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Petroglyphs visible at historic site

COMFREY — Quartzite outcroppings form a long ridge that runs for 23 miles above a modest area of grassland in southern Minnesota. Three tributaries of the Minnesota River meet up within this prairie space, which first became a destination point for humans 7,000 years ago.

Ancient peoples may have used the waterways to get to this spot, which is now called the Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site.

Archaeological evidence indicates many tribes traveled many miles to the site to dig for a red-brown mudstone, to view star constellations and to worship.

Some of the journeyers who stopped along the ridge carved myriad symbols into its hard surface. For many millennia, an unknown number of these petroglyphs survived exposure to wind, rain, harsh winters and being scratched by glaciers.

Most of these two-dimensional drawings are faint, but if visitors patiently wait for certain angles of sunlight, they will see bison, thunderbirds, turtles, people and symbols. Inquisitive Minnesotans on day trips in search of rock art usually find the site is much more than a must-see spot for tourists.


"It is a very special place and when you are there, you know that," said Tom Sanders, site manager.

The importance of the petroglyphs cannot be captured in a short telephone interview, said Joe Williams, 82, a Dakota elder with the Wahpeton Oyate at Sisseton, South Dakota.

"It takes time to talk about the revealing of the carvings, what they mean, what they stand for," he said.

Williams has been coming to the Jeffers site regularly over the past 20 years. His wish is that people who visit the site can take home with them the knowledge that indigenous people have been around for thousands of years.

"And that the spirit that we believe in -- the Great Spirit our creator -- left his marks, here... that's why, to us, it's a very sacred area. These markings that are left here are the survival of the people. ... This place is an encyclopedia of American Indian ways of being, put here by elders to teach us," he said in a quote on the Minnesota Historical Society's website.

Williams and Sanders get together regularly to confer about various projects at the site, which is operated by MNHS. Most of their meetings focus on education.

One bit of information they want to pass on to the public is that, not far from the Jeffers site, ancient people practiced astronomy.

"It was a most accurate observatory," Sanders said.


Archaeologists have found images similar to the ones at Jeffers, such as a "Hand With Eye" symbol, on shards of ancient pottery at digs as far away from Minnesota as Florida, Sanders said.

The terrain Sanders oversees is at the convergence of the Cottonwood, the Little Cottonwood and the Watonwan rivers, which all flow into the Minnesota River.

Many tribes including Dakotah, Ioway, Crow and Blackfoot made trips to the outcroppings.

"My suspicion, and I have some proof to back this up, is that they were coming for the red rock under the quartzite," Sanders said.

That metamorphosed mudstone, Catlinite, is a soft argillite that can be carved into pipes or ground into pigment for paint.

Williams stressed the carvings continue to have importance for Native Americans.

"The petroglyphs are representative of all the indigenous people here on this continent today."

Although many may be able to identify the images, they don't always know what they represent, he said.


The 1,200-acre area is protected by the U.S. government in an effort to preserve the petroglyphs.

The Minnesota Historical Society operates an interpretative center on the grounds.

Vandalism acts are extremely rare on the outcroppings. The quartzite is not easily damaged, it is almost as hard as diamonds.

One exception, on July 25, 1875, a passer-by carved that date and his name on one of the rocks. Although graffiti has not been a problem, a natural process has covered up a countless number of the symbols.

About 10 years ago, a project began to stop the spread of a black lichen that grows atop the quartzite. A black rubber mat was used to cover the rocks until the lichen died off. When the mat was removed and the dead plant material was washed away, thousands of petroglyphs became visible.

"We now have well over 5,000 (that are visible)," Sanders said.

The shallow impressions -- less than one-eighth inch deep -- are best viewed in early morning and early evening light.

Several programs for the public are planned to show off the newly-discovered petroglyphs and to explain how the ancient observatory was used.

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