Ancient America: Pictographs

Pictograph 8

For thousands of years Indian people left evidence of their presence on the land with rock art: pictographs and petroglyphs. Pictographs are created by painting on rock surfaces with natural pigments while petroglyphs are pecked, carved, or abraded into the surface of the rock.  

Pictographs are usually found under protective ledges or in caves where they have been protected from the weather. In producing pictographs, Indians used natural pigments such as iron oxides (hematite or limonite), white or yellow clays and soft rock, charcoal, and copper minerals. These natural pigments were mixed to produce a palette of yellow, white, red, green, black, and blue. In mixing the powdered mineral pigments into paint, organic binders were used. This included a combination of fluids such as plant juices, eggs, animal fat, saliva, blood, urine, and water. When it is freshly applied, the pigment stains the rock surface: it seeps into microscopic pores by capillary action as natural weathering evaporates the water or organic binder with which the pigment was mixed. Thus the pigment becomes part of the rock. The pigments were generally applied by finger painting.

One of the problems with regard to rock art is attempting to determine what these symbols mean. Symbols are an important part of culture and when they are taken out of the context of the culture in which they were created, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand what they meant to the people who created them.

Some rock art sites appear to have been associated with the vision quest. Following a vision quest, the supplicants would paint a pictograph to commemorate the experience. Vision quest pictograph sites are usually found in relatively inaccessible, isolated areas. The predominant designs show humans, animals, sun symbols, dots, crosses, and geometric abstracts.

Some rock art sites may have been associated with hunting magic and ceremonies. Among most of the North American tribes, it was felt that animals had spirits controlling their behavior. Therefore, certain rituals would be carried out prior to the hunt in which the animal spirits would be asked to allow that some animals be taken for the good of the human group. Game animal pictographs may often represent ‘hunting magic,’ and be associated with ceremonies conducted either before the hunt to control the animals or afterward to propitiate their spirits.

Some Pictographs:

Shown below are some recent photographs from two different pictograph sites in Western Montana.

Pictograph 1

Pictograph 2

Pictograph 3

Pictograph 4

Pictograph 5

Pictograph 6

Pictograph 7

Pictograph 9

The Environment:

There are a number of pictograph sites along the old buffalo road which the Spokan, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, and Kootenai hunters would follow to the buffalo hunting grounds on the Great Plains east of the Rocky Mountains. The area near the sites is resource rich: it has a wetlands area which provided the tribes with tule reeds from which they wove mats, and cattails which provided food as well as baby diapers; a stream which provided fish; and woodlands which provided fuel and small game.

Shown below are some photographs of the area around the pictograph sites.

Pictograph Area 1

Pictograph Area 2

Pictograph Area 3

1 Comment

  1. I have a photo of a recently discovered pictograph while on a hike in Montana that I’d like to get someone’s expert opinion on. Can you help?

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