Gayle stops along the trail and puts down her backpack. She takes a water bottle from the side pocket, unscrews the cap, and takes a long pull as she tips back her head. The water is still cool, and it feels wonderful as it slides down her dry throat. It is only 10:30 in the morning, but already the temperature is climbing toward 90° and she still has a mile to go. She puts back the water bottle, picks up her pack, and resumes her trek. "Why am I doing this in the summer?" she thinks to herself, before answering back: "Because you have to teach classes the rest of the year."
Gayle is an archeologist. She teaches in the university's Anthropology Department and does research on ancient Native American cultures. She has worked on many archeological excavations, mostly at prehistoric Indian village sites. At some sites she has unearthed the remains of ancient dwellings where broken tools and implements litter the floors and are scattered around the site area. Working much like a detective studying clues at a crime scene, Gayle carefully examines the tools, implements, and other debris to figure out what kinds of activities took place in and around the dwellings. Some sites Gayle has studied yield no evidence of dwellings, but tools and other remains suggest specific tasks, like manufacturing weapons or butchering animals taken in the hunt. Gayle also works at sites where ancient Indians constructed large earthen mounds: places where people from many villages gathered for community ceremonies. Gayle has determined from these studies that prehistoric Indians performed a variety of activities at many different places. She teaches her students that it is necessary to study archeological sites representing the complete range of past activities if they want to understand ancient Indian cultures.
Now Gayle is interested in studying another kind of archeological site. For quite a long time, archeologists have known that both ancient and more recent Native Americans sometimes carved or painted pictures onto rock surfaces. The carved pictures are called petroglyphs, while the painted ones are called pictographs. Sometimes dozens of these images, known collectively as rock art, are found at bedrock outcrops or in caves and rock shelters—shallow overhangs at the bottoms of high bluffs. These pictures are not like the art we see in museums, much of which depicts objects or scenes that are easy to identify. Instead, ancient rock art often consists of a bewildering variety of geometric shapes and abstract motifs. Rock art images recognizable as people, animals, or other elements of nature are often highly stylized. Many archeologists believe rock art sites are places where people performed certain kinds of rituals. Gayle is interested in learning more about these sites and how they relate to the other kinds of sites she has studied, including a nearby village site where she is currently conducting a field school for some of her students.
The trail Gayle is hiking bends to the right around a hill slope. The slope turns into a steep limestone bluff a couple hundred meters farther along. Midway along the bluff is a cavity, eroded into the bluff, producing a sheltered area about 40 meters long and ten meters deep, much too shallow to be called a cave. The ceiling is about three meters above the rock-strewn floor of the shelter at its highest point. "This must be it," says Gayle to herself, as she climbs the easy slope from the trail up to the rock shelter. Pulling a topographic map from her pack, Gayle finds her location and then takes out a hand-held Global Positioning System receiver. The receiver looks like a TV/VCR remote control, except that it's a bit heavier and has a small LCD screen. Walking back down to the trail and picking a spot right in front of the shelter, Gayle turns on the receiver and holds it out in front of her. The LCD screen flashes latitude and longitude coordinates that stabilize after a minute or so, when the receiver locks in on a sufficient number of satellite positions. Gayle writes down the coordinates so she can later plot the exact location on the topographic map, then turns off the receiver and puts it away.
Next, Gayle stretches a measuring tape the length and width of the shelter and records its exact dimensions. Taking a clipboard and graph paper out of her pack, Gayle finds a large flat rock to sit on while she uses her measurements to draw a scale map of the shelter. That finished, Gayle begins to examine the back walls and ceiling of the shelter, beginning at one end and working her way slowly and deliberately toward the other end. Years ago, an amateur archeologist had visited the site and found a dozen rock art elements: nine pictographs and three petroglyphs. The site was reported to the state archeologist and a form was filled out, but no one had visited the site since then. Gayle is now interested in this site because she wants to find out whether the people who lived at the nearby village site she is excavating were also the makers of the rock art.
