Jeffers Petroglyphs

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Introduction

Amid the prairie grasses are islands of uncovered rock, where American Indian ancestors left carvings — petroglyphs — humans, deer, elk, buffalo, turtles, thunderbirds, atlatls and arrows. They tell a story that spans more than 7,000 years.

3,000 New Carvings Uncovered

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: Lead Release

For immediate release

Release dated: 
April 27, 2015
Media contacts: 

Jessica Kohen, Marketing and Communications, 651-259-3148, jessica.kohen@mnhs.org
Tom Sanders, Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site, 507-628-5591, thomas.sanders@mnhs.org

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: Lead Release

3,000 New Carvings Uncovered at Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site in Comfrey, Some Predating Stonehenge
Visitors can explore a legacy carved into the stone with new daily tour.

This year, visitors to the Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site near Comfrey will find thousands of newly uncovered rock carvings done by American Indian ancestors and a guided tour reflecting discoveries revealed by the new carvings.

Until recently, the number of petroglyphs identified at Jeffers was around 2,000. Over the past several years, an extensive conservation project has resulted in the identification of an additional 3,000 petroglyphs, bringing the on-site total to around 5,000. With the new discoveries has come evidence
that generations of American Indian ancestors who gathered at the red rock for nearly 7,000 years had advanced understanding of mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine.

The arrival of Europeans on the continent eroded traditional American Indian culture, including insight into the sacred that had been passed on for thousands of years. Reconstructing the meaning and significance of the petroglyphs, and surfacing their stories, has been a labor of patience, discovery and dedication led by a team of archaeologists and American Indian elders.

"The earliest carving predates Stonehenge, more than 4,000 years ago, and the most recent American Indian carving was made about 250 years ago, or around the 1760s,” said Thomas Sanders, an archaeologist and Jeffers’ site manager. “That means at least 10 generations have passed since this last
contact. The link was lost between those who left their messages for the ages, those who carried the knowledge and those who would come later.”

Jeffers Petroglyphs is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

NEW TOUR
A new daily guided tour called “An Encyclopedia of the American Indian” launches Memorial Day weekend, May 23-25. The tour showcases 20 recently uncovered petroglyphs, their stories, and the significance the red rock played in American Indian spiritual life and oral tradition. It will be offered three times a day, at 10:30 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m., during regular site hours.

NEW WEBSITE
A new website at http://collections.mnhs.org/jp/ provides access to thousands of 3-D-styled scanned photos of the petroglyphs. The images were taken by the University of Minnesota’s Evolutionary Anthropology Lab as a way to document the petroglyphs and to provide baseline conservation
information. The website highlights the photos and provides additional historical background.

AMERICAN INDIAN ELDERS
American Indian elders have participated in every aspect of the recent conservation and the ongoing interpretation of the petroglyphs’ meaning and significance.

“Dakota elders have a saying: ‘The sacred is like rain. It falls everywhere but pools in certain places,’” said Sanders. “The elders working with us here at Jeffers have brought the sacred intent to the stories of these ancient people. With so much knowledge getting lost, they have have guided us with context, truth and meaning. They have helped us uncover and piece together narratives that are healing. Healing is important.”

Funding is made possible, in part, by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008.

MNHS is a non-profit educational and cultural institution established in 1849. MNHS collects, preserves and tells the story of Minnesota’s past through museum exhibits, libraries and collections, historic sites, educational programs and book publishing. Using the power of history to transform lives, the Society preserves our past, shares our state’s stories and connects people with history.

The Minnesota Historical Society is supported in part by its Premier Partners: Xcel Energy and Explore Minnesota Tourism.

History of the People

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: History of the People

For immediate release

Release dated: 
April 27, 2015
Media contacts: 

Jessica Kohen, Marketing and Communications, 651-259-3148, jessica.kohen@mnhs.org
Tom Sanders, Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site, 507-628-5591, thomas.sanders@mnhs.org

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: History of the People

American Indian ancestors left symbols and signs on Red Rock Ridge more then 1,000 years before ancient people were building Stonehenge in England or the pyramids in Egypt. A section of the ridge, now referred to as Jeffers, was a destination for many American Indian groups including ancestors of the Dakota, Cheyenne, Ojibwe, Ioway, Omaha, Otoe, Ponca, Mandan, Arapaho, Crow and Hidatsa.

American Indian elders have spent many years increasing today’s understanding of the carvings and the ancient people who came here. For today’s elders, the petroglyphs are not just physical symbols but hold meaning as the ancient carvers’ visions, prayers and messages. Elders have played a role in elevating Jeffers to the living sacred site it is, sharing stories that reinforce the spirit of elder wisdom passed on to the young.

