Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ancient Sites and Symbols

The past winter was long and spring was seriously delayed. On top of snow in May, we have had interminable rain and cool temperatures. We used the time to work on the camper and complete our spring chores. But we finally had to just take a trip, whether the weather cooperated or not.

We decided to head south to explore parts of Minnesota we had not previously visited, other than just passing through. Our first stop was New Ulm, a small town located at the confluence of the Cottonwood and Minnesota rivers. Founded in 1854, New Ulm is known for its German heritage and the August Schell brewery. Flandreu State Park is adjacent to the city and is where we camped. We had a traditional German meal at Veigel's Kaiserhoff consisting of German-style spare ribs, bratwurst, salad, sauerkraut, hot potato salad and of course Schell's Firebrick Ale. After dinner we did a driving tour of the town and retired to our campsite.

We chose to camp in the rustic campground at Flandreu State Park where the well was not working. Everyone else was in the electrified campground. As a result, we had the campground all to ourselves, yay! We set up our just finished awning and screen room and enjoyed the evening.

We had a good breakfast, packed up and headed for our next stop- Jeffers Petroglyphs.

Some background: A small corner of southwestern Minnesota escaped the most recent ice age and was last covered by glacial ice at least 500,000 years ago. That glacial erosion exposed an ancient rock called Sioux quartzite in the area where Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota intersect. The rock is extremely hard and resistant to erosion. It is colored in pink hues from almost white to deep reds and purple from iron oxides contained in it. Over many thousands of years, the prairie has covered much of the stone, leaving it exposed in small isolated areas. One of these is the site of Jeffers Petroglyphs.

From the Jeffers Petroglyphs website:
"Amid the prairie grasses are islands of uncovered rock, where American Indians left carvings —petroglyphs— humans, deer, elk, buffalo, turtles, thunderbirds, atlatls and arrows. They tell a story that spans over 7,000 years."

 It was startling to see the rock emerge from the prairie. It is easy to see how the ancient native peoples would see this as a significant and sacred site.

The surface of the rock is covered with over 4000 carvings, dating from as much as 7000 years to a little as 150 years. The experts date the carvings by the symbols used and by comparison to other sites across the country where other forms of dating are possible.

Our visit turned out to be on a cloudy day with totally flat light- not ideal for seeing the carvings. We learned that the best time to visit the site is at sunset or sunrise, when the light comes at a low angle and highlights the carvings. We resolved to return again for that.

We were fortunate to have a knowledgeable guide to show us the site. As we were the only people there in the middle of the week, we had a personal tour.

Carvings were made by pounding a piece of chert or other hard rock against the quartzite. Because the quartzite is so hard, these carvings represent an extraordinary expenditure of time and energy by the carvers. It is also why they are relatively unaffected by weathering.

 Some of the carvings are hard to see in photos- this one is an extraordinarily long human figure stretching at a slight diagonal down from left to right through the middle of the photo.

 This thunderbird figure is one of the more modern carvings.

The circle is a sacred form to the native people of the plains

The visit was very interesting. We took some time to just be in the prairie and soak up the ancient energy.

 Our next destination was Blue Mounds State Park.

The view from our campsite.
Blue Mounds gets it name from its appearance to the pioneers traveling across the prairie. It consists of a remnant tall grass prairie of 1800 acres situated on a broad, sloping mound that terminates in a dramatic 100 foot cliff of Sioux quartzite.

 We took a walk along the cliff line, winding down through twisting trees, underbrush and out into the prairie at the foot of the cliff.


We were not alone. A glance upward revealed our overseers- a trio of turkey vultures watched our progress.

We had come to the remnants of an old stone quarry where the hard stone was cut to become the building material for many impressive buildings throughout the region. The vultures soar high above the prairie, using the uplift from the cliffs to scout below.

We returned to the top of the cliff and took a walk in the prairie. It was possible to get a sense of what the great plains once looked like. The park manages a herd of 100 bison on a portion of the prairie.

We found a good rock to sit on for lunch.

This is Eagle Rock, elevation 1730 feet. From the top, you can see to Iowa and South Dakota, a clue to how flat the world is at this location.

An interesting feature in the park is a straight line of rocks that stretches for 1250 feet perfectly aligned along an east-west line. At the equinox, the sun rises and sets in line with the rocks. There is no consensus on how old the placement of the rocks is- whether ancient or historic- but it is clearly human-made.

The line of rocks, obscured by prairie grass, stretches to the horizon- the white dot in the distance is a signpost about halfway along the line.

At our campsite that afternoon, I was startled when I almost stepped on this critter. About 4 feet long, it didn't move but did rattle its tail at me. Not being very familiar with snakes, I was taken aback. Being stupid and male, I decided to poke it with a stick. It aggressively struck at the stick and did not retreat but rattled some more. I eventually convinced it to head across the road to some tall grass, and then went to the ranger station to get some help identifying the snake. I took some photos. Could it be a rattlesnake? I knew they were not likely present in this geography, but it sure looked like one to me.

It turns out to have been a fox snake- harmless and a good hunter of rodents. It is not poisonous and kills by constricting its prey. I was not totally off-base, it is often confused with rattlesnakes due to its coloring and behavior of vibrating its tail. It does not have a true rattle though. I confirmed that rattlesnakes are found in the driftless area of southeastern Minnesota but nowhere else in the state.

From Blue Mounds we turned and headed for home. The weather was turning worse, if that was possible, but it would not keep us from our last stop- Pipestone National Monument.

We packed up without breakfast in a pouring rain. We decided to find breakfast in the town of Pipestone, and ended up at Lange's Cafe- a happy find. I had stuffed hash browns and Kathy had a Belgian waffle. The food was fresh, local and tasty.

We headed to the Pipestone National Monument with the rain still pouring down. The Monument preserves and protects the site where for thousands of years, native people have harvested the hardened red clay found in a thin layer within the now familiar Sioux quartzite.

Native people still work the quarries and carve the stone into pipes and works of art. All quarrying is done laboriously with hand tools under permit from the Park Service.

We walked around the site in a pouring rain. It was beautiful. But taking pictures was difficult.

The quartzite comes in myriad colors which when combined with the cracks and crevices from the forces of nature form an amazing variety of beautiful compositions.

The scientific name for pipestone is Catlinite- named for the painter George Catlin who visited the site in 1836. There are 54 pipestone quarries at the site. The quarries have been worked for at least 3000 years.

While Catlinite occurs in other locations, the Minnesota stone is prized for its smoothness and workability.

The process involves breaking apart the quartzite which overlays the pipestone so that the thin layer of pipestone can be removed. It is a laborious process involving picks, hammers, wedges and lots of sweat.

The amount of rubble is evidence of the work occurring over a very long time.

One of the old quarries now abandoned.

As might be expected, there were petroglyphs discovered at this site. 79 carvings were made in slabs of rock placed around large glacial erratics called the 3 maidens. In the late 1880's, concerned people removed the petroglyphs after some were defaced. 17 of the original carvings are now on display in the visitor center.

Winnewissa Falls on Pipestone Creek
 Our tour of the ancient sites in Minnesota had come to a close. We found inspiration and respect for the commitment of the ancient people to their culture and beliefs, which survives in their descendents today.


  1. Interesting. Glad to learn about Minnesota petroglyphs and your German meal sounded wonderful.