- 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.

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