As she works her way slowly along the length of the shelter, Gayle is able to identify several rock art images. She finds six pictographs and three petroglyphs, plus an inscription written in 1853 by someone named "Jed" that was not mentioned in the amateur archeologist's report. She wonders if Jed was an early settler, and makes a mental note to check the land purchase records for that decade in the county courthouse to see if anyone with that name bought land nearby. What about the other three pictographs mentioned in the report? Gayle isn't quite sure what to make of the discrepancy. The amateur archeologist filed his report nearly twenty years ago, and while he had made written descriptions of each image he did not make drawings or a map. "Perhaps he mistook natural mineral stains for the other three elements, or perhaps I'm just missing them" Gayle thinks to herself. The amateur was known to professional archeologists as a competent and reliable informant, so Gayle also considers the possibility that the three "missing" elements have faded or were destroyed. There is some modern graffiti where recent visitors have used colored marking pens to write their initials and the dates they were there. "Maybe those jokers covered up the other images," Gayle says to herself, annoyed that people would be so self-centered and disrespectful of the ancient artworks.
Deciding that the nine rock art elements are all she is going to find that day, Gayle next takes a camera out of her pack and photographs each one. She also photographs the inscription and the graffiti. She uses a small metric scale, which she affixes to the rock surface near each element with a small wad of soft modeling clay. The scale is visible in each photograph she takes, so people looking at the pictures later on can tell the size of each element. The modeling clay parts cleanly from the rock surface each time Gayle moves the scale, leaving behind no residue. Gayle then plots the locations of the nine elements plus the historic inscription and the graffiti on her map of the shelter and makes a sketch of each element, just in case the photos don't show the images clearly enough. Finally, Gayle records the dimensions of each element along with brief descriptions, being careful to avoid actually touching the rock art.
As she walks back and forth through the shelter photographing and recording information about the rock art, Gayle observes a few artifacts scattered across the shelter floor. After plotting the locations of the artifacts on her map, she picks up four projectile points and several pieces of broken pottery, placing each one into a small baggie along with a label indicating the item's map location. She also plots on her map an area where a large number of stone flakes resulting from ancient toolmaking activities are concentrated, even though she doesn't collect the flakes. The artifacts she collects are very similar to the kinds of projectile points and pottery from the nearby village site that Gayle is excavating, indicating the possibility that the people living at the village also used this shelter. Gayle wonders what the people were doing at the shelter, aside from making stone tools. "Guess I'll have to bring my excavation crew over here to find out." Without excavation and further study, there is also no way to tell whether the artifacts on the surface of the floor have anything to do with the rock art on the walls and ceiling of the shelter.
After completing the recording work, Gayle takes out her sketches and carefully examines each one in comparison to the rock art elements they depict. She wants the sketches to be as accurate as possible. She notices that some of the elements represent geometric designs that are very similar to designs that appear on some of the pottery she and her students have excavated at the nearby village site. Charcoal from ancient hearth features at the site has been radiocarbon dated to the A.D. 1250-1450 era, so she wonders if the rock art was produced by prehistoric Native Americans who lived in the area at that time. "Another good question that we can try to answer by excavating this site," she thinks.
Her work now completed, Gayle carefully packs up her equipment and heads back up the trail, thinking about how she might bring her students to the rock art site to begin exploratory excavations. It's going to be a long, hot summer, but not without some rewards for her work.
- Why does Gayle take so much time to map, photograph, and record information at the rock shelter? Why does she collect some of the artifacts she finds at the site?
- Why does Gayle avoid touching the rock art or leaving bits of clay or other residues on the rock surface?
- Who does Gayle identify as the likely makers of the rock art? How old does she believe the rock art is? What is her evidence for these conclusions?
- Why is Gayle annoyed about the graffiti at the site? Why does she find the 1853 inscription interesting; why isn't that just another example of graffiti?
- Why does Gayle want to bring her field school students to the site?
- What kind of "rewards" will Gayle acquire as a result of her work?
Contributed by: George Sabo III, Arkansas Archeological Survey