Rock Art Of The Columbia River Gorge

Petroglyphs and pictographs are powerful images carved into and painted on stone by ancient Native Americans. The Columbia River Gorge has several public viewing sites worth visiting.

The Columbia River Gorge was an important trading area for the prehistoric Native American tribal cultures and had a constant flow of visitors as well as a large resident population. Food was plentiful. Life was good. The culture was stable for about 3,000 years before Europeans came to settle. Ancient artists of this culture engraved and painted thousands of powerful images on the cliffs and banks of the Columbia River. At more than 100 sites between Tri-Cities, Washington and The Dalles, Oregon, visions of mythical beasts and sacred animals, monster lizards and cannibal women were left for us.

There are two kinds of rock art:

- Petroglyphs are engraved into rock. They were pecked or chipped into dark rock, usually basalt, with a tool made from harder stone. Some designs were rubbed and abraded all over the interior of the design as well as the outlines. In basalt, which has a lighter colored interior, this technique resulted in a pale design, bold, against a dark background.

-Pictographs are painted designs on rock. The paint was made from minerals such as volcanic ash and red ochre, sometimes mixed with blood. In some pictographs the paint not only stains the surface, it becomes part of the rock on a molecular level.

We can only guess why they were made. Archeologists are confident of their theories but modern descendents of the tribal cultures say the images are too sacred to discuss. They don't like photos taken or commercialization. Coffee cups, T-shirts and logos are an offense to them. The theories of the archeologists are fascinating and it is difficult not to speculate.

Rock art could be related to vision questing for guardian spirits. Guardian spirits were important to the people of this region. The art could record and commemorate the vision or indicate where a power spot for visions was located. Rock art could be hunting magic. Artists drew images of animals to capture the animal's spirits to ensure a successful hunt and to placate the animals ensuring future hunts. Rock art could be shamanistic. Shamans were religious specialists, doctors and in control of the unseen forces. The art could be for rituals and for protection and the good of the group.

The rock art of this region has four major styles:

The Yakima Polychrome style occurs along the whole length of the river, southern Washington and near Yakima, Washington. It consists of red and white pictographs. Faces, stickmen, rayed circles and heads are the main motifs. The Long Narrows style occurs along the length of the gorge but is concentrated around The Dalles, Oregon. It is pictographs and petroglyphs of grinning faces, complex curved line designs, concentric and rayed circles, mythical beasts and water monsters. The North Oregon Rectilinear style occurs along the river in Oregon between the Deschutes River and the John Day River and in northern Oregon. It consists of red pictographs of stickmen, rectangles, zigzags, crosses and circles. The Central Columbia Plateau style occurs along the length of the gorge and extends on the Columbia Plateau in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. It is petroglyphs and pictographs of stick men, spread-eagled birds, sheep, deer, rayed heads and large hunting scenes.

It would be wonderful to see these hundreds of petroglyphs and pictographs in their natural setting but that is not possible in most cases. Dam building flooded most of the rock art and of the surviving art only a few sites are public because of theft and vandalism.

There is a carved boulder at the courthouse annex in the city of Stevenson if it hasn't been stolen. It was moved from its original location on the north shore of the Columbia River.

There were over 400 petroglyphs and pictographs at the Dalles. Most did not survive the construction of The Dalles Dam in 1961. Some of the petroglyphs were taken from their settings and can be seen at The Dalles Dam Visitors Center. Two boulders can be seen at The Dalles Chamber of Commerce (if they haven't been stolen.) All four styles were represented. An incomplete list of images: curvilinear designs, stylized birds, turtles, insect mythical beings, insect monsters, hunting scenes, zigzag lines, rayed arcs and circles.

Tsigaglalal, "She Who Watches," resides at Horsethief Lake State Park, Washington. Tsigaglalal is a grinning face with huge eyes and is thought to be a death cult guardian spirit, connected in some way with the epidemics that Europeans brought. Viewing "She Who Watches" and the other petroglyphs is by guided tour only.

Four boulders from Miller's Island, which was near the mouth of the Deschutes River, now flooded, can be seen at the Mary Hill Museum near the Hwy 97 bridge in Washington. Rayed headdresses are a design motif.

Roosevelt Petroglyph Park is a park with salvaged rock art from yet another dam building project- the John Day Dam. The Park is one mile east of Roosevelt, Washington on Hwy 14. Lizards, humans, elk and hunting scenes are seen here.

Finally, there is an extensive collection of petroglyph rubbings at the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Washington.


"Indian Petroglyphs" by Beth and Ray Hill. University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington, 1974

"Indian Petroglyphs of the Columbia Gorge" by James Keyser. J.Y. Hollingsworth Company, USA, 1994

"Indian Rock Art of the Columbia Plateau" by James Keyser. University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington, 1992

"Petroglyphs: Ancient Language/Sacred Art" by Sabra Moore. Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1998

"Accessibility Poses Threat to Petroglyphs" by Linda Ashton. Seattle Times; Seattle, Washington; August 29,1999

"On the Rocks: Washington's Petroglyphs and Pictographs Draw the Curious- and the Vandalous" by Greg Johnston. Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Seattle, Washington; June 3, 1999

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