The huge stones on the east shore of Lake Pend Oreille hold a secret. One that’s likely thousands of years old and may never be deciphered.
In the rock, someone carved what appear to be 28 bear paws, a deer or goat and abstract circles with slashes through them.
Archaeologists call it an historical mystery. Indian tribes say it’s a sacred place. And folklore attributes the etchings to another being that visited earth.
Whatever the origin or meaning, archaeologists and several tribes agree: The petroglyphs, a few yards from the water’s edge, must be preserved and protected.
The best way to do that is keep their location secret.
The 43-mile long lake already has about 200 other known archaeological sites that are being kept under wraps. The idea isn’t to hide history, but thwart raids by artifact hunters and graffiti-minded explorers.
“That’s one thing I haven’t liked about archaeology. It’s so secretive,” says Tom Sandberg, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist. “We have this great history around the lake you would love to share with people, but we have to protect it. You never know who is going to cause you problems.”
The shores of Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River teem with history, much of it left by Indian tribes who camped, hunted and fished along the water.
Other sites are being uncovered at Priest Lake, where an arrowhead was found last year while crews dug a toilet pit.
“We obviously put the toilet somewhere else,” said Cort Sims, another Forest Service archaeologist.
“We really didn’t know much about the sites on Priest Lake. We just kind of stumbled on some and visitors reported finding artifacts.”
One arrowhead from Priest Lake was carbon dated at 5,000 years old. The lake also has a popular pictograph site on a rock near Kalispell Bay. It contains a stick figure, painted red, and some geometric designs.
Around Lake Pend Oreille, private collectors and archaeologists have discovered arrowheads, handmade tools and stone ovens used to roast camas, a nutritious plant bulb.
The petroglyphs, which many residents still don’t know exist, were first discovered by white settlers in 1896. No one knows how old they are. They can’t be carbon dated because of residue given off by campfires built near the carvings.
Sandberg’s main job, with help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is to document the finds and keep the sites from being pilfered or destroyed. It hasn’t been easy.
Sometime before 1945, chunks of rock containing petroglyphs were removed. More recently, Sandberg noticed someone outlined the carvings with crayon and chalk and left charcoal marks after making rubbings of the images.
“Once someone starts marking them up, others get ideas or want to put their name on the rocks. Graffiti leads to more graffiti,” he said.
Collectors like to scour the shores after storms or when the water level drops to snatch uncovered artifacts. Collecting on federal land is illegal, but Sandberg said it’s difficult to catch anyone. He’s even seen hours-old footprints at sites where collectors beat him to the area.
“It’s pretty upsetting. People just don’t see the reason behind protecting the sites. To them it’s just a neat thing. But these areas are way more important than just being neat things.”
The Kootenai Indians believe the petroglyphs are sacred and object to people photographing them. Because of those concerns and damage to the carvings, the petroglyph site was removed from Forest Service maps.
But people still stop by the Forest Service office or Bonner County Museum for directions or to find places to collect arrowheads.
“We get people in way too often, and we don’t give directions” said museum curator Ann Ferguson. “When people pick up these things they don’t realize they are destroying an historical record.
“Some of the sites have almost been completely destroyed. Most of the history here has already been lost to private collectors,” she said.
The museum was able to photograph hundreds of artifacts gathered by collectors. It was the only way to prepare some kind of record of the finds.
With money from the Bonneville Power Administration, the Corps recently identified 15 archaeological sites on the lake and river that are being excavated.
It’s part of an ongoing project to ensure artifacts aren’t washed away by the 11-foot fluctuation of the lake, caused by construction of the Albeni Falls Dam.
“We have found what we consider to be some significant materials and want to make sure the operation of the reservoir doesn’t destroy them,” said John Coyle, a Corps resource manager.
Many archaeological sites are below the high-water mark, which is Corps property. But archaeologists still know little about what remains on the sites. Most have only been mapped, not excavated.
“We don’t dig up every site we find, but we do try and save them if they are eroding or washing away,” Sandberg said.
Some artifacts are turned over to tribes, given to museums or saved by the Forest Service.
Sandberg also knows of archaeological sites on private land that have been lost to development. Only the discovery of a burial site will stop a building project and those aren’t always reported.
“I’ve heard of people who have burial site artifacts on their mantels. It’s a shame,” Sandberg said. “As more people find out about these areas it’s getting to be a real problem.”
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