To date, only 55 prehistoric to protohistoric American Indian rock art sites have been identified in the state and many of these, since destroyed, were first identified at the turn of the century. Reported rock art sites in Minnesota include petroglyphs and pictographs appearing on exposed outcrops or in caves, as well as open-air petroforms. Minnesota's aboriginal rock art appears to have been produced from Archaic through Protohistoric times and was probably produced in Paleoindian times as well. The iconography of rock art has a unique potential to yield insights into the character and evolution of prehistoric and protohistoric American Indian ideation, subsistence practices, technology, aesthetics and other cultural elements, which are difficult or impossible to elucidate by other means. Statewide, these generally unprotected sites are increasingly vulnerable to destruction as a consequence of vandalism, natural processes, and construction. At the same time, the potential for identifying numerous other, unrecorded rock art sites in the state remains quite high.
American Indian rock art, as commonly defined, includes both petroglyphic and pictographic iconography. Petroglyphs are produced by incising, abrading, pecking or otherwise carving designs or figures into non-portable rock surfaces such as rock outcrops, bluff faces, rock shelters, and caves. Pictographic images are produced by applying natural pigments to such surfaces by painting, drawing, or other means. Pictographs and petroglyphs may exist as isolated designs or as large, complex panels, and may co-occur. For purposes of this paper, the definition of rock art is extended to include petroforms, that is, boulder or stone outlines which have been configured directly on the ground surface to resemble a variety of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or geometric forms; petroforms do not include tipi rings, crive lines, or other such rock alignments. The distribution of each of these types is rather limited to specific areas of the state, with pictographs found almost exclusively in the northeastern part of the state, petroglyphs largely limited to the south, and petroforms recognized only in southwesternmost Minnesota.
Unfortunately, Minnesota has not benefited from an intensive survey and inventory of rock art sites, standardized description of identified sites, or, with few exceptions, even cursory stylistic analysis of the figures associated with individual sites. Comparative analysis of designs and figures occurring at different sites is virtually non-existent. The function and meaning of rock art thus remains essentially unknown; speculation as to function and meaning, nonetheless, abounds. What limited analysis does exist suggests that the production of rock art in Minnesota spans the period from (at least) Archaic through protohistoric times. Petroglyphs at the Jeffers site clearly depict atlatls and tanged projectile points indicative of glyph manufacture as early as the Archaic period, dating this site as one of the oldest rock art sites in Minnesota. It may well be that the appearance of pictographic rock art in Minnesota is a more recent phenomenon than that of petroglyphs. Rajnovich (1994) cites evidence suggesting that the production of pictographs in neighboring areas of Canada dates as far back as 2000 years B.P. and reports instances of rock painting in the region occurring as late as 1905. Salzer (1987a) has proposed that pictographic rock art in Wisconsin post-dates A.D. 900. Petroforms, the most ephemeral and poorly documented of rock art types, may also be the most recently developed form of rock art, products of Woodland, protohistoric and Early Historic manufacture (Kehoe 1976; Steinbring 1990). It is not possible at this time to definitively associate Minnesota's rock art with specific, contemporary Indian peoples.
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