Bear Gulch pictographs tell unique story

Posted on 10 March 2007

Montana Living

There is a story within every crack and crevice of the limestone canyon walls at Bear Gulch pictographs near Grass Range, Montana.  

The rock etchings and red clay drawings that paint the canyon walls are so old that scientists can only speculate to their history and significance. Thousands of images are left on the walls, bearing what are said to be powerful religious and spirit references. Warriors with large circular shields, weapons of various sorts, and animals are the most common scenes. Exact dates of the pictographs have not been determined, but archaeologist James Keyser explains that the lack of horses or guns in the drawings points to an era of pre-European influence, around the years of 1400 to 1600 AD.  

The pictographs are on private property 15 miles southwest of Grass Range and 27  miles southeast of Lewistown at the southern edge of the Little Snowy mountains.   Macie Lundin has known this area since she was a child, and she grew up playing on the rocks under the historical pictographs. The property has been in her family since 1919. Lundin has turned this area into an archaeological recording site where the public is welcome to view the pictographs. 

This summer, 12 archaeologists and paleontologists spent two weeks tracing the ancient drawings onto plastic sheets. After the artwork has been recorded the scientists hope to learn more about the culture of the people that once inhabited - or merely passed through - this land.  One pictograph illustrates what is believed to be a birthing ritual. The scene illustrates a woman in labor, with a child connected to an umbilical cord. There is a person near her who seems to be assisting or observing the birth. A male figure appears not far away. Lundin says that perhaps the father was not to be present at  birth, but close by.    

There are also more recent additions to the pictographs. Hundreds of names of visitors to the sites have been etched in the stone, some as old as 1824. Some of the signatures and dates are in areas where the pictographs are drawn, and others are farther away.   A New Jersey couple has spent several summers at the top of the canyon where the pictographs are located, poring over what they believe to be a marine fossil site that dates back 33 million years. They have discovered fossilized fish in plates of rock, remnants of sea algae, sea sponge and remnants of what they claim to be sharks.  

With every new discovery, Lundin is learning more about this place on her family's ranch.  She gets about 300 to 500 visitors a year - people who are astounded by what they see on the tall canyon walls.   Lundin gives guided tours Wednesday through Sunday at 10 a.m., at a cost of $10 per person or $25 for a family.  

Campers are welcome to set up on a grassy field not far from the pictograph site. The pictographs are open all year, weather permitting. I do this so that people can experience and learn," Lundin said. "I want to share it."



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