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Top Ways to Explore Pictographs in MT

Exploring Pictographs - Cave Pictographs
Matt Claiborne
Matt Claiborne
November 19, 2021

Montana has a long and varied history. Native Americans hunted bison and other animals in this area for millennia. As they hunted, they stayed in caves and left pictographs and artifacts. Throughout Montana, there are various sites with Native American pictographs.

Pictograph Cave State Park

One of the best ways to explore pictographs in MT is to visit Pictograph Cave State Park. While there are over 100 pictographs in Pictograph Cave, only a few are visible. The park features a visitor center and has interpretive displays throughout the park.

History of Pictograph Cave State Park's Caves

Cave State Park

Caves in this area were formed by wind and water carving out the Eagle sandstone cliff.

Thousands of years ago, hunters camped in the cave known as Pictograph Cave. The hunters left behind various artifacts, including over 100 rock paintings or pictographs.

In 1936, locals first discovered the hunter's artifacts and pictographs.

About Pictographs

A pictograph is a form of writing which uses symbols and drawings to represent something. Pictographs, like written words, are used for communication rather than as art.

Native Americans used natural pigments such as iron oxides, clays, charcoal, and copper minerals to create pictographs on cave walls. The pigments were then usually applied by finger painting.

Modern humans use pictographs in street signs. When used on computers, these modern pictographs are called icons.

Pictographs in Pictograph Cave

Pictographs inside the cave

There are 106 pictographs in Pictograph Cave, the only cave in Pictograph State Park that features wall paintings. The oldest pictographs are estimated to be over 2,000 years old. Scientists have been able to date the ink hunters used to make the paintings.

The earliest paintings feature black and white pigments. The oldest pictograph is about 2,100 years old and depicts a turtle.

More recent paintings feature horses, animals, and red-pigmented rifle paintings. The more recent paintings are approximately 200 to 500 years old.

Viewing the Pictographs

The paintings have faded with time and are hard to see. In addition, soluble minerals leach through the sandstone and obscure the pictographs. However, when the cave walls become wet, the minerals become transparent, and more paintings are revealed.

On a dry day, about 5-10 pictographs can be seen. On the rare days the wall is wet, visitors can see up to 25 pictographs.

Artifacts

About 30,000 artifacts were excavated from the caves. The items included weapons, tools, and paintings. The prehistoric tools were crafted from stone and bone. Excavators also found fire-starting tools, grinding stones, and arrow shafts. In addition, they discovered moccasins, basketry, jewelry, pendants, bracelets, beads, and shells.

At least 20,000 animal remains were discovered at the site. The remains included bison, elk, and various reptiles and birds. The remains are further evidence of an active hunting camp.

About Pictograph Cave State Park

The State of Montana purchased the site in 1937. The Pictograph Cave site became a National Historic Landmark in 1964. Pictograph Cave State Park was founded in 1991 to protect the national landmark and give visitors access to this historic site.

The state park covers 23 acres and sits at an elevation of 3,500 feet. The park is five miles south of Billings, Montana.

The park features a 3/4 mile loop trail that takes visitors to all three caves. In addition, interpretive displays give information on the paintings and the area's natural landscape and vegetation.

Pictograph Cave is the park's deepest cave. This famous cave is about 160 feet wide and 45 feet deep. Visitors are not allowed into the caves, so binoculars are helpful to get a close-up view of the rock art.

Pictograph Cave State Park has picnic facilities, a new Visitor Center with interpretive displays, and a gift shop.

Explore Montana

Montana features endless views, fascinating history, and outdoor recreation. Explore lakes in Billings Montana and enjoy Big Sky Country.


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