Prehistoric Rock Art

Hellgate CanyonOne kind of archaeological site that you may encounter on the Helena National Forest is prehistoric rock art. Rock art is the archaeological term for symbols and pictures either painted or carved into the walls of cliffs and caves. Petroglyphs are carved into the rock surface while pictographs are painted atop it. The paint for pictographs was made from hematite or iron oxide or charcoal mixed with various ingredients, and applied with fingers, brush or a pigment crayon. On the Helena National Forest, rock art is typically found on the massive Precambrian and Paleozoic-age limestone cliffs at canyon mouths.

Helena area pictograph sites are subtle and complex. Extensive areas of red wash underlie various finger lines, hand prints, geometric designs, dots, and a few types of animals such as snakes, turtles, and lizards. The finger lines are interpreted by archaeologists to be human-like figures. Distended bodies are common in rock art sites world-wide and may represent shaman figures in trance and soul flight. 

The rock art panels were “interactive” rather than static works of pictographic art. A unique feature of central Montana rock art is that many panels and figures show evidence of prehistoric scraping and scratching. It is deliberate and typically is concentrated in the center of the rock art motifs. These various figures have also been repainted and spattered with more paint.

The purpose in scraping these paintings is uncertain. It might have been done to capture the power in the figures or paint pigment, or it might have been done to cancel it. Paint spatter—or the tiny paint droplets that create a halo effect around some designs—also reflect re-use of some panels. The spattering is the last episode of painting and presumably reflects some type of ritual interaction with older paintings.

Much of the rock art on the Helena National Forest belongs to what archaeologists call the Foothills Abstract Tradition. This tradition is found along the Rocky Mountains from central Montana to southwestern Alberta. 

But there are some motifs in the Big Belts, such as tally marks and arrow figures that may be part of the Columbia Plateau Tradition art.

Researchers estimate that this tradition predates 1700 AD and may extend back to 500 AD. Radiocarbon dates from four rock art sites on the forest date from 1300 to 960 years before present (AD 650 to 1300 AD).

What is the purpose of rock art? Hunters and gatherers almost universally view rock art sites as places of concentrated supernatural potency or as interfaces with the world of spirits. As with many hunter-gatherers world-wide, American Indians considered direct access to the supernatural the norm. Securing a guardian spirit was important among many North American Indian people. People especially involved with the supernatural became shamans (“medicine men”).

Much Helena area rock art was produced by people seeking the assistance of the supernatural. The deliberate placement of rock art on cliffs at the entrance to narrow canyons appears to emphasize entry into the supernatural world. The mountain ranges that comprise the Helena National Forest are replete with limestone cliffs, but nearly all known rock art is found near canyon mouths. Native peoples were drawn to remote locations in the mountains of central Montana, where they accessed their spirit helper. Shamans transferred from human to spirit shape—bear, lizard and various other animals and mythical beings. So empowered, they could perform the magic necessary to heal, counsel or look into the future. 

This interpretation does not fit all sites in the Helena area, nor throughout Montana. Early rock art styles portray hunting scenes. Later art—called the Biographic style—was done to portray the exploits and deeds of warriors.

Ancient rock art is extremely rare and fragile. Rock art locations retain spiritual value to tribal people. Please enjoy viewing any pictographs you may encounter but do not touch them or enhance with chalk, pencil or water for photographic purposes. 


The Past Belongs to Everyone


Plains Indian Rock Art. 2001, James D. Keyser and Michael A. Klassen, University of Washington Press, Seattle.

The Hellgate Pictographs: Shamanism and Ritual in West-Central Montana. 2000, Sara A. Scott, James D. Keyser and Jannie H.N. Loubser, Archaeology in Montana. Volumer 41, Number 1. 

AMS Dates from Four Late Prehistoric Period Rock Art Sites in West Central Montana. 2005, Sara A. Scott, Carl M. Davis, Karen L. Steelman, Marvin W. Rowe and Tom Guilderson, Plains Anthropologist, Volume 50, Number 193.