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Sara Scott & Melissa Kwasny: Ancient Handprints On Limestone

Milkweed Editions

Archaeologist Sara Scott is fascinated by the petroglyphs of the West:

"The crunch of limestone under my boots echoes up the canyon as I walk through its narrow passage in the Big Belt Mountains near Helena. Cold air emanates from the steep cliffs, carrying with it a deep sense of time and place. Here in the canyon, native people painted images with their hands, fingers and animal hair brushes. Created from iron oxide and mined locally with antler tines, the red pigment was mixed with blood, urine, berry juice, water or animal fat to make liquid paint.

Elongated human figures with upraised arms grace the canyon walls. Images of snakes meander in and out of cracks along the rock wall, perhaps a metaphor for the veil between us and another world.  An array of concentric circles, mazes, handprints, and dots covers the cliff face in the canyon. The clarity of the paintings fluctuates with the sun’s angle causing some archaeologists to suggest the images were intended to shape- shift with the changing light.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, these paintings reflected the spiritual relationship of indigenous people with the natural world.  Archeological research, tribal memory, and ethnographies of historic Indian groups provide a cultural context for interpreting the figures.  Human images with elongated legs and arms seem to represent people in “altered” states of consciousness, as in vision questing or in the ceremonies of a shaman. Hand prints may reflect territorial boundaries or participation in a puberty rite or a prayer ceremony. Whatever their specific meaning, these striking images found throughout the Rocky Mountains, recount the stories, deeds, and spiritual transformation of Montana’s first people."

In "Pictograph," her volume of prose poems, Melissa Kwasny writes about the ancient paintings in Hellgate Canyon, near Helena, Montana:

“Hellgate Canyon”

"Not a place to ‘house’ the dead but a place for them to appear. Red ochre,
made of rock, bound with the living: egg, fat, urine. In other words: wave
the paint stick near the surface. Feather the incense in. What would spirit
be inside the earth if we could see it? Foothold, finger-hold, grasping onto
the bare shelves, its steps trailing down to the ancient rivers. Foxglove,
how the spirit hides. Its carapace, the cliff. Does it resemble the human
body, loosely woven, like cheesecloth? Or is it dense, dark grit on a
ledge? I wonder if they were scared, if they were children, men or women.
Chained in lines that seem knotted even as they stretch out. Note the
extensive scratches on what could only be a torso. The wind, the trees cry
after them with open mouths. The saddest piece of music ever written."

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 5/13/15. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)

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