In the midst of the windswept prairie of southwest Minnesota, a colorful rock outcrop has drawn visitors for thousands of years.
“It’s going to be something you have never experienced before,” described site manager of 18 years Tom Sanders, who has degrees in anthropology and archaeology. “It’s something incredibly unique, and when you come here you’re going to sense the specialness of the site. The physical surroundings create a sense of awe, even without seeing the carvings. There’s all this green prairie and farmland, and then the lavender-pink-purple rock sticking up. It’s a ridge — a unique experience in a very flat prairie.”
The rocks are Sioux quartzite — a hard bedrock — into which carving would have been a deliberate and labor-intensive task. In 1971, about 2,000 drawings were identified, but recent restoration efforts uncovered many more.
“Lichens have been exploding and growing and covering the rock base,” described Sanders of what the restoration entailed. “After much study, thought and discussion with scientists and Native American elders, we removed it and found 3,000 new carvings, so now we have over 5,000.”
Sanders and his staff have worked with the anthropology department at Hamline University to survey and study the new drawings.
“We’ve been learning so much about the people by looking at their campsites,” said Sanders. “We know people were coming a long ways by the materials they were using. People were either coming here and leaving carvings, or leaving here and going other places and bringing things back.”
Working with the people whose ancestors created the drawings has been one of the most rewarding parts of the process, Sanders noted.
“The development of what we say and know about this place has been by working with the elders,” he said. “That has been the most precious part of the job. It’s been extraordinary. They are great scholars with their culture.”
Sanders encourages visitors to take a guided tour of the site, especially if they haven’t visited recently.
“It is built around the carvings that we can best see, those that tell a complete narrative,” he explained. “We are really trying to teach about 12,000 years of Native American history. This tour lasts about 45 minutes, and testimony to its popularity is that everyone stays for 45 minutes. We use American Indian stories that are from a thousand years ago that are still in living history today. So you get a rich program.
“We’re really just scratching the surface” of understanding the significance of the site and its drawings. “We’ve got a lot to learn, generations of learning.”
Through Labor Day, the Jeffers Petroglyphs site is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.; in September, Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, go to www.mnhs.org/jefferspetroglyphs or phone (507) 628-5591.