Pictograph Cave in the distance.

Pictograph Cave in the distance.

Tucked into the gorges outside of Billings, past an antenna farm on the top of a flat hill and down a winding road lurk three caves with a past the predates recorded history.

Beginning somewhere around 250 B.C., inhabitants of what would later become southern Montana drew rudimentary scenes of daily life on the natural shelters’ walls. The pictures eventually faded but would sometimes return when conditions — humidity and such — were right, and tribes thousands of years later would conclude they were messages from beyond — ghost writings.

Today, the Pictograph Cave complex (known in the Crow language as Alahpalaaxawaalaatuua for “place of spirit writings”) is a state park, and for a nominal fee ($6 per carload of out-of staters or $0 per carload of Big Sky Country residents) visitors can take a short hike to the caverns and take in the prehistoric artwork. The best pieces are at the flagship Pictograph Cave, nestled into the eagle sandstone cliffs. The park service includes a guide showing the location of the images superimposed on a photo of the wall. I also found it helpful to use a set of binoculars (I just happened to have a set in my backpack) to observe from a respectable distance.

There is something that appears to be a warrior with a round shield, and there are animals. More recent art (estimated between 1480 and 1650 A.D.) in red pigments stands out year round and depict items like flintlock rifles. Some 100 images have been documented, and on the average day only about 10 are visible. With the right circumstances, 30 or 40 appear, according to park officials.

Also in the complex are Ghost Cave and the aptly named Middle Cave (between the other two caves).

 

 

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