some ancient code that we have yet to crack?

"It's not a writing system," Plew said.

So maybe they are maps to hunting grounds.

"I am not convinced that we have prehistoric maps," Plew said. "I think our indigenous populations got along well without them knowing where they were and where they were going."

Now I had to explain to my boy that maybe no one knows exactly what the petroglyphs mean. All I could tell him was that someone made them a very long time ago, they must be important, and while we don't know exactly what they mean but we need to preserve them. Maybe I took the wrong approach in trying to explain the petroglyphs to my son. When we got home, I asked if he had a good time at the petroglyphs.

"Yeah," he said, simply. "They are really cool to look at."

Sometimes, maybe that's all that counts.

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