Valley of wonders: Indian art, fossils, a quarry and more

BEAR GULCH—On the ranch her grandparents homesteaded almost a century ago, Macie Lundin Ahlgren is ascending a trail beneath steep cliffs of layered limestone.

Stopping on the trail and gesturing to a rock wall behind her, she mentions an archaeologist who visited the site years ago.

“When he got to here,” she said, “he was just shaking his head. He was just overwhelmed.”

It’s easy to see why. On these cliffs about 17 miles southwest of Grass Range, and at an associated, smaller site a few miles away, there are so many examples of Indian rock art that it took 35 researchers two full weeks just to count and document them in 2005.

Bear Gulch Pictographs

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They identified more than 3,000 individual images, of which nearly a third were shield-bearing warriors. In “Fraternity of War,” a 400-page book that grew out of that 2005 research project, the authors said the collection of shield-bearing warriors is “by far the greatest concentration of such figures found anywhere in western North America.”

In addition to the many human figures, there are depictions of bears, birds, bison, elk, deer, turtles, wolves, horses, salamanders and other creatures, and hundreds of weapons and accouterments. There is also a rare representation of a woman giving birth and ancient handprints of red ochre.

There are painted shields and other scenes in still-brilliant reds and oranges, numerous black figures drawn with charcoal and petroglyphs made by incising, pecking or chipping the rock. In many places the artwork is three or four layers thick, with drawings or engravings from earlier eras overlain with art from later times.

Unlike so many sites, where you might spend hours hunting for rare, scattered examples of ancient art, the cliff faces of Bear Gulch hold such a profusion of images that it’s almost surprising to find a reasonably large, flat space that does not display either a petroglyph (engraving) or pictograph (drawing).

As Ahlgren put it, “Here, you can’t hardly look at a wall without seeing a drawing.”

Rock

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A deep-red pictograph was enhanced with careful incisions in the rock.

Petroglyphs outnumber pictographs by more than three to one at both the Bear Gulch site and the nearby Atherton Canyon site, which is owned by another family and is not generally open to the public.

And rock art is not Bear Gulch’s only claim to fame. Its cliffs, part of a limestone formation that stretches for eight miles, have yielded 130 species of fossil fish. The formation dates back more than 300 million years, when it was part of a shallow, tropical bay on a great inland sea.

Paleontologist Richard Lund, who has been leading research on the Bear Gulch formation since 1969, said on his website that most of the species found there “had never been seen before by science and none had ever been seen intact before.” Ahlgren said two of the fossils from their land are on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

There is still another notable feature of the property: On 2½ acres of it, a company called Madison Slate operates a quarry that harvests blocks and slabs of limestone, which are used for construction and landscaping. Ahlgren said the Montana State Fund made extensive use of the stone when it recently built its new headquarters in Helena.

You’ll hear about all those things and more if you stop by Bear Gulch and take a guided tour of the rock art. Ahlgren said she started charging for tours almost 15 years ago, to control access to the site and earn extra money, and to get some return on all the time she spent showing people around. Last year, she said, she hosted more than 1,100 visitors.

Ahlgren’s grandparents, Neil and Elva Lundin, bought the ranch in 1919. Ahlgren said her mother, Ida Lundin, was the main caretaker of the site from the time she first saw it as a 15-year-old in 1947. When she was growing up on the ranch herself, Ahlgren said, she and her brother spent a lot of time playing on a big rock slide in the gulch and swimming in Bear Creek, which flows through the gulch.

“I knew we had ‘Indian pictures,’ as my dad called them … . We had to leave them alone,” she said.

After being away from the ranch for some years, she returned in 1989 and began to take a keen interest in the Indian artwork and in doing what she could to preserve it. The site was known to harbor an extensive collection of pictographs and petroglyphs, but over the years there had been only occasional, piecemeal publications on various parts of it.

A new era opened when Ahlgren happened to meet a pair of archaeologists, John and Mavis Greer, from Casper, Wyoming. Ahlgren remembers taking the Greers on their first tour of the site in 1999.

Cliffs

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Macie Lundin Ahlgren makes her way down a trail in the shadow of the limestone cliffs of Bear Gulch.

Ahlgren said they hadn’t gotten very far before John Greer turned to his wife and said, referring to Ahlgren, “I don’t think she appreciates what she has here.”

