The Place, the People, and the Preservation of Fourmile Petroglyph

The Place, the People, and the Preservation of Fourmile Petroglyph

The Place, the People, and the Preservation of Fourmile Petroglyph

By Courtney Agenten

Sand Gulch Quarry. Tribes traveled along Fourmile Creek to the quarry to get stones for making hunting tools. Photo by Heston Mosher

Sand Gulch Quarry. Tribes traveled along Fourmile Creek to the quarry to get stones for making hunting tools. Photo by Heston Mosher


THE PLACE

Fourmile Petroglyph is a landmark along Fourmile Creek in the Arkansas River Basin of Southcentral Colorado. The sandstone boulder is on the side of a county road north of Canon City, Colorado. Following the creek leads to a campsite and what was once a quarry for stone tool making. Long bands of limestone cliffs dominate the landscape north of the rock art site. Stunning rock features paired with the piñon pine and juniper vegetation enhance the dramatic vistas and a picturesque camping environment.

Fourmile Creek Petroglyph. Photo by Heston Mosher
Fourmile Creek Petroglyph. Photo by Heston Mosher

Fourmile Petroglyph rock art site consists of a single petroglyph panel pecked on the southeast face of a sandstone boulder. The petroglyph panel is a series of stipple-pecked circles, abstract lines, and tridents. While most rock art in this region is attributed to the Ute tribe, the tridents indicate a possible connection to an ancestor of the Pawnee tribe as the artist. For the Pawnee:

Representational art work was the province of men whose purpose it was to communicate with sky powers in performing public ceremonial duties, hunting, or warfare. Their designs (on pipe stems, war shields, musical instruments, etc.) had to be easily recognizable to both their “audiences” (villagers, prey, or enemy) and the deities. Birds were messengers who conveyed information between the heaven and the earth, and they appeared frequently in the men’s art work. Stars (four- and five-pointed) were another important Pawnee motif (Willets 1997, 45).

One of the prominent interpretations of the petroglyph panel is that it depicts a constellation. According to Warren Pratt, a citizen of the Pawnee tribe, the Pawnee had the best star maps of all the Plains Indians.


THE PEOPLE
(adapted from Willets 1997)

The ancestors of the Pawnee lived on the plains in the place we now call Nebraska and parts of Kansas. The earliest earthlodges can be dated to A.D. 400. Oral history tells that the first Pawnee man was taught how to build an earthlodge by animals at a Sacred Site on the Missouri River two thousand years ago. Each of the tribe’s four bands built their gardening towns along the drainages on the Solomon River, Smoky Hill River, Blue River, Republican River (north-central Kansas) and the Platte and Loup Rivers (south-central Nebraska). The four bands of the Pawnee tribe are the Chaui (Grand), the Kitkihahki (Republican), the Pitahawirata (Tappage), and the Skidi (Wolf). The Pawnee called themselves “chahiksichahiks,” meaning “people from people.”

A Pawnee family standing outside the entrance to an earthlodge in Nebraska more than 100 years ago. Smithsonian Institution.
A Pawnee family standing outside the entrance to an earthlodge in Nebraska more than 100 years ago. Smithsonian Institution.

The movement of the stars above and the seasons of the earth below guided the village through cycles of work and ceremony. A complex belief system, attuned to celestial rhythms, defines the times for hunting and for gardening. In the river valleys below the villages, Pawnee gardeners grew pumpkin, squash, beans, watermelon, and corn. Sunflowers made tall boundaries between the vegetable fields.

Leaving their towns and gardens in July, the people traveled west onto the high plains to hunt bison. While hunting, they lived in temporary camps, sheltered in hide houses called tipis. They returned to the towns in October to harvest and process the crops. Another bison hunt from the end of November until mid-March brought the cycle to a close. In spring, ceremonies to awaken the universe signaled the beginning of another season of renewal and growth.

