Searching for Rock Art

Ulm Pishkun artPetroglyphs and pictographs at Ulm Pishkun State Park. By Craig and Liz Larcom

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
May–June 2007

Robert Thomson doesn’t know it yet, but he is getting close to solving the case of the missing bear paw pictograph. Since the naturalist began working at Ulm Pishkun State Park near Great Falls in 2004, he has set aside other tasks four or five times a year to scour the mile-long sandstone cliffs over which, for hundreds of years, American Indians drove bison. Finding and inventorying resources such as rock art is the first step in his primary responsibility of interpreting the park, which also includes protecting and preserving its natural and cultural re­sources. Locating the artwork has also, he says, become a personal mission.

Thomson began by reading previously published reports on archaeological research at the buffalo jump. He has located every pictograph mentioned in the reports except one: the red ochre bear paw. A 1992 report mentions it, but after months of fruitless searching, Thomson wonders if the paw has faded away or perhaps fallen from the cliff along with the crumbling sandstone.

Today Thomson sets out to continue inventorying pictograph (painted) and petroglyph (carved) rock art, while also keeping an eye out for the bear paw. When we reach the first pictographs, 100 yards west of where a public trail descends the cliff, he points to an oval with two long arcs extending above and two legs below. “This is an elk,” he says. “You can see the body here and the antlers here.” Thomson takes care to not touch the art, which is extremely vulnerable and can be damaged by the skin oils on his fingers. Then he moves his hand to the left. “This is a horribly faded buffalo. See the big, thick head.” His finger hovers in the air, tracing an animal outline above what appears to be a light red smudge. “Both of these are what is known as boat form. The bodies are elongated ovals like a boat or canoe.”   

A few steps farther, Thomson begins looking for the bear paw. After recently rereading the 1992 report, he realized the paw should be right around here, above a ledge. He turns, tilts his head, and scans the rock walls. And then, there it is: a pad and four claws. “It’s so obvious once you see it,” Thomson exclaims.

Quickly he climbs to the ledge, where he takes photos and studies the art more closely. “I just didn’t look up,” he mutters to himself as we move on.

Next, Thomson takes notes on a group of handprints he has never seen up close before. Like the other pictographs, these appear to be drawn with red ochre, a clay-derived pigment that Thomson says was sacred to the people who came to this site. Because some of the sandstone here is reddish, it can be hard to pick out the pictographs. Thomson points to an elongated pattern of red dots several feet from the hand shapes. “You can see there’s a spray pattern in this. They put the ochre in their mouth and blew it onto the rock,” says Thomson, making a Ptooey! sound for emphasis.

Interpreting the art can be tricky. Thomson and a seasonal park worker found an X-shaped pictograph but couldn’t decipher its meaning. One day an American Indian from Texas who studies rock art happened by the park. Thomson showed him a photo of the X and the fellow immediately identified it as a tipi, showing where a little dark spot was the opening.

We later see another tipi, this one a readily identified petroglyph. Thomson says most of the artwork here dates from the late prehistoric period (starting around 900 ad, when Indians had already been using the buffalo jump at Ulm Pishkun for several centuries) to the early 1700s. Also in these cliffs are names, dates, and notes carved by homesteaders.

Some of the petroglyphs are puzzles, like the pairs of distinct, parallel lines that Thomson shows us to the west of where the old Sun River Road once went up the cliffs of Ulm Pishkun. (Pishkun is a Blackfeet Indian word meaning “deep blood kettle,” and Ulm is a German name for a nearby town.) Observers speculate that the scattered lines could represent travois tracks, buffalo tracks, drive lines that bison were stampeded through, or tallies marking the number of kills.

As we head back to his pickup, Thomson tells us he’s confident there are many more undiscovered petroglyphs and pictographs at Ulm Pishkun. Recently the state park added a new 418-acre parcel, and Thomson says he can’t wait to begin searching for the artistic treasures it may hold.Bear bullet

Craig and Liz Larcom are freelance writers and photographers in Great Falls.

Visitors may view some of the rock art at Ulm Pishkun, but state park officials caution that pictographs and petroglyphs are extremely fragile and should not be touched, even lightly. For advice on how and where to see the art, ask at the park visitor center. Because rattlesnakes can lurk in the tall grass near the art, make your excursion in the fall, when the reptiles have settled for the winter, or in early spring.