The Greers published several papers on the site over the next several years, and in 2005 they and more than 30 other volunteers, including members of the Oregon and Montana archaeological societies, spent two weeks carefully inventorying, studying and making copies of the 3,000-plus images.

Ahlgren’s husband, Dan Ahlgren, and her son, Xerxes “Ray” Vodicka, set up showers, kitchen facilities and a dining area, and Macie was in charge of feeding the whole crew.

“I did all the cooking,” she said. “I fed 35 people three meals a day for two weeks.”

In a foreword to “Fraternity of War,” Ahlgren wrote about what it was like to see her family’s art treasures finally being subjected to sustained, thorough research.

“As I left the cook tent on the first morning after breakfast and ventured out to view the preliminary events,” she wrote, “I was overcome with emotion and unable to stifle the tears of joy as the whole project unfolded before my eyes.”

Birth

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

One of the most notable pictographs at Bear Gulch shows a woman giving birth, with a midwife on the left and a turtle, often a symbol of fertility, on the right. Note the umbilical cord and placenta dangling down.

Research has continued over the years and numerous articles on the site have been published in regional and national journals. The oldest rock art recorded in the area is in Atherton Canyon and dates to the first millennium B.C. In both Bear Gulch and Atherton Canyon, according to “Fraternity of War,” large red wall paintings were being created by the beginning of the Christian era.

A great burst of artistic creation occurred sometime after 1400 A.D. and lasted for two or three centuries, when artists incised and drew more than 900 shield-bearing warriors. By 1800, little rock art was being done at either site.

Ahlgren said no one knows exactly what inspired Indian artists to cover the rock walls with art, but she thinks it was a combination of the site’s seclusion, the dramatic limestone cliffs and the fact that there are several parts of the gulch where there is a pronounced echo. She said it is also assumed that the area was used for vision quests, and that some of the drawings and engravings tell the story of those quests.

“I guess it’s something that I would say is sacred,” she said.

Ahlgren said there is naturally occurring ochre on the site, too, and archaeologists have found obsidian and chert points that were most likely used to create some of the petroglyphs. As part of research in the gulch, archaeologists have excavated campsites along the creek bottom, unearthing ancient fire pits, one of which yielded articulated bison vertebrae.

Coincidentally, at the ranch 10 miles south of Grass Range where Macie and her husband now live, 47 tepee rings—or stone circles, as they are known—have been identified. An archaeological dig on some of those sites is planned for early May.

In addition to leading tours of the Bear Gulch site, Ahlgren has given presentations on the rock art at schools in Roundup, Winnett, Roy, Grass Range and other nearby communities. Over the years, Ahlgren said, Bear Gulch has been visited by representatives of virtually every Indian tribe in Montana and neighboring states. Given the great age of most of the artwork, she said, “they’re just as mystified as everyone else.”

Hand

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A handprint, probably of a juvenile Indian, was made with red ochre.

Her son, Ray, who lives on the property in a house built by Macie’s grandfather, said the site was visited two years ago by a group of Blackfeet elders. Ray said he asked them if they thought his family was exploiting the rock art.

“They said, ‘No. The way we see it, you’re a protector of this site,’” Ray said.

That’s also the way it is seen by Tim Urbaniak, who is retired but formerly directed the Montana State University Billings Archaeological Field Team. He has been to Bear Gulch several times and this summer hopes to complete a study of historical inscriptions—basically graffiti old enough to hold historical interest—this summer.

He called the site one of Montana’s “rock art jewels. There’s so much material that it’s a constant discovery.” And he praised Ahlgren for her care of the site.

“She’s been an awesome steward of that,” he said. “There are some great landowners out there, and Macie is definitely in the top tier.”

Bear Gulch used to be on the wagon road from Fairview to Forest Grove, and people stopping there were in the habit of leaving their names on the canyon walls, either carved or written in pencil. Ahlgren said her grandfather wrote his name on a wall in 1923, the year her father was born.

She said her mother, Ida, put a stop to the graffiti in the 1970s. “Mom got pretty serious about not letting people in here without a guide,” she said.

From very early times, few people have come away from Bear Gulch disappointed. Except maybe for spelunkers. A group of them came to the ranch years ago, Ahlgren said, convinced that the striking limestone formation had to harbor some good-size caves.

They searched and searched but found no caves, she said.

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