Bear Gulch in central Montana is a treasure trove of ancient art, displaying more than 4,000 pictographs and petroglyphs that date back as early as 1000 CE. The 100-foot rock face has the largest known collection of Plains Indian rock art. The drawings depict different scenes from everyday life, such as warriors with shields and clubs and animals like elk and bison.
These snapshots of tribal life are joined by marks of graffiti made by American pioneers in the 1800s; travelers heading west on the wagon trail that once hugged the gulch carved their names into the rock face here. The collection provides a unique juxtaposition of ancient and recent history.
Amazingly, the significance of this site wasn’t fully realized until just about 30 years ago; before that, it was just someone’s backyard. When archeologists visited Bear Gulch in 1989, they were floored by the collection of rock art that the Lundin family had lived beside for five generations. The discovery headed a new wave of preservation.
In 2005 and 2007, two teams of archeologists visited the site. First, they recorded every petroglyph (carved images) and pictograph (painted images) on the rock face. They discovered layers of warm-colored images overlapping each other. Interestingly, they found that unlike other American Indian rock art, Bear Gulch has no depictions of war.
The second group of researchers investigated the ground at the base of the ravine, where they discovered ancient fire pits with stone tools including bison vertebrae left over from someone’s dinner. Surprisingly there were no arrowheads found at the site.
Though the site is still on private land, the Lundin family offers guided tours of the rock art. Visitors can descend to the base of the gulch to follow the gentle creek and explore this unique display of ancient expression, led by one of the descendants of the very pioneers whose names are carved into the exposed earth.
Know Before You Go
Located about 20 miles southeast of Lewistown, Montana.