More than 7,000 years of history are preserved on this outcropping of Sioux quartzite, home to roughly 5,000 rock carvings made by the ancestors of today’s Native Americans.
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, but the petroglyphs at Jeffers make up one of the oldest continuously used sacred sites in the world. These petroglyphs are part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s archaeology collection.
The site preserves more than 5,000 Native American images carved into solid, horizontal, irregularly shaped Sioux quartzite outcrops. Among the earliest carvings found here are images of bison and atlatls, or throwing sticks. Atlatls and darts were used to hunt bison before the bow and arrow were developed 1,200 years ago. The glyphs serve many functions, including recording important events and stories, and depicting sacred ceremonies. These symbols, along with other images carved on the rock, such as thunderbirds and turtles, remain important in Native American culture.
Mysteries remain about what each glyph represents and about those who left them. The most common archaeological 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 BCE to 1750 CE. It is interesting to note that the stones do not record bows and arrows. 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 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 people recorded during the late 19th century. Horned figures have frequently been interpreted by rock art researchers as representations of shamans. However, warrior societies among various regional tribal cultures were also known to wear such headdresses. The glyph thought to represent a turtle, an animal sacred to many Native American groups, may reflect a relationship to the underworld. Its representation here may indicate a connection between the rock outcrop and the "below surface world."
The most recent Native American carving was made around the 1760s. From 1875 to 1968, European settlers and descendants added their names. The arrival of Europeans on the continent eroded traditional Native American 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 Native American elders.
By studying the carvings, we can learn much about the culture and society of these ancient peoples. For example, researchers have learned that generations of Native American ancestors who gathered at the red rock for nearly 7,000 years had an advanced understanding of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and medicine.
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.
A sacred place
Around the world, certain landscapes and geological formations have special qualities that make them stand out from their surroundings. And for many cultures such places have deep spiritual significance. To Native Americans, rock formations emerging from the earth provide a link between the physical and spiritual worlds. Such places are chosen to record visions, events, stories, or maps.
Jeffers Petroglyphs is a special place. To Native Americans who reside in and around the state, it is a very spiritual place — one where Grandmother Earth speaks of the past, present, and future. To descendants of those who left these markings this is a place of worship, a prayer place, likened to other places of worship such as a church, synagogue, or mosque.
The earliest carvings at Jeffers Petroglyphs were created as long as 7,000 years ago. The most recent were made about 250 years ago. This long time span makes Jeffers one of the oldest continuously used sacred sites in the world, if not the oldest.
Geography and geology
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 Native Americans.
The pink rock face at Jeffers covers an area 50 yards wide and 300 yards long. It is part of a 23-mile ridge that extends across Cottonwood County. Called Red Rock Ridge, it is a series of quartzite outcroppings that intersects the southeastern edge of what French explorers called the "Coteau des Prairies." The Coteau, meaning hill, extends from Rutland, North Dakota, to Jackson, Minnesota. The Red Rock Ridge is about 250 yards wide and up to 50 feet higher than nearby fields.
The rock at Jeffers is also called Sioux quartzite. Its color varies from white to red to lavender-brown or reddish purple, due to the iron oxide film surrounding grains of quartz sand. The rock is part of the quartzite deposit found near the western border of Minnesota at Pipestone National Monument.
The quartzite at Jeffers is one of the oldest bedrock formations in Minnesota, deposited as sand more than 1.6 billion years ago. It is a metamorphic rock, meaning it was formed by enormous heat and pressure from deep in the earth. The outcropping was exposed by the wearing action of time.