Joe Williams

JOE WILLIAMS
Dakota elder
Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, South Dakota

“What’s the most important thing to take from this site? We were here for thousands of years. And the spirit that we believe in, the Great Spirit, our creator, left his marks, here… that’s why, to us; it’s a very sacred area. These markings that are left here are the survival of the people— the spirit of the people… the markings here are what they used to survive. This place is an encyclopedia of American Indian ways of being, put here by elders to teach us.”

Wind River

FRANCIS BROWN (1931-2005)
Arapaho elder
Wind River Reservation, Wyoming

“Those who would understand the carvings would have to spend a long time learning before they could understand. The carvings are not man-made. The spirits are the ones that do this. That’s what my people know. They are spiritually made for information. In the old days old men knew how to interpret these. This is a sacred place. The spirits are there. That’s what our life is all about.”

Upper Sioux

TOM ROSS (1948-2013)
Dakota elder
Upper Sioux Community Pejuhutazizi Oyate, Minnesota

“I would suggest to a visitor who wasn’t a tribal or indigenous person that came to visit this place. . . I’d say to them, somewhere back down your family tree, if you can go back far enough you’re going to find out you came from a tribal people and if you let that part of you speak to you as you’re up here maybe you’ll find something out about yourself and your own history and your place in the world.”

Carrie Schommer

CARRIE SCHOMMER
Dakota elder
Upper Sioux Community Pejuhutazizi Oyate, Minnesota

“And when you walk around out there and just take your time and it’s like everything you feel is you’re walking amongst the spirit of all our people. And I know that they do enjoy our company. And the things, the signs, everything that they had left out there for us is to remind us of who we are.”

Cheyenne and Arapaho

GEORGE SUTTON (1933-2008)
Southern Cheyenne elder
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Oklahoma

“The symbols are there for a reason. They are spiritual information.”

Eastern Shoshone

JOHN TARNESE (deceased)
Shoshoni elder
Eastern Shoshoni Tribe
Wind River Reservation, Wyoming

This is a highly spiritual place here. This is like a church, direction of life; I look at it in that way.”

History of the Petroglyphs

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: Ancient Carvings

For immediate release

Release dated: 
June 10, 2016
Media contacts: 

Jessica Kohen, Marketing and Communications, 651-259-3148, jessica.kohen@mnhs.org
Tom Sanders, Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site, 507-628-5591, thomas.sanders@mnhs.org

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: Ancient Carvings

Petroglyphs are images carved on a rock face. The word comes from the Greek “petra,” meaning stone and “glyphe,” meaning carving. Petroglyphs are found worldwide.

Ancient Rock Carvings
The rock outcrop at Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site is part of a 26-mile vein of pinkish Sioux quartzite that runs through prairie and farm fields in Minnesota’s Cottonwood County. It is among the world’s oldest bedrock formations, starting as sand 1.6 billion years ago and formed through enormous pressure and heat deep in the earth.

The earliest carvings at Jeffers Petroglyphs were created about 7,000 years ago. The most recent were made about 250 years ago. This long timespan makes Jeffers one of, if not the, oldest continuously used
sacred sites in the world.

In 1970 Jeffers Petroglyphs was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Current Conservation
Careful study and interpretation of the carvings at Jeffers had identified approximately 2,000 individual petroglyphs on a part of the rock face 50 yards wide and 300 yards long. Adjoining rock was covered with lichen, an organism that is part alga, which needs sunlight to make food, and a fungus that anchors itself to the rock.

Beginning in 2006, a plan was made that would naturally remove the lichen with the least impact on the petroglyphs that might be underneath. The effort took more than five summer seasons and included covering the lichen with sun-blocking black plastic membranes, removing their source food via sunlight, and removing dead lichens with careful and repetitive mopping. The restoration team was led by site manager and archaeologist Tom Sanders, and included several archaeologists from the field and academia, their students, conservators and elders from the American Indian community.

The outcome? The number of identified carvings at Jeffers Petroglyphs more than doubled, from 2,000 to 5,000. Intensive research and discussion on the part of archaeologists and, most notably, Indian elders, has surfaced new information which confirms that American Indian ancestral leaders had
advanced knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and medicine.

Background

Amid the sweeping prairie grasses of southwestern Minnesota are islands of uncovered rock, where American Indians left carvings - petroglyphs - of humans, deer, elk, buffalo, turtles, thunderbirds, atlatls and arrows for nearly 7,000 years. The glyphs served many functions, including recording important events and parables and depicting sacred ceremonies.

This ancient site is Jeffers Petroglyphs, one of the Minnesota Historical Society's network of historic sites. Guides lead visitors on paths through the outcropping of red quartzite where ancient cultures inscribed their art into the hard rock surface. Nature trails allow visitors to experience native prairie. Inside a 3,000-square-foot interpretive building, visitors can learn more about the site and its history through hands-on activities, exhibits and a dramatic multimedia presentation.

