Shoshone petroglyph Map Rock

Snake River from Pa’s house, looking southeast toward Map Rock

I spent the 4th of July weekend with my Pa (yes, I call him Pa) Trulove on the banks of the Snake River, south of Boise.

The last time I visited, I drove Map Rock Road on the far side of the river, so that I could take some photos of the homestead from the river perspective. When I came back he asked me, “Did you stop and take a look at the petroglyphs?” “Petroglyphs?!” was my awed and disappointed answer. I had no idea there were petroglyphs, and certainly had missed the Information Center, or the Parking Lot, or the Protected Heritage Area that should have brought it to my attention. Out of time on that trip, I resolved to go back and look for petroglyphs the next time, or I wasn’t doing justice to my Anthropology degree.

Fulfilling my pact with myself, I announced Monday afternoon that I was going in search of Map Rock. My Bonus-Mom, Michelle, (that’s – in addition to my natural mother) said she would go with me and help me find it. That was my first indication that the expected Information Center might not be available.

It took us nearly half an hour to get just across the river. Funny huh? But it makes sense when you realize that first we had to find a bridge to ford the Snake. We drove along Map Rock Road, looking to the right for boulders with art, and then to the left for Givens Hot Springs and the landing strip on the other side of the river. Our petroglyphs were directly across from the Hot Springs, but easier to spot was the bright orange airport wind sock.

“They’re scattered along here,” said Michelle. “Just keep looking and you’ll see them. You should slow down.”

Petroglyphs along Map Rock Road

And then. I saw one!

Etched into one of the countless basalt boulders spilling from a cliff ledge, I saw chevrons, a series of dots, concentric circles, a stylized hand? Upon closer inspection, it was no more clear, but exciting and fascinating! What do the carved circles mean? What are the rows of dots? Are they counting something?

Map Rock was further along, and easy to spot once I knew what I was looking for. It’s a huge (2.2 X 1.8 X 1.5 meters) boulder with a very compelling design.

“The principal motif seems to be a mapping of the Snake River Valley. The most conspicuous line being the course of the Snake River, and is readily recognizable and quite accurate, compared to the Land Office and other maps…One branch rises from a spring, and the other flow from a large lake, the Henry Lake of our maps… At the third turn of the stream [Snake River] is a branch from the east…which is probably intended for the Black Foot River… The locations of the various groups of circles to the south of the river correspond quite closely to the locations of the ranges of hills which do lie to the south of Snake River.” ~ E.T. Perkins Jr. to J.W. Powell, 14 January 1897

Map Rock, Idaho

“It is in all probability a map of an entire river basin covering almost 32,000 square miles.” ~  Woodward and Lewis

On a piece angled away from the map, off to the left, look like deer with impressive antlers. They are prancing through waves. Is it meant to be water? Flowing prairie grassland of the Owyhees? On top, in front of an eye-catching hump of stone like a mini-Half Dome, or the bill of a baseball cap, are dozens of parallel contour lines. It’s beautiful, and I stood before it dumbstruck and ignorant (ahem, as is my state most often in front of great art…).

map rock and bike
Courtesy Bureau of Land Management
Unexpected canvas. We wandered through the basalt, potential art in all directions.
Prehistoric art. No, wait, they were cataloging their own history, so I guess it’s historic art.
Not a very helpful information sign, but the only evidence, aside from the wide spot in the road, that modern humans knew something special was here.

And then, less noticeable than the basalt boulders themselves, Michelle pointed out a carved wooden sign. Weather-beaten to almost perfect uselessness, there was an information sign. Though I couldn’t read more than half of it, the sign said this rock was discovered in 1872 and considered a landmark ever since.

Two things. 1) Obviously it was a major communication crossroads, most likely due to a nearby Snake River crossing, and therefore, couldn’t possibly have been “discovered” as late as 1872, unless our only point of reference is white folk (…she says, tongue-in-cheek).

2) Landmark?! I wish! There is no highway sign, no facilities, barely a place to pull off the narrow two-lane road. The only information sign was apparently installed by a community local-interest group, and has not been maintained. There is no protection for this valuable and fascinating historical artifact of human technology. It PAINED me to see it out there, six feet or so from the road. It’s damaged from dust and erosion, not to mention vandals, and so drastically faded from time, as historical photos attest. Michelle said that the last time she was here, someone had taken colored chalk and filled in all the markings. Thank GOD they didn’t use paint, but what’s to stop the next idiot?

Very hard to see, but the shaded section is also etched.
Deer. I think.

After a little research, I found that it’s identified on the National Register of Historic Places, since 1982. Listed as prehistoric art, there seems to be no solid sense of the age of this artifact. Now there’s a little bug in my bonnet, and I will keep my eyes open for a chance to contribute to the preservation of this fascinating little stretch of Indian artwork in Idaho’s Owyhee desert.

Please see C. Jeanne Heida’s articles on this point of interest. The first is specifically of Map Rock, and the second is of Indian Rock Art.

(Credit to Cartography in the traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian, and Pacific societies, Volume 2, Book 3 by David Woodward and G. Malcolm Lewis for the quotes and diagrams.)

11 thoughts on “Shoshone petroglyph Map Rock

  1. Fascinating… I always wanted to set up cans (like… OIL cans… or drums… or small cars) on that side of the river and then shoot them from Pa’s back patio with a high powered precision rifle.

    Good thing I never did (which can probably be attributed to not actually OWNING a sniper rifle)… I’m a dreadful shot, and would likely have destroyed these artifacts that I had no idea were there.

    Also, I would bet the carving is chalked in picture (the one with the motorcycle and of our cousins)… so there may be something of a tradition to that…

    Cool find, I’d say… ancient cartography is just about as close to engineering as you could get in primative times, so I appreciate a little extra.

    Buffalo… sigh… I miss them… not that I’m old enough to know “real” buffalo… but still… miss them them anyway.

  2. Ha! Boys. It had never occurred to me to sit on Pa’s deck and shoot things.

    Hm, I wonder about the motorcycle photo. You think it’s chalked? That would explain the brightness. There are many other photos of Map Rock on the Internet from a hundred years ago that show the design more clearly. I had assumed that weather had dulled it.

    The two four-legged critters that looked like deer to me still held chalk from the incident Michelle told me about. It does make them easier to see.

    Maybe you would have enjoyed an artifact I spotted in the Imhotep museum ( in Egypt this January. It was a blueprint for a temple. Painted in red on a flat rock, there was the outline of walls, and some hieroglyphics giving some critical details, I imagine. So awesome!

  3. Crystal, I’m fascinated by maps and mapping, and now I have one more book I need to go purchase (*sigh* you’re expensive).

    With artifacts like the Map Rock, I have to wonder about its origins….was it one person, being helpful? Was is a community decision, that a permanent map in a central location was needed? Did everyone sit around and bicker over whether it was being carved properly, because people are people….

    I’ve always wanted to hang out and shoot cans…..

    1. The Trulove family calls it the “boom gene;” that essence that makes many kids lean toward recreational activities that include death-defying antics, really bad ideas, and explosions. Your Cam has the boom gene for sure. The longer I live, the more stories I hear that make me grateful not to be the parent of a Trulove boy (the boys seem to suffer from it more than the girls).

      I picked the books up at the library! I love your questions about Map Rock – there was probably someone who was totally dissing the cartographer. “Red Clay doesn’t know squat about the River Basin. Now, if I had carved that map…”

  4. I would like to use the photo of map rock to be published in an upcoming book by Esri Press. If you own the rights to that photo please contact me.

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