Pawnee earthlodge towns were home to 1,000 to 2,000 people with roughly 30-50 people living in each earthlodge. In A.D. 1500 there were at least 30 settlements. The Pawnee usually built on the bluffs or ridges associated with streams and rivers near the rich bottomland required to grow their vegetable crops. Growing, harvesting, and processing these vegetables represented much of a town’s activity. Here, too, ceremonies were held in regular cycles of dances, feasts, and other events (some public and some restricted for special audiences). Local hunts for fresh meat, manufacture and repair of equipment, tools, and clothing were also part of Pawnee life, along with games and contests.

The Pawnee belief system was built on a rhythmic logic that balanced the universe. Alternating pairs such as north/south, Morning star/Evening star, winter/summer, day/night shaped the people’s perceptions of the world. The Pawnee utilize all these pairs in their community, but north side/south side is the most prevalent. Communication between the earth, home of the people, and the sky, home of the Creator, involved cycles of song, dance, and ritual. Heavenly messages to the people could be delivered by birds, animals, or natural elements. Clouds, Wind, Lightning, and Thunder were powers held by the Four Stars that helped and guarded Evening Star, a central figure in Pawnee religion. They also have colors, animals, trees, and directions associated with them. Evening Star’s Garden was guarded by these four old men (stars). She had the power to make the earth green and fertile each spring. Her Garden is manifested on earth at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The earthlodge doorway was oriented eastward toward the rising Morning Star, an important Pawnee deity. Smoke rose from the hearth, located in the floor at the center of the house, upward to the sky through a hole at the top of the roof. Tirawahut, the Sun, traveled across the sky each day, sending light through the smokehole as assurance that all was well in the world.


THE PRESERVATION

Close-up of rock art panel. Photo by Earl Mead, June 17, 2000.
Close-up of rock art panel. Photo by Earl Mead, June 17, 2000.

When Fourmile Petroglyph rock art site was first recorded on June 17, 2000, the panel was in excellent condition and had received little vandalism, especially considering its proximity to a road (Mead 2000). The site is significant because it is an example of Plains Abstract Rock Art and is one of the best-known sites in the Canon City area.   Since rock art in southcentral Colorado has not been extensively studied, the addition of Fourmile Petroglyph augments the information for rock art sites in this region of Colorado.

On September 7, 2021, recreation staff at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Royal Gorge Field Office identified vandalism at Fourmile Petroglyph. Someone spray painted numerous surfaces of the boulder. The integrity of the site is moderately compromised due to the vandalism, both tangibly and intangibly. It is a rare site for the area and vandalism has compromised the surface of the stone and rock art.

Because of its prominence on a main road, and its uniqueness, the BLM recommends three ways to preserve the site. One, the obtrusive graffiti will be removed by a qualified conservator. Conservation work will be monitored by an archaeologist and tribal members. Two, the BLM proposed to install a barrier along the roadside and front of the site to deter vehicles from pulling off at this location and aid in future protection of the site. Three, since the site is very well known to locals, a curriculum guide was created to educate schoolchildren and their teachers in the community about the significance of Fourmile Petroglyph.

Fourmile Petroglyph boulder on the side of a bust road. Photo by Alia Wallace after September 7, 2021 vandalism.

Fourmile Petroglyph boulder on the side of a busy road. Photo by Alia Wallace after September 7, 2021 vandalism.


References
Mead, Earl. 2000. “5FN1771, Fourmile Petroglyph Site Management Data Form.” Colorado Cultural Resource Survey of the Colorado Historical Society—Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.
Willets, Ramona. 1997. A Place to Call Home. Topeka, KS: Kansas State Historical Society.

Front FourmileProject Archaeology: Investigating Fourmile Petroglyph is a supplementary curriculum guide of Project Archaeology: Investigating Rock Art for grades 3 through 5. You can download the guide from our database  ON THIS PAGE using the password on page 12 of Investigating Rock Art. Or purchase the full guide in our shop. 

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