Petroglyphs are images carved on a rock face. The word comes from the Greek petra-, meaning stone and glyphe, meaning carving. Petroglyphs are found world-wide. The petroglyphs at Jeffers are part of the Minnesota Historical Society's archaeology collection.
The pink rock face covers an area 50 yards wide and 300 yards long. It is part of a 23-mile ridge that extends across Cottonwood County. Called Red Rock Ridge, it is a series of quartzite outcroppings that intersects the southeastern edge of what French explorers called the "Coteau des Prairies." The Coteau, meaning hill, extends from Rutland N.D., to Jackson, Minn. The Red Rock Ridge is about 250 yards wide and up to 50 feet higher than nearby fields. The rock that is located at Jeffers is called Sioux quartzite. It is part of the quartzite deposit found near the western border of Minnesota at Pipestone National Monument. The quartzite at Jeffers is one of the oldest bedrock formations in Minnesota, deposited as sand more than 1.6 billion years ago. It is a metamorphic rock, meaning it was formed by enormous heat and pressure from deep in the earth. The outcropping was exposed by the wearing action of time. Its color varies from white to red to lavender-brown or reddish purple. All these colors are caused by an iron oxide film surrounding grains of quartz sand.
Geologist Mark Jirsa discusses the Jeffers Petroglyphs.
Around the world, certain landscapes and geological formations have special qualities that make them stand out from their surroundings. Many cultures feel such places have spiritual significance. To American Indians, rock formations emerging from the earth provide a link between the physical and spiritual worlds. Such places are chosen to record visions, events, stories or maps.
Jeffers Petroglyphs is a special place, both for visitors and American Indians. To the contemporary American Indians who reside in and around the state, it is a very spiritual place -- one where Grandmother Earth speaks of the past, present and future. Modern day descendants of those who left these markings continue to believe that this is indeed a place of worship, a prayer place no different than that of church, synagogue or mosque.
The earliest carvings at Jeffers Petroglyphs were created from 7,000 to 9,000 years ago. The most recent were made about 250 years ago. This long time span makes Jeffers one of, if not the, oldest continuously used sacred sites in the world.
The site preserves more than 4,000 American Indian images carved into solid horizontal irregularly-shaped Sioux quartzite outcrops. Among the earliest carvings found here are images of buffalo and atlatls, or throwing sticks. Atlatls and darts were used to hunt buffaloes before the bow and arrow were developed 1,200 years ago. These symbols, along with other images carved on the rock, such as thunderbirds and turtles, remain important in American Indian culture. It is interesting to note that the stones do not record bows and arrows. Also "missing" are glyphs representing horses, indicating that the site was no longer used by the late 1700s, although rock art from later times is prevalent.
The carvings of deer, buffalo, turtles, thunderbirds and humans are more than art of mimicry of the natural environment. They are powerful cultural symbols of the complex communities that inhabit the prairies of southwestern Minnesota and still thrive today.