Pictograph State Park and Tim Urbaniak

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I’ve been here before, but not with this instantly likeable man. I’ve squinted at these pictographs painted onto sandstone walls, but not understood the significance of the site. I’ve unsuccessfully tried to visually fill in the lines of the faded shields, tepees, arrows, animals and human figures to better be able to see the artwork in front of me. But, now I have Tim Urbaniak with me who uses cutting edge technology and old-fashioned detective work to tease out the story that is fading away on the rock wall.

I met Urbaniak at Pictograph State Park, six miles south of Billings and a world away. As we drove in from the gate, deer bounded across the road and rabbits ducked beneath juniper. We pulled into the small parking lot— Urbaniak donutting into his spot—and stepped out of our trucks to gaze uphill at the wide opening of Pictograph Cave.

Behind us the South Hills undulated into the distance, golds and yellows gleaming in the morning sun. To our left, two other caves—Middle and Ghost—lay in shadow, pictograph-less and therefore less famous than the cave we came to see. A spring at the head of the coulee turned into a small creek as it gurgled and murmured downhill.

Standing there, images flashed in front of me like a time-lapse film: Ancestors of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne gathered beneath the cave ceiling to wait out a snowstorm forty-five hundred years ago. The cave provided refuge as they repaired tools and atlatls, and cooked and dried meat.

Flashing forward thirteen hundred years, a prehistoric hunter clasped a barkless branch—the end frayed and dipped in charcoal. He reached head height and painted a black turtle, a symbol of spiritual significance that is lost today. Unknowingly, he created what will become the oldest known rock art in Montana.

Morphing forward in time again, another man stood in the lucna, painting (in red ochre) a shield-bearing warrior, which perhaps conveyed the strength of the rock to the shield of its artist. He was among a group of people who use the cave as a temporary residence. His people carried body-sized shields to protect themselves from piercing arrows and found safety in the cave where they had a good view of the surrounding hills.

With the arrival of modern tribes into the area the cave was left vacant. “The cliff that has no pass” is but one name the Crow gave what is now called Pictograph Cave. With the acquisition of guns and horses among the local people, the cave no longer represented safety, but rather a place where one is easily trapped and gunned down.

One scene blurred into another in my mind, the Crow replaced by archaeologists sorting through pottery shards, pieces of jewelry and ornaments discarded on the cave floor over thousands of years. Meticulously they removed and cataloged over 30,000 artifacts in the 1930s and 40s.

Jolting back to reality, I glanced at Urbaniak, and the story of the cave continued to unravel. As drafting and design instructor at MSU Billings College of Technology and Director of MSU Billings Archaeological Field Team, Urbaniak, “supports archaeological and historical research through applications of technology.” In other words, he is a techno-resource for archaeologists.

Here at Pictograph Cave, Urbaniak and his students have provided the technology to aid in the unraveling of a story being lost to the elements and time. While archaeologists in the 30s and 40s documented thousands of artifacts and drew many of the figures from the back wall of the cave, the drawings didn’t show any relative scale or the relationship of one figure to another.

Some of the early archaeologists’ writings about the cave mention a master drawing, but it was either lost or never made. But now, Urbaniak and his students have created just such a poster for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. By taking panoramic digital photos of the cave and overlaying the original drawings—plus others that Urbaniak has discovered—they have recreated about two-thirds of the original art panel.

He’s made the interpretation (of the site) that much better for Park visitors,” said Terri Walters, Parks Manager for Pictograph, Lake Elmo and Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Parks. “He was able to bring back what the Park once looked like.”

Urbaniak and I glanced from the poster to the cave wall beyond. What looked to me like red and black smudges, began to take form as I used the poster as a key. A charcoal blotch was revealed as a bison and an ochre stain became a person with a bow and arrow. Urbaniak’s work altered my perception of what is right in front of me and I could tell he was just as excited. “I first became interested in this project,” he laughed, “then I became obsessed.”

His obsession led him not just to the archaeological reports from the 30s, but also to county museums, Forest Service archives and university annals. “Just when the project would start to languish, someone would bring me another picture,” Urbaniak recalled, his grey eyes actually twinkling below his baseball cap.