The site captivates the imagination and draws visitors centuries back in time. It is a place undoubtedly considered special by the various cultural groups who lived and traveled in the region. It is a living sacred site used by people for thousands of years. Many of those people whose ancestors are known to have lived in this area - the Iowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Dakota peoples - come to pray at this sacred site. Elders from these Nations, along with archaeologists, rock art conservators, botanists and MNHS staff members, guide the public interpretation and preservation of the site. Elders teach that Jeffers Petroglyphs tells the story of the survival of people in a formidable environment for thousands of years, and that many of the carvings represent helping spirits. The site speaks of their deep, ancient and present-day connection with the land and their creator.

Mysteries remain about what each "glyph" represents and about those who left them. The most common archeological technique of dating the glyphs is identifying the items depicted, then relating them to peoples of a particular time period. By this technique, they appear to range from 5000 B.C. to A.D. 1750.

The earliest known group, a semi-nomadic people who fished the small lakes, hunted bison and made seasonal camps, used simple tools and employed atlatls for propelling their stone-pointed spears. These tools are represented in glyphs, but interestingly, the stones do not record bows and arrows, which gradually replaced atlatls, about 500 to 600 A.D. Also "missing" are glyphs representing horses, indicating that the site was no longer used by the late 1700s, although rock art from later times is prevalent. The most numerous glyphs are pictures of holy men and other human figures, deer, elk, buffalo, turtles, thunderbirds and atlatls.

French explorer Pierre-Charles Le Sueur made the earliest known European contact with the Dakota and Iowa living in what is now southwestern Minnesota in 1700. He described the Dakota living in homes made "from several buffalo hides, dressed and sewed together and they take wherever they go." They gave Le Sueur "bison and deer meat in wooden dishes with wild rice seasoned with sun-dried blueberries.

The farms that dot the region today have groves that break the ever-present prairie winds. But looking out over the landscape, one can easily imagine rolling grassland interrupted by a wind-swept red rock ridge where rare clover and prickly-pear cactus push out of the thin soil.

Additional Background

In the midst of a vast prairie in southwestern Minnesota massive ridges of very ancient rock rise up to lie just below the surface of the ground. On this watershed divide, among the tall grass, there are a few places where the underlying rock breaks through to the surface. Buried for millennia, the stone preserves evidence of ancient watercourses in the rippled surfaces of sand that were slowly solidified by heat and pressure. Gradually thrust to the surface and rough-polished by glacial ice, a "canvas" was created that became a medium for the signs and symbols of ancient American Indians. Imprinted in this scoured rock face are fleeting images that bear testimony to the generations of earlier inhabitants of this land. These forms are found carved in a score of locations, however one of these places surpasses all the rest by virtue of the abundance and diversity present there. This place is today known as the Jeffers Petroglyphs.

Painting and engraving of rock are some of the oldest surviving forms of human expression. This expression is a worldwide phenomenon with tens of thousands of sites on six continents. The images in different regions are distinctive with characteristic styles, subjects, and methods of execution. Rock art, a generic term used by researchers that is applied to rock engravings and rock paintings and drawings, is broadly described in two categories: 1) rock paintings and drawings, jointly referred to as pictographs; and 2) rock engravings, often referred to as petroglyphs. Drawings were inscribed or chalked onto rock while paintings were made by applying wet pigments. Pictographs, which were produced by an additive process, survive today in caves, rock shelters, or exposed rock surfaces where the images are partly protected from weathering. Petroglyphs were created on rock surfaces by a subtractive process; the rock may be pecked, hammered, or abraded. Images surviving at the Jeffers site were all created using a pecking method to form both outline and in filled figures.

Following recent restoration work, the Jeffers Petroglyphs site now contains over 5,000 images carved in a bedrock outcrop of Sioux Quartzite in southwestern Minnesota. This 2,500-foot sloping rock surface, exposed near crest of a high ridge, contains images of humans, animals, tools and unidentifiable shapes rock carved by ancient [American Indians]. The glyphs are not evenly distributed over the exposed the surface and appear to reflect episodic use of the site over as much as 7,000 years. Photographs of a few of the Jeffers images are included here as an indication of the range of variability present at the site.

The image of the "Thunder Being," or Thunderbird, is a relatively rare one at the Jeffers site, appearing only three times. The multi-jointed wings in this glyph correspond to ethnographic descriptions from Dakota Indians recorded during the late nineteenth century. Horned figures have frequently been interpreted by rock art researchers as representations of shamen. However, warrior societies among various Plains Indians cultures were also known to wear such headdresses. The glyph thought to represent a turtle, an animal sacred to many American Indian groups, may reflect a relationship to the underworld. Its representation here may indicate a connection between the rock outcrop and the "below surface world."

