Ancient stories and science meet at Jeffers Petroglyphs

A representation of an arrow at the Jeffers Petroglyphs in Minnesota. Image by Benjamin Peterson. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

A representation of an arrow at the Jeffers Petroglyphs in Minnesota. Image by Benjamin Peterson. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

COMFREY, Minn. (AP) – Jeffers Petroglyphs – where 3,000 stone carvings recently came to light, where archaeologists uncovered tools that suggest Native Americans did more there than simply pass through – the most important discoveries may be self-discoveries.

A sacred site for potentially as long as 11,000 years, Native American elders believe it was a place for individual prayer. The most recent carvings were made 250 years ago. Jeffers remains one of the oldest continuously used sacred sites in the world.

“It represents history. It represents stories. You know, it probably represents even the other side, and probably the future. It represents our past, and if you look, it probably represents our future,” said Jim Jones, the Bemidji-based cultural resource director for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and a member of the Leech Lake Pillager Band of Chippewa. While Jones doesn’t consider himself a spiritual person, he said he respects what Jeffers represents.

“It’s not just one physical spot, like Jeffers. It’s the whole place. It’s the whole ridge. When you look at Jeffers, you can’t look at it as just one place,” Jones told the St. Cloud Times.
The 23-mile-long ridge of Sioux quartzite rises above the prairies and fields of Cottonwood County.

Today, Jeffers draws visitors who want to see some of the 5,000 carvings, ponder who might have passed through, take in 1,200 acres of surrounding prairie. At Jeffers, they’ll see depictions of moose, buffalo, elk, thunderbirds and humans.

There’s a visitor center and an interpretive trail, yet Jeffers stops short of feeling like a tourist spot. That’s partly due to Tom Sanders. The Minnesota Historical Society site manager for the past 17 years, he downplays a new tour that includes 20 recently uncovered petroglyphs.

Instead, Sanders focuses on the stories behind those carvings – stories he’s developed through conversations with Native American elders, supported (but not constrained by) archaeological findings.
“This tour is designed really to put a face on the people and to tell history. It’s really designed to tell 10,000 years of history using the carvings,” Sanders said.

It’s a history of people including the Dakota, Cheyenne, Ioway and Arapaho – all among those known to have passed through.

“I don’t like the idea of things that make us appear to be different. I like to focus on things that bring us together. It’s a very important American Indian concept, that we’re all related. We’re all human beings.”

On a baking hot Tuesday afternoon, Sanders explained the ridge’s significance. And he told a few stories.

He told of a sort of Native American superhero, Redhorn, a figure in Ho-Chunk and Ioway stories who defeats every enemy – including the giants. He pointed out a moose calf, which could represent a prayer for replenishing the herd. He explained the significance of the atlatl, a spear-thrower that gave hunters an extra 100 yards.

“Can you imagine hunting a mastodon with a spear?” Sanders said.

The same symbol could have a different meaning to different cultures. If it fits the carving, Sanders tells the story – or two or three stories.

Jones – who has visited Jeffers representing the historical society, the Science Museum of Minnesota and as a craftsman – has seen rock carvings throughout the U.S. and Canada.

“Are there similarities? Yes. Are they the same image? I can’t say. But I know I’ve seen them somewhere else. Are they connected? Maybe. Probably. But what’s definitely connected is the stories,” Jones said.

Most of Jeffers’ 5,000-plus carvings appear on a rock face that measures 50 by 300 yards.

They were pecked into the stone using a harder rock, probably a chert or flint. The depressions are less than an eighth-inch deep, a textured depression set in the smooth reddish rock

Complicating matters, the carvings appear amid lines glaciers etched into the rock when they ground and spun their way across the landscape. Cracks run through some of the carvings. The ones Sanders pointed out ranged from about 4 inches to about 18 inches across.

Our tour started with the easiest images to discern, including the solid-bodied moose.

From there, Sanders moved to a canid – a wolf, in this case. A small hand, which in some cultures represents a connection to the spirit world. Two moose.

“We have to do things by logic with rock art,” Sanders said. “This was moose territory 10,000 years ago.”

Sanders structured our viewing of 16 carvings by time frame, moving from solid-bodied animals to people – which didn’t pop up in carvings until about 2,000 years ago. That was post-glacier time when the land dried up, the larger prey disappeared and the focus turned to social bonds, larger groups and ceremonies.

One of Sanders’ favorite carvings depicts figures, including what appears to be a girl dancing, head thrown back. At this point, the figures are outlines – which Sanders sees not as a simplification but as an incorporation of geometry or symbolism.

The Sioux quartzite ridge is part of one of the world’s oldest bedrock formations.

About 1.65 billion years ago, it was sand deposited by braided rivers. Today, 24 of the ridge’s 209 outcrops contain petroglyphs.


By ANN WESSEL, St. Cloud Times



Information from: St. Cloud Times,

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AP-WF-08-04-15 2115GMT