Pictographs and ancient cultures wasn’t what originally drew Urbaniak to Pictograph Cave. As a teenager in Forsyth, he would visit the cave with his friends to rappel off the cliff above, not suspecting that years later he would be here for a different reason.

“Montana is an unbelievable playground for exploring,” said Urbaniak. So, he took his love for running around outdoors—hiking and rock climbing—and turned it into a career. “If you can do something productive with that exploration, maybe it means something more,” he mused, “And a bad day in the field is better than a good day in the office.”

“He seems to get so much joy out of life,” Walters said, smiling, “he knows and loves Montana so much.” When he is out the field, whether working or playing, Urbaniak takes photographs of the places he loves. Then, each week he emails images of his high plains roaming to computers around the world in his Monday Montana Wallpaper.

It was one thing to notice the work of those who came before him etched onto the walls he was hiking past or over, but another thing to start to understand them and their place in Montana and western history; that’s where the research came in.

“Why would I want to study someone else’s culture?” asked Urbaniak. To him, it is about all of us, as a people, sharing a common heritage. “Thousands of miles away, my ancestors were doing something, too. It was different, but it’s the same.”

“This cave is doomed to extinction,” he said wistfully, but because of Urbaniak’s work what was once here has been reconstructed and recorded for future generations of travelers, explorers and those with a keen sense of curiosity.

While teenage-Urbaniak was dropping over the edge of the cave on a rope, other kids were holding keggers in the cave and spray-painting graffiti on the walls. Later the highway department came through and sandblasted the panel in order to clean it up. Between thoughtless partiers, well-intentioned cleaners and years of moisture seeping through the porous rock, the pictographs took quite a beating.

Whether it’s nature or people altering the rock, Urbaniak documents everything.
Lifting a digital camera from around his neck, he snapped a photo of a crack in the sandstone to monitor its growth. “You always see something different when you come out here. The light changes what you see and the water in the rock changes what you see,” Urbaniak said.

The transforming artwork, while important, is only part of the story at Pictograph Cave State Park. “It’s not just the pictographs,” noted Urbaniak, “It’s the artifacts and the people and I think there is a lot more history to represent here.”

Urbaniak believes that, “We can get to the point where we could digitally reassemble the whole site,” including long-disappeared lodge structures on the valley floor, the artifacts left behind and the natural features, as well as the caves.

Using some of the technology needed to reassemble the site, Urbaniak’s students created a three dimensional rendition of the cave. With a handheld unit, the students scanned the surface of the rock where they thought there was an inscription. The scanner sent the information—including indentations too subtle to be seen with the naked eye—back to the computer, creating a detailed model.

The projects at Pictograph State Park push students’ skills. “If they can do this, they can lay out a subdivision,” Urbaniak said with a smile. The survey instruments used to model the cave walls are the same instruments used by the mining industry to understand a mine’s interior. In fact, Urbaniak first used his skills in industrial construction before applying them to archaeological mysteries.
In 2004 Urbaniak received the Governor’s Award for his work at Pictograph Cave State Park. In addition to recreating the art panel and digitally imaging the cave wall, Urbaniak designed the Park’s website and his students drafted a visitor center the Park hopes to one day build. His many projects at the Park have “been a good thing for his students and a really good thing for us,” noted Walters.

Though there are many applications for the technology used at the cave, I was most immediately interested in the story of this place. Urbaniak and I started to head back down the asphalt path to the parking lot when I asked him what he thought about the people who have used—and left their mark—on the walls of the cave.

“It’s a universal thing—people wanting to touch something and say, ‘I was here!’”, he said. But, Urbaniak leaves it up to the anthropologists to interpret the story behind the rock art. His job is to recreate what was once here, not to explain what it means.

The meaning behind the story at Pictograph Cave will never be known for certain. The physicality of the cave is changing, just as the cultures who used the cave—from prehistoric hunters to archeologists to high school partiers to university researchers—has changed. But thanks to Urbaniak’s work people will continue to gaze into the cave, imaging its past and creating their own stories.

This story originally appeared in Big Sky Journal.

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