Today these images are understood and valued as a spiritual or religious expression of the totality of the human condition. They have social and religious value to their creators and therefore become a part of the values of society in general. These images have historic value [because they provide] direct evidence of cultural development in that they are a product of different traditions and spiritual achievements of the past.

Famous petroglyph and pictograph sites have been recorded all over the world. The North American continent contains one of the most diverse and culturally significant bodies of paintings and engravings to be found anywhere in the world.

Minnesotans have a long tradition of studying and preserving our past because in it we visualize a significance for ourselves and impart a vision for our future. Today the MNHS is working to preserve this and other sites and objects because they have a heritage or cultural value. The traditions preserved at the Jeffers Petroglyphs site are integral elements of the personality of the people of the world. In that spirit they are a tangible expression that symbolizes humanity's journey through time.

From Jeffers Petroglyphs, Cottonwood County, Minnesota © 1996 Robert A. Clouse, Ph.D. For more information, visit www1.umn.edu/marp/rockart/rockart.html.

MNHS Timeline

1966-68 Minnesota Historical Society purchases the Petroglyphs of Cottonwood County, an 80-acre site. A small interpretive center is built.

1970 The site is added to the National Register of Historic Places.

1971 Archaeological investigation identifying 2,000 carvings, or glyphs, is completed.

1980 A new exhibit, herbarium case and trail system with markers is completed.

1995 Site redevelopment begins.

1997 New visitor center construction begins.

1999 New visitor center, exhibits and trail system with markers open.

2002 Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources Project funding allows purchases of 80 acres to buffer the site, which now is comprised of 160 acres.

2006 A new effort, the Jeffers Conservation Project, is initiated to address long-term conservation issues. A big concern is the spreading of several lichen species on the rock face. Removal of the lichen reveals more than 3,000 new petroglyphs.

Education Resources

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: Education Resources

For immediate release

Release dated: 
April 27, 2015
Media contacts: 

Jessica Kohen, Marketing and Communications, 651-259-3148, jessica.kohen@mnhs.org
Tom Sanders, Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site, 507-628-5591, thomas.sanders@mnhs.org

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: Education Resources

Education is at the heart of the Minnesota Historical Society’s mission. MNHS has a multitude of offerings that help teachers reach their instruction goals while keeping their students engaged. Schoolchildren may explore the rich history of Jeffers Petroglyphs in the following ways:

FIELD TRIPS
Field trips to Jeffers Petroglyphs give schoolchildren the opportunity to learn about life on the prairie, tour the carvings and make their own discoveries. History, anthropology, archaeology and biology intertwine as students explore American Indian technological innovations, climate patterns and cultural history such as using an atlatl (spear thrower). Programs are tailor-made to visiting K-12 and meet Minnesota State Academic Standards in social studies and science.
http://education.mnhs.org/field-trips/jeffers-petroglyphs

HISTORY LIVE
Any school, anywhere, can learn about Jeffers Petroglyphs from MNHS educators via an interactive video conferencing program, “History Live.” Students explore early American Indian culture, discover how American Indian people communicated before the alphabet and discuss how their stories and culture continue to thrive today.
http://education.mnhs.org/history-live/history-live-lessons/american-indian-culture-preserved-stone

NORTHERN LIGHTS
“Northern Lights,” a high-quality, comprehensive social studies textbook and curriculum for Minnesota sixth graders, was revised in 2013 to meet all new sixth-grade state social studies standards, encompassing history, civics, geography and economics. The new edition includes enriched American
Indian content and new content highlighting pre-contact Minnesota.

Chapter 2 “Evidence from the Past” helps students understand the junction between storytelling and physical evidence to help them understand how others lived thousands of years ago. Chapter 3 “Early Dakota” presents background on the Dakota and Chapter 4 “Early Ojibwe” introduces students to the Ojibwe people.
http://education.mnhs.org/northern-lights

Images

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: Images

For immediate release

Release dated: 
June 10, 2016
Media contacts: 

Jessica Kohen, Marketing and Communications, 651-259-3148, jessica.kohen@mnhs.org
Tom Sanders, Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site, 507-628-5591, thomas.sanders@mnhs.org

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: Images

These images may be used for editorial purposes in magazines, newspapers and online to promote the Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site.

Jeffers Petroglyphs

Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site
27160 County Road 2, Comfrey MN 56019

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The daily guided tour “An Encyclopedia of the American Indian” is offered at 10:30 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m., during regular site hours.

Download high-res image (6.36 MB)

Over the past several years, an extensive conservation project has resulted in the identification of an additional 3,000 petroglyphs, bringing the on-site total to around 5,000.

Download high-res image (2.47 MB)

The petroglyphs include carvings of deer, buffalo, turtles, thunderbirds and humans, and are powerful cultural symbols. According to Joe Williams, Dakota elder, the handprint represents friendship and understanding, “For Indian people, the handprint says we are still here.”

Download high-res image (7.48 MB)
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