- Associated Press - Saturday, January 25, 2014

RAWLINS, Wyo. (AP) - On the windswept northern plains, a group Ute Indians ventured along with a herd of stolen horses. Their destination in 1880, the Powder Wash area of south central Wyoming, a few miles from the Colorado border, and an isolated encampment that offered shelter, water and a place to sketch fantastic art work.

Now, officially known as the Powder Wash Archaeological District, it’s home to a wealth of rock art sites, a drift wood corral encircling the entire valley, a group of wickiups (a type of teepee) and enclosed rock shelters.

Because of its importance, the archaeological district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Dec. 6, 2013.

Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.

The most impressive - and fragile - feature of Powder Wash are its 19 rock art sites where either images were drawn primarily by use of charcoal onto sandstone outcrops or etched into the stone’s surface.

“Basically what was going on there was a very long, long period of use, perhaps as early as the 1500s, but the heaviest concentration of use occurred between about 1700 and 1880,” said James Keyser, a former archaeologist with the Oregon Archaeological Society.

Though some locals have known of the site’s existence for decades, it wasn’t until the 1990s when a crew with the Western Archaeological Services officially discovered the site as they conducted land surveys for a proposed pipeline project.

In Sept. 2006, Keyser brought specialists from the Oregon Archaeological Society, assisted by volunteers from the Wyoming Archaeological Society, to conduct an extensive survey on the rock art at Powder Wash.

“I grew up in western Montana, and I saw my first rock art site when I was 9 years old and kind of fell in love with it. I’ve been studying rock art ever since,” he said.

Keyser’s interpretation of the art at Powder Wash concluded that it was most likely done by the Ute, because of its close match to similar drawings known to be from the Indian tribe.

“What you have here are Ute horse raiders. They came north into Wyoming where they stole their enemy’s horses,” Keyser said. “They took them back to the Powder Rim where they held them before taking them back to their tribal lands on the northern Colorado Plateau. It was pretty common for the plains Indians to raid their neighbors as well as the immigrants.”

The rock art at Powder Wash is considered to be biographical, telling a story, rather than representing something spiritual. Many of the themes involve drawings of horses, which were incredibly important to the Ute. As with most Indian tribes the horse represented a symbol of their wealth. Along with horses there are also vivid depictions of bison, bear, birds, elk, as well as human figures.

“There are some overlapping images that better represent drawings from the Shoshoni. They may have been using this area for the same reasons,” said Patrick Walker, Rawlins Bureau of Land Management field office archaeologist, during a presentation to fellow employees.

“A lot of the rock art is found in little sheltered areas,” Walker added. “A lot of them are not deep shelters offering any kind of (potential) occupation. People weren’t necessarily living in them. Literally they are just angled rocks that you can get under.”

Besides the charcoal drawings, also known as pictographs, there are impressive sized boulders with symbols and figures carved into the rock, known as petroglyphs.

“There’s not much that was pecked out here,” Walker said. “It’s not like you see in places in the southwest where they pecked away at the desert varnish. These are actually ground into the rock. This is the only site I know of that has exposed, external, big incised rocks like this.”

Though visitors can get up and personal with many of the features at Powder Wash, it is the huge drift wood enclosure, used by the Indians to create a corral and staging area for the pilfered horses that is best viewed from the air.

“It actually encompasses about three square miles,” Walker said.” It stretches along the juniper ridges surrounding the valley. The thing special about the valley is (the Ute) had everything. You had a great water source. You had a lot of grass in the bottom of the valley, and you had sheltered (defensible) areas.”

Although the Powder Wash Archaeological District is in a remote location it has come under threat from both natural and man-made threats.

Since the field-work was done in 2006, some of the art has crumbled. Because the rock is made of soft sandstone it is very susceptible to erosion,” Walker said.

“The rock art is very fragile,” he added. “You absolutely do not want to touch it. Even when the rock is not breaking off in big chunks, you can go up to it and run your hand over it, and a trickle sand will come off the rock face.”

Along with the assaults from Mother Nature there also has been a great deal of illegal commercial moss rock collecting at the site, along with vandalism to the artwork.

“It’s really a tough thing for archaeologist to decide what’s best,” Walker said. “Do we keep it a secret as long possible, and hope that it’s going to protect itself because nobody knows about it? Or, do we shine a spotlight on it, and tell people there is this great thing here and we’re keeping our eyes on it?”

Keyser is also concerned with the fragility of the Indian artwork.

“We don’t keep it a secret just to keep it secret. We keep it secret because one idiot with a spray can, or one idiot with a pocket-knife can ruin something that’s priceless,” he said.

Unfortunately, listing Powder Wash on the National Registry does not provide any type of formal protection.

“It’s more a feather in your hat,” Keyser said. “Federal agents and federal land management agencies are supposed to put the best and brightest things on the National Register to ensure that those sites are taken into account when land development projects are purposed.

Anyone seeking development on public lands have to research the National Register to determine if historic or important sites are present.

“Powder Wash would come up as a big red flag,” Keyser said. “Basically it says ‘hey we’ve got something really keen down here.’ In that sense, it brings it into the process with a higher level of scrutiny.”

“It doesn’t mean you can’t develop in the area, but what it does mean is that land managing agencies will put on more cautionary stipulations in place with tighter control. People just can’t go willy-nilly through the area.”

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Information from: Rawlins (Wyo.) Daily Times, http://www.rawlinstimes.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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