Petit Jean State Park’s Archeological Treasures

July 1, 2010
Bison Drawing

Bison Drawing

Most visitors to Petit Jean State Park in the Arkansas River Valley remember it as a place of majestic scenery, beautiful trails, and hospitable, friendly people at the park’s visitor center or historic Mather Lodge.  But those interested in the distant past will also remember fascinating geology, as well as rare rock art found in the park’s primary archeological site: the Rock House Cave.  Petit Jean State Park holds a treasure trove of archeological significance.

By 900 AD, Native Americans across the southeast began to settle along main waterways, including the great Mississippi River as well the Arkansas River to the west.  This time

Footprint Drawing

Footprint Drawing

period is known as the Mississippian Era.  A new way of life developed based on the agricultural production of beans and squash, as well as corn imported from long-distance trade with people from the south.  Fortified towns arose, and platform mounds were used for ceremonial purposes.  Societies developed that were highly organized, and there were powerful leaders among provinces.

One such province was called Cayas, and it was located near Petit Jean Mountain.  The Arkansas River, which flows just north of Petit Jean Mountain, was then called the River of Cayas.  The people of the scattered settlement of Tanico, in the province of Cayas just

Head Dress Drawing

Head Dress Drawing

west of Petit Jean Mountain, made beautiful pottery, gathered crops, made excursions to find wild game, and to gather salt – a highly-valued element necessary to the survival of the people.  Salt was also traded for other goods when enough could be gleaned by boiling it from brackish ponds.  It is highly probable that rock art found today in Petit Jean State Park was created by the culture that inhabited Tanico.

During tours to the Rock House Cave, visitors often ask if Indians once lived on the mountain.  The answer is yes, especially in earlier eras dating back to the Paleoindiantime, around 10,000 years ago.  By the time of Mississippian culture, though,

Mississipian Symbol Drawing

Mississipian Symbol Drawing

what we know today as Rock House Cave, above Cedar Creek’s lower canyon, was only inhabited during special rites of passage or sacred ceremonies.  In fact, the Petit Jean Mountain plateau was possibly considered a sacred area – a great temple mound above the River of Cayas.

The meaning of the rock art that remains today is still mysterious in many regards.  Some figures clearly represent animals – zoomorphic.  Others are in the likeness of people – anthropomorphic.  Painted images are called pictographs.  Etched or carved images are called petroglyphs.  Long-lasting paint was probably made by adding ground-up mineral pigments of hematite, magnetite, or possibly charcoal to a sticky substance such as

Paddlefish in Trap Drawing

Paddlefish in Trap Drawing

blood, animal fat or even egg white.

In the Rock House Cave today, interested people may find the likeness of a paddlefish, next to a fish trap made of woven wood, or an often-used symbol which also appeared on Tanico pottery but whose meaning has been lost, or the likeness of a woodland bison, or a symbol of an important person in headdress, or a strange snake-like, or river-like, curved image next to a footprint.  The visitor’s guess may be as good as the local archeologist’s.

Those who come to Petit Jean State Park are invited to see this authentic Native American rock art first hand.  But please treat it with care.  Graffiti and wear-and-tear from heavy park visitation takes its toll.  The Rock House Cave is one of the few places where anyone, with no special permission required, may discover such precious windows to the past on any day of the week, from 8:00 AM until dusk.  Come and see them for yourself.

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones is a park interpreter at Petit Jean State Park and has worked there since 2005.  He holds a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  BT is a member of the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) and holds a Certified Interpretive Guide credential.  He is also a Leave No Trace (LNT) master educator and works as an advocate for Arkansas wilderness as a wilderness ranger.  BT’s pasttimes are nature and wildlife photography, hiking and backpacking, and helping to preserve Arkansas’s wilderness and natural areas.  He most enjoys hiking with park visitors and presenting programs on Petit Jean’s natural and historical features.

Living Underground at Devil’s Den State Park

January 7, 2010
Icicles hang along the many bluffs on the Devil’s Den Trail

Icicles hang along the many bluffs on the Devil’s Den Trail.

The white blanket of snow piled inches deep brings an exquisite stillness to the landscape of Devil’s Den State Park. Icicles linger from the tops of torpid bluffs, slowly dripping their steady eroding force down the sandstone layers. Drip, drip in the sparkle of sunlight. Cedar waxwings dart between underbrush hoping for winterberries. Deer tracks prominently weave down well-worn paths.

