MEDICINE ROCKS STATE PARK, Mont. – No one alive can remember Herbert Dalton, but his sad love story still resonates in the tiny southeast Montana town of Ekalaka.
“The story we’ve been told is that his girl left him,” said Tim Urbaniak, a Montana State University Billings professor leading a team of students and volunteers on a mission to preserve and record petroglyphs carved at Medicine Rocks State Park.
“She wouldn’t come West.”
The lovelorn Irish sheepherder spilled his heartbreak into the soft sandstone rock more than 100 years ago. His lover’s portrait is still one of the most moving of thousands of historic and ancient images on the sinuous surfaces of the ancient outcrops off Highway 7 between Baker and Ekalaka.
Dalton chiseled a portrait of his faithless lady – her hair in a sweeping turn-of-the-century bun – on the sandstone canvas. Facing her, a bird in flight offers her a delicately drawn flower. Part of the date on the artwork has eroded away, but it appears to have been completed in 1904.
All around the 320-acre park other love stories are carved in stone: Jordan + Tasha, David + Tamee, Rose + Joe. Many are encased in ruggedly etched hearts.
“Hearts are the No. 1 symbol of inscription on the Northern Plains,” said Urbaniak, who is studying historic petroglyphs as part of his work toward a doctorate at the University of Montana.
“I don’t know what that says about American culture,” he continued. “But it must say something.”
Historic petroglyphs at Medicine Rocks generally refer to those carved after white settlers arrived in the 1870s and 1880s. But native peoples have used the rocks as a slate for thousands of years – possibly dating back 11,000 years.
Sara Scott, manager of the Heritage Resources Program for Montana State Parks, said Medicine Rocks was a place of special significance to Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Crow people, who sometimes include the rocks in their stories.
Like everything carved in sandstone, petroglyphs old and new have a relatively short life span. Scott, who lives in Missoula, said she first became concerned about recording the carvings when she was alerted by Cathy Stewart, former manager of the remote state park.
“She said ‘You really have to do something,’ ” Scott recalled.
Montana State Parks looked at contracting the project out, but cost estimates came in at $30,000 to $40,000, she said.
“We just don’t have that kind of money.”
A more economical alternative had to be found, and MSUB’s College of Technology provided the perfect solution. Montana State Parks got the expertise it needed to record the images, and students at MSUB got a chance at a hands-on learning adventure.
Urbaniak, who has taught drafting at the Billings school for 25 years, specializes in historical anthropology research. With his students, he used the latest technology to create 3-D models of sites like Medicine Rocks.
In mid-June, Urbaniak, Scott and a team of three students and three volunteers camped at the sparsely timbered park for two weeks, completing a project that began last summer.
The team identified more than 200 individual land forms within the park and marked them with GPS coordinates.
They also have taken between 5,000 and 10,000 individual photos with a high-resolution digital camera.
When it’s all put into a database at Montana State Parks, Internet users will be able to view Medicine Rocks inscriptions close up and from any angle.