1997 Rock Art Research Field Notes

Caving for Petroglyphs with Zak Johnson, Laura McIlrath and Derek Lee. Kevin L. Callahan, Anthropology Department, U of M

Archaeologist, Zak Johnson at the entrance to the cave.

INTRODUCTION: An effort is currently underway in Minnesota to find, record, and preserve the state's unrecorded petroglyphs. These notes from the field are about one dimension of that effort--the search by local archaeologists to find petroglyphs in the caves of Minnesota. Locatoring information below the county level has been deleted from these field notes. This work was not undertaken on state or federal land nor did it require a state permit.


On February 22, 1997 Zak Johnson and Laura McIlrath, graduate students in the Interdisciplinary Archaeological Studies (IAS) program and Derek Lee, of the Anthropology Department, University of Minnesota went to a cave in Dakota County, Minnesota to investigate possible grooving petroglyphs. This cave requires knee and elbow pads, a helmet with a light, and is quite tight at places. Zak indicated that the cave is supposed to run for 2000-3000 feet. Zak Johnson had been there once before and we were interested in the possibility of locating grooving petroglyphs.

Archaeologist, Laura McIlrath on video describing what she saw in the cave.

We did not find any petroglyphs that clearly fit the usually expected dimensions for Native American grooving using a stone implement or fingers. Nor did we find multiple parallel grooves. There were individual grooves that may have been made with a stone or stone tool. We did find what appeared to be historic period carvings and graffitti made with a metal instument like a nail or a knife, with generally sharp "V" shaped cross-sections. This is distinguishable from the smoother more "U" shaped crossection typical of a stone tool. We did not explore the entire cave and I probably would have gotten lost in the maze of branching tunnels except for Zak who is a more experienced caver.

A chilly Laura McIlrath (after standing outside).

We did find an interesting looking graffitto which indicated the year "1848." These numbers were simple in style and did not have the tails and heads of 19th Century block lettering. It could have been made recently. About two feet away, however, were lettered graffitti in the appropriate lettering style for a middle 19th Century time period. It was similar in lettering style to Joseph Nicollet's style of making his early graffitti at the Pipestone Quarry. It is possible that this "tailed" graffitti may be from an earlier date because as Zak observed, unlike obviously more recent graffitti, some of the tailed lettering had a mudlike, hard, or solid appearing, accumulation inside the incised grooves. Next to the year "1848" was an incised drawing of a figure in a Native American feathered headdress. We assumed that this was not of Native American origin. As graffitti goes, it was well drawn and was quite a distance into the cave. It may have been an older teenager or an adult who carved it.

"1848" graffitti with a drawing of a Native American in headdress.

There is evidence of racoons using the cave, a clearly manmade structure of stones to make a wall or perhaps to increase habitability near one of the entrances, and there were varying amounts of physical space to crawl through the cave. We passed through one wet "living" room with active depositional accumulations forming, that we were careful not to touch or brush against because of the possibility of adverse effects on the deposition of future material. The cave was considerably warmer than the outside air temperature and it would have made an excellent shelter from the elements, provided no fire was started. (A fire could asphyxiate the occupants in such a small space and this does periodically happen today in local caves--usually with teenagers who do not know of the dangers, or people who are misled by our entertainment industry-which frequently shows fires being used in caves).

The block letter "H" with cross T's.

There was clear evidence of black soot in the built up area near one of the entrances. We also observed some oiling and smoothing of ceiling limestone surfaces, probably from racoons brushing their fur against the rock. This cave certainly merits further investigation and although there is evidence of use by local children, and some graffitti, there may still be older petroglyphs below the high mud floor or in other areas other than in the limited area where we looked. There has clearly been a lot of carving on the ceilings of the cave and this is particularly true in areas where the tunnel constricts. Zak observed that these may have been places where people were more likely to turn around. In short the cave looks like a site that should be fully investigated. The photos accompanying this text were taken using a small camcorder.

The Cave Entrance.

Following the partial exploration of this cave, we visited and went through another much smaller cave with two exits and clear indications of soot and a fire. This whole region appears to have many caves which have probably been explored, used, and heavily played in by local children for many decades. The discovery in the future of a new or sealed limestone cave that has not been heavily graffittied is certainly a possibility in this area which has many caves. The geological characteristics of this region therefore make it a good place to continue the search for unrecorded Minnesota rock art.

Zak Johnson caving for unrecorded petroglyphs.

Links to other sites on the Web

Upper Midwest Rock Art Research Association (UMRARA)
The Virtual Cave
Over 300 Speleology Links
MN commercial caves
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The Cave Page



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