It seems that winter reveals a secret beauty only shown to the brave visitor willing to adorn thick socks, gloves, and hat and be invigorated by a deep breath of the crisp, cool air. For these courageous souls, the exposed bluff layers with their leafy camouflage returning to the earth, the panoramic views uniting the valley and ridge with the horizon as far as the eyes can see, the glitter of snow and icicles enhancing every clump of moss and shard of shale, and the tranquility of the trails is theirs alone.

For shelter from the shivers of the cold, all one has to do is venture into Devil’s Den Cave. There the 54 degrees of the cave feels warm and a completely new stillness awaits.

Spencer Foster, Laurel Chafin, and Jay Chafin delight in finding tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) hibernating in Devil’s Den Cave

Spencer Foster, Laurel Chafin, and Jay Chafin delight in finding tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) hibernating in Devil’s Den Cave.

The unique sandstone crevice caves found at Devil’s Den State Park offer an intriguing immersion into the literal center of the layers of geology that support all life in the park. Typically upon entering their immenseness, one senses the stability and security of the rock walls. Not only do these walls lure in thousands of visitors each year, but they also make inviting hibernacula for at least five of the sixteen species of bats known to live in Arkansas, including the tri-color bat, the big brown bat, the Northern long-eared bat, and two endangered species: the Ozark big eared bat and the Indiana bat.

While at rest in hibernation, bats’ body functions slow, their temperature drops, and their immune systems become compromised. However, their long winter naps are essential to their survival, for in the winter, they cannot forage on the millions of pounds of insects they eat nightly during the warm spring through fall nights. Being awoken during this delicate period is devastating to the bats.

This winter however, it is not the excited shrills of thrilled visitors that park staff fear will wake these vital flying mammals, but rather a filamentous fungus known as Geomyces destructans that produces a distinctive ring of growth around the muzzles of bats — a condition known as white nose syndrome. White nose syndrome (WNS) was first noted in a cave near Albany, New York in the winter of 2006. Since that time, WNS has been detected in eight other states and has infected hundreds of thousands of bats within dozens of caves with a 90% mortality rate of infected populations. At this rapid rate of spread, scientists and resource managers fear that the loss of these natural insecticide agents could have one of the most devastating environmental impacts felt ever.

Dozens of tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) use Devil’s Den Cave as a hibernacula in the winter months

Dozens of tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) use Devil’s Den Cave as a hibernacula in the winter months.

Unfortunately, there are still many unknowns about what is spreading the fungus and how it is killing the bats. One theory is that unsuspecting cavers are the carriers of the fungal spores and that the fungal infection acts as an irritant to the bat, causing it to wake and use precious stored fat reserves meant to last all winter. In a precautionary effort to protect these ecologically significant species, caves across the Northeastern United States are being closed to the public. In addition, visitors to caves that are still open are being asked to make sure that their clothing and gear have been decontaminated. Decontamination procedures can be lengthy, including submersing gear and clothing in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water, or simply not wearing any clothing or taking any gear that has been used in cave environments before. (a complete list of procedures)

Snow covers the entrance to one of the many sandstone, fracture caves at Devil’s Den State Park

Snow covers the entrance to one of the many sandstone, fracture caves at Devil’s Den State Park.

As the threat moves closer to our area, our park staff is working with multi-state agencies to develop a plan to protect our fragile bat populations. At this time, Devil’s Den State Park has closed three caves to the public, two of which are known hibernacula of endangered species of bats. We hope that through education of the public about this potential threat, we can prevent the spores from entering our caves without having to close them.

However, our job is not only to educate the public about Arkansas’s amazing resources, but also to protect them for future generations. Please help us to spread the word about the potential threat of white nose syndrome that any visitor could be carrying on a shoe, flashlight, or glove that has been into an infected area. Though the park feels at peace and the stillness serene, there is a silent struggle to protect one of Devil’s Den’s favorite winter residents — the bats!

Rebekah Spurlock, Devil's Den State Park

Rebekah Spurlock, Interpreter, Devil's Den State Park

Rebekah Spurlock is a native Arkansan, originally from the Delta. Since graduating with her Master’s in Geography in 2007 from the University of Memphis, Rebekah has called Devil’s Den State Park home.