Cultural Resources Management Program
Pacific Region / California & Nevada Region

Cultural Heritage Outreach and Education PROJECTS AND EVENTS


Recording the Rock Art of the Malheur Marshlands

View of Buena Vista, Malheur NWRWe conducted this rock art recording project in 1997 and 1998. Our goal was to combine thorough field recording techniques with computer technology to produce state-of-the-art drawings of complex rock art panels. We recorded 7 panels on which modern and historical initials and graffitti were superimposed over older geometric and curvilinear motifs. Images were created using a variety of techniques, including: pecking, grooving, incising, and scratching.

There is much debate regarding the function of rock art. Was it produced in conjunction with hunting, or associated with ritual and shamanism? Do the areas around rock art sites provide any clues to their function? These are some of the questions we asked last year, and will continue to ask this year as we look more closely at the petroglyphs (images incised or pecked into rock) and pictographs (images painted onto rock) of the Malheur Marshlands. Another question we ask is how old are the images? Careful analysis of the superposition of styles and techniques at Buena Vista may help to answer this question.

A Sample from the "Robert Adams" Panel

Robert Adams Panel - photograph

So named for the inscription which dominates it, this panel is one of the most complex we recorded. Our technique consisted of hanging a large piece of clear mylar (affixed by non-sticky masking tape outside the boundaries of the incisions) to the panel itself. Never touching the rock directly, we used fine-point felt tip pens to trace the images, making note of natural features of the rock, patination, and the method used for making the image (e.g. incision, pecking, scratching, etc.) These mylar panels were then scanned, full-scale, into digitized format. The resulting files can be separated into layers, colors, and patterns representing different time periods, techniques, and other characteristics that we or other researchers can study to search for the answers to longstanding questions about rock art.

To the right below is a working draft of the type of computer-generated drawing resulting from this process. You can compare it to the photograph of the same portion of the panel, which was taken with a Pentax 6 by 7 with a 75mm lens.

To see a digitized sketch map of the entire panel, click here. (pdf file)


Key to the Rock Art Features

pumice rock Incisions:The rhyolite rock at the Buena Vista site contained large inclusions of a volcanic rock called pumice. The Rock Artists took advantage of the soft pumice inclusions by cutting thousands of vertical incisions in them.
cupule Cupule: Another common feature of the rock art at Buena Vista, and perhaps the most important. The cupules at Buena Vista are extemely weathered, suggesting they may be of great antiquity.
glyph Zoomorph:A relatively small number of the petroglyphs at the site represent humans, animals or perhaps mythical creatures.
Robert Adams panel - computer-generated graphic
v-groove V-groove: Hundreds of short v-shaped grooves have been cut into the rock surface. Their meaning remains obscure, but most are very old, judging by the degree of reweathering.
abrasion Abraded areas:Sometimes the Rock Artists at Buena Vista prepared the surface by polishing it smooth with a piece of highly vesicular rock called scoria.
graffiti Graffitti:Prehistoric Native Americans weren't the only ones to leave their mark on Buena Vista. By 1876, immigrant Americans had begun cutting names, dates and other figures into the soft rock. Unfortunately, these new additions often obscured or destroyed the underlying prehistoric art.



Last updated: December 20, 2012

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