After visiting Lake Shetek, we decided to check out Jeffers Petroglyphs State Historic Site. Neither of us really knew much about the petroglyphs, but we'd heard about them and thought, "Why not? We're already in the neighborhood." So we took a slight detour and a little walk out on the prairie.
|Path out to the petroglyphs, as seen from the Visitor Center|
Since it is a site run through the Minnesota Historical Society, we had to cough up $7 each to visit. This wasn't a problem for us...we like to support the MNHS. Plus, petroglyphs! The visitor's center was impressive and worth the time to explore.
Neither of us had much of an idea of what we were going to see. We kind of thought that we would be looking at cliff faces - carvings or paintings on a wall. And big. We thought they would be big. We didn't expect to hike roughly a mile through the prairie, and then look at carvings on what appeared to be a common prairie outcropping. But that doesn't matter, because it was really neat.
|Checking out the petroglyphs|
We arrived just after an organized tour had started, and we jogged to catch up with them. I will say that we would not have enjoyed the site 1/10th as much if we'd gone through it on our own. It is absolutely worth it to wait for a tour.
|Chuck, the fantastic tour guide|
We were lucky to have Chuck as our tour guide. He took off his shoes and walked out onto the quartzite outcropping to show us where the carvings were by spraying them with water. We found out - to our dismay - that we had arrived at about the worst possible time: near noon on a cloudy day. The carvings are most visible when there are shadows - dawn or dusk. A cloudy day made it even worse. I found it difficult to see the carvings at all, but Joe (who is more eagle-eyed than me) was able to see some them without help from Chuck's spray bottle.
In addition to him being able to show us the carvings, Chuck was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the site. He talked about the 7,000 year old history of the site, the people who made the carvings, the connections with other Native American tribes that lived in other regions of the country (including a connection to Cahokia in St. Louis, which Joe and I visited in 2011), and information about the archaeology work that had been done and was still continuing. It was also clear that he loved the petroglyphs and truly enjoyed teaching people about them.
|Chuck sprays by a carving of a human head (by the number block) and shoulder (towards Chuck)|
Even with Chuck's help, we felt like we could see a very small amount of the carvings present. There were laminated maps and interpretive signs across the rock face, showing hundreds of carvings in a given section. We would stop, look at the sign, look at the rock face, and find a handful of the hundred that were there.
|One of the few we could easily see: a horned turtle|
For thousands of years, Native Americans lived in the area around Jeffers Petroglyphs. Their descendants - the Ioway, Ojibwe, Cheyenne, and Dakota - have helped the Minnesota Historical Society to identify and interpret the symbols.
|Here is a Thunderbird. The number marker is about 2 inches across.|
Some of the carvings showed human figures with tools and weaponry. There was actually a place on site where one could throw an atlatl at a target (a life-size fake buffalo), but nobody was there the day we stopped by. That was a bit of a let-down for Joe. He has always wanted to throw an atlatl.
|Sign showing hundreds of carvings...including a picture taken during low-angle sunlight|
The interpretive signs really were helpful, but we were hampered by the cloudy skies and the filtered mid-day sun with no shadows. If you are planning a trip to Jeffers Petroglyphs, please please please take our advice and go either in the morning or in the evening, when there are shadows to help you see the petroglyphs.
|Our picture of the same area. See the hand?|
The tour probably lasted an hour, but we were free to wander around afterwards so long as we stayed respectfully within the rope boundaries. The site was pretty big: the rock face was hundreds of feet long, containing over 2,500 visible carvings. He showed us where the prairie met the rock face: the carvings go right up to the grass. They are slowly peeling back the prairie to uncover what carvings are hiding beneath.
|Prairie grasses, hiding ancient secrets|
It was so nice to be out on the big, wide prairie with the silver grasses, the big sky, the prairie birds flying around, even the prairie bugs. This didn't match up with our initial, uninformed expectations, but we were really glad to have gone. We'd swing on over to Jeffers Petroglyphs again if we were in the area...but only when there are shadows. And, hopefully, when Chuck is working.