Hidden away in damp sandstone caves, shelters, and rock faces are mysterious images created by ancient artists. Although their existence is threatened by time, erosion, and vandalism, these images connect us to the past. They’ve been discovered worldwide and several are found here in the Arkansas River Valley.
The images are called rock art and are found on stone surfaces as either paintings or carvings of objects thought to be important to their creators. Painted objects are called pictographs. Carved objects are called petroglyphs and were created with sharp stones or tools to chip away the rock surface.
Arkansas rock art has been documented in the Ozark Mountains, Ouachita Mountains and the River Valley. Petit Jean, Dardanelle, and Crow Mountains have rock art sites, but because many of the sites are on private land they are inaccessible to the public. Rock House Cave (in Petit Jean State Park) is the only public viewable rock art site in Arkansas.
The study of rock art on Petit Jean Mountain began in 1914 when the family of Dr. T. W. Hardison, founder of the Arkansas State Park system, discovered rock paintings near their home on Petit Jean. Dr. Hardison wrote a paper on the find, but it didn’t receive national attention until after 1923 with the establishment of Petit Jean State State Park as the first state park in Arkansas.
Petit Jean State Park (PJSP) has 70 documented rock art sites and 725 documented individual works both pictographs and petroglyphs. That’s one-third of all the rock art sites and over one-half of the pictographs and petroglyphs in Arkansas. This information was compiled using Arkansas Archeology Survey site forms, and by Don Higgins, a rock enthusiast and retired USAF Col. fighter pilot. Don has personally found and documented many of the sites at PJSP.
In Don’s 2015 published article, Petit Jean Rock Art Sites, he stated, “common characteristics of the sites seem to be that they are all sandstone shelters along natural thoroughfares. They exhibit a variety of sizes, opening orientations, distances from water, sunlight exposures, and unevenness of terrain. Some of the shelters appear very snug while others seem as if they would have placed inhabitants or visitors at the mercy of the elements.”
The art work is predominately line-drawings or outline figures. Some are solitary figures and some are grouped together. Some are abstract and and some are real objects like geometric figures, animals, and human figures “We have these very complex series of maze-like images and spirals with complex decorations,” says Don. “Most are finger-width like you’d finger paint them, but some so fine they had to have been done with something like the sharp tip of a hickory stick.”
Depictions of humans, animals, plants, and geometric forms are on the rock art located in PJSP. Visitors and researchers have described the various art shapes as a sunburst, beaver, paddlefish, handshake, lizard, concentric circles, spirals, ferns, circles with dots, and wavy lines. But interpretation of the rock art is guesswork. No one can ask the artists what they were trying to communicate. Every person will see something different based on their experiences. Some interpret the art as showing rituals like vision quests or American Indian myths or simply marking a hunting ground to inform the next traveler on that path. Some more complex rock art may depict prehistoric events like a landslide or comet.>>
When Native Americans were gathered for a conference recently in Fort Smith they were asked about their interpretation of simple rock art shapes. The answers between tribes differed. Concentric circles may mean looking through the universe into different planes, colors, or existence. Spirals may depict the life of a person with the center being the birth and the outward spiral of their life. It may also mean never-ending or infinity. Another answer was that spirals indicate seasons or cycles. Wavy lines received the only consistent answer and depict water. An animal figure indicates either a hunting ground or marks the animal’s territory. Plant images may mean that the plant had special meaning. It may also have been used in medicinal drinks or to celebrate a new year.
Archeologists Gayle Fritz and Robert Ray did a survey of Petit Jean rock art in 1978-79 and described the “Petit Jean Rock Art Style” as simple designs with mostly red paint. Since that time, fieldwork by the Arkansas Rock Art Project expanded this style to include images not only in red pigments but also yellow and black. The paint mixtures used to create the rock art may contain charcoal, rocks, minerals, blood, animal fat, egg, fish oil, and plant oils. The compounds in the paint break down over time.
Images in Rock House Cave and other areas of the park are thought to be over 1,000 years old and created by Native Americans from the Woodland (AD 600-1000) or Mississippian (AD 900- 1600) eras. The rock art has been difficult to date due to its immovable nature. “Past attempts were tried to carbon date the paint,” says Dr. Emily Beahm, station archeologist at the Arkansas Archeological Survey at the Winrock Rockefeller Center. “But it didn’t contain enough carbon to be effective.”
New methods to date the rock art may be forthcoming. “There are techniques now to examine the pigments without destroying them,” says Dr. Beahm. “We’re hoping for portable instruments so we can look at the compositions of the paintings on the walls and compare it to the ceramics.”
Early attempts to document the rock art were inconsistent and sometimes did not provide enough information for the site to be found later. New efforts to document PJSP rock art was begun with The Arkansas Rock Art Project in 2000. The location of each site is documented using a code for the state, county, and site number. Twelve of the rock art sites at PJSP are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, this is largely due to the efforts of archeologists Fritz and Ray. They thought the art significant in American Indian culture and that it may represent ritual and spiritual aspects of its creators. Also, the rock art was fragile and disappearing due to the destructive forces of nature and man.
Because some paintings have been destroyed, access to rock art is limited. Site location is not available to the general public in an effort to protect this disappearing art. Over time, images that were once vibrant colors have faded or disappeared. The sandstone has seeped its minerals over the images and obscured some of them.
Both Dr. Beahm and Don suggest that if you’d like to look for new rock art while hiking or walking the trails of Arkansas, useful tools would be a tactical flashlight and either a digital camera or phone. Images are hard or sometimes impossible to see with the naked eye, but with a digital camera photos can be enhanced using decorrelation stretch (DStretch), a free application for phones or computers. And if your exploration leads you to what you think is a rock art site contact the Arkansas Archeology Survey.
A trip to Rock House Cave helps connect with the past. It’s an opportunity to wonder about the artist’s message and provides the viewer with an appreciation of the art form that may soon be gone. Regular tours to Rock House Cave led by Petit Jean State Park Interpreters are always on the PJSP calendar or a special group tour can be arranged. Visitors may take the one-quarter mile trail by themselves, but they may not be able to find the rock art. It’s recommended that anyone interested in a tour go to the PJSP Visitor’s Center and listen to the recorded rock art information. Photos at the visitor center will aid in identifying the images and, if someone can’t physically go to a rock art site, it will enable them to see a few examples of rock art.
While enjoying the state’s rock art, please report any vandalism you observe to either the PJSP authorities or the police. It is a federal offense to deface the rock surfaces. Game cameras have recently been installed at Rock House Cave to deter vandals.
Graffiti is difficult to remove and ruins the experience for others. As Dr. Beahm puts is, “Don’t write on the rocks because there might be something there.” It could be something ancient and irreplaceable.
For more information on Arkansas rock art at Petit Jean State Park, contact the park through their website www.petitjeanstatepark.com.
For more information about the Arkansas Rock Art Project, go to www.archeology.uark.edu.