CODY, Wyo. — There’s still part of a dynamite charge stuck in a hole along a sandstone cliff near Greybull, Wyoming, where in 1962 stonemasons removed tons of ancient native petroglyphs for display at what is now the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
“One really can’t be critical of what they were doing back then,” said Larry Loendorf, a noted rock art expert who lives part-time in Red Lodge. “I suspect if I was around back then I would have been supportive of what they were doing.”
He noted that it was common practice decades ago to outline the rock art with chalk to make it more visible and to take casts of impressions, which is now known to harm the stone.
But in the 1960s, under the direction of then-museum director Harold McCracken, the Greybull rock was removed with the idea that the stone and its pecked human and animal figures — which could have been made 800 to 1,000 years ago — would be better protected in a museum than on the side of an exposed cliff where gunmen were using them for target practice.
ON THE ROAD
Fifty-five years later, the nine stone blocks have been moved to a new home through a unique partnership. On Sept. 10 Marieka Arksey, collections manager for the office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist, helped box the petroglyphs after they were found in a pile next to acoustic tiles in a museum storage warehouse in Cody. The next day the ancient depictions were given a ride to Laramie where they will be photographed and eventually reassembled in 3-D on a computer.
“The site itself hasn’t been fully documented,” said Marit Bovee, archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Worland office. “Now with this, we have the technology to digitally put these blocks back on the rock face.”
Many of the rocks contain depictions of shield warriors, human figures standing behind large round objects. The shields contain different designs. Photographs taken in 1962 for a Billings Gazette article show five of the round figures and one large square-bodied figure, its arms raised, and wearing what could be a headdress.
The largest figure in the center of the photo has an arrow drawn into its head, the opposite end of which is boxed.
Loendorf said the rock also contains a long-necked animal with curved horns, similar to a bighorn sheep, a depiction he called unusual for the area.
“It will be a lot better when we get them in the light,” he said.
Also seen on the rocks before they were packed away was a small thunderbird image.
Bovee said new technology allows the light to be rotated while the camera remains stationary. The different lighting brings up contrasts in the stone’s texture, which will hopefully highlight the ancient art when the images are all pieced together digitally. Then the stones will be stored in a controlled environment.
“We also need to talk to the tribes and see what they want done,” Bovee said.
Loendorf said that it’s hard to attribute the art to any modern tribe, although the Shoshonean-speaking people were early occupiers of the region.
Bovee and Arksey worked with Bonnie Smith, curatorial assistant at the center’s Draper Natural History Museum, to locate and move the long-forgotten treasures. After being removed from display, the blocks were set aside and institutionally forgotten. Since 1996 they had been stored in a stack at the warehouse.
“For me, my priority was getting these stabilized and out of here,” Bovee said. “They were very vulnerable in here.”
“It’s the first time they’ve been together in a while,” Smith said as the three women, along with volunteer helpers, worked to lift, photograph and then box up the stones in foam-lined crates for hauling.
“Reunited and it feels so good,” sang Corey Anco, assistant curator at the Draper, who had volunteered for the hot, dusty work.
Bovee was involved in the project because it was later discovered that the rock panels had been removed from BLM property. When the rock was blasted, it was believed to have been on a ranch owned by John Tillard, located along the Bighorn River between Greybull and Basin.
“The stuff still on site is in better shape than the stuff in here,” Smith said.
Bovee said the BLM is lucky that this type of removal is not that common, although she could cite a couple of similar instances in Wyoming, and Loendorf noted that petroglyphs near Colstrip were removed as the coal strip mine expanded. Those are now housed at the Montana Historical Society.
Arksey said she ran into similar dynamite-style removals when she worked in Central America, although those were typically treasure hunters.
“We’re very much more about data collecting now than collecting stuff,” Arksey said. “And people will be able to access it rather than have it in a pile in a warehouse.”
Center executive director and CEO Bruce Eldredge said it’s important for museums to return objects that have long been warehoused and are no longer being displayed for educational purposes. That’s a trend that Arksey said she’d like to see other museums, large and small, follow.
“More and more people are looking out for the good of the object,” Arksey said. “Now museum folks are more interactive. Older collectors were more insular.”
Older groups were also mainly male, a strong contrast to the three women leading this project.
Smith was “so happy” to have found the stones and to connect Arksey to them so the rock art could be documented.
“They just looked like big blocks of sandstone with screws stacked on them,” she said.
“I think what’s happening is really very intelligent,” Loendorf said. “Bonnie Smith triggered that and pushed it. Now we have good ways to learn what’s on them.”
Information from: The Billings (Mont.) Gazette, , http://www.billingsgazette.com