The central Kansas petroglyph that took Rex Buchanan's breath away was a large depiction of the bison.

"When I first saw that location, it almost brought me to my knees," he said. "It was so striking."

 

For Josh Svaty, the shocker was what remained of a Native American carving that featured a majestic wing and a carefully cross-hatched portion of body. Half the image had flaked or crumbled away, leaving to the imagination what was once an image worthy of etching on rock canvass. He was struck by skills required of the native inhabitant who chose to work with some of the region's hardest Dakota sandstone.

"Who did this?" he said. "There are some sites that are incredibly soft. You can scrape it almost with your fingernail. This site, the stone is very, very hard."

Buchanan, Svaty and Burke Griggs collaborated to produce "Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills," a 224-page book recently published by University Press of Kansas. Svaty and Buchanan discussed their project for the podcast Capitol Insider, a project of The Topeka Capital-Journal.

Griggs, a law professor at Washburn University, shot most of the photographs. Buchanan wrote much of the text. Svaty helped with the writing and was an essential go-between with landowners.

Buchanan, a semi-retired geologist with the Kansas Geological Survey who grew up in Rice County, said the book wasn't intended to be an exhaustive representation of rock carvings dotting rugged terrain of Kansas. Nor, he said, was it intended to be a guide book for people interested in taking their own journey to see carvings of people, animals and geometric shapes likely fashioned with knives, antlers, rocks or sticks.

"The idea was to document and raise awareness of features out in central Kansas that Josh and I certainly grew up with, were familiar with, but are not well known to people in the rest of the state," Buchanan said. "We ought to know the people who were here before the Europeans came into Kansas."

Most of the carvings are located near a source of water on private property, which explains why these time capsules left in orange and red sandstone can be expected to eventually dissolve and why the general public has little grasp of what was left behind long ago in what became Ellsworth, Rice and Russell counties.

The finite and fragile cultural resource is under threat from erosion and vandalism, Svaty said.

"Most of these are on privately held land and understandably farmers and ranchers that own the properties where these exist don't want a lot of people tramping in and out," he said.

Locals have an awareness of carvings in sandstone cliffs or caves, but less appreciation for the scope of the Native American output. The rock faces that include Native American carvings also feature names, dates and other personal information of people who came to those sites during the past 150 years or so. Much of those modern carvings might be considered graffiti.

Svaty, a Lincoln County farmer and former state legislator, said the book outlined theories and ideas about what was being transmitted through a portion of Native American carvings, such as a depiction of a horse, because that type of image could be interpreted in a straightforward manner.

Determining the identity of human figures, both Native American and Euro-Americans, or assigning definitive meanings to these images carries risk, he said. For example, he said, there is no method of discerning intent of the person who carved into rock the date 1840, an abbreviation of Kentucky and the word "ingin."

Buchanan said there was no precise way to date many of the Native American petroglyphs, which made it more difficult to speak scientifically about the carvings. It is thought Pawnee or Wichita tribes had a hand in these carvings, but other tribes could have participated, he said.

"This is an example of a project when I knew less at the end than I did at the beginning," Buchanan said.