Current topics in archaeology, cultural heritage & historic preservation

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Petroglyph Canyon Historic Photos

Large wall of rock art at Petroglyph Canyon (Willis Vail Photo, 1905. © Old Oregon Photos.) 

For thousands of years native people carved and painted spiritually important images on the basalt cliff faces of what came to be known as Petroglyph Canyon. The canyon is located in south central Washington state near Columbia Hills State Park (see image below).

View of Petroglyph Canyon location. Columbia Hills State Park is at the red "You Are Here" dot (image courtesy of Washington State Parks)

Petroglyph Canyon was reported to have one of the largest concentrations of Indian rock art in North America before it was largely submerged in the pool behind The Dalles Dam (photo below) in 1957. Today much of the rock art, and the canyon itself, lie hidden beneath the waters of Horsethief Lake and the Columbia River at Columbia Hills State Park near Dallesport, WA.

We recently came across a website ( that displays (and sells) historic photographs.  John Klatt, who owns the Old Oregon website, has graciously allowed CultureWatch NW to reproduce some very old photos of Columbia Gorge rock art. (All historic photos in this post are © Old Oregon Photos).

As the giant hydroelectric generation dams were built on the Columbia River beginning in the 1930's many Native American cultural areas, including rock art sites, were flooded by the large lakes that formed behind them. Photographers, professional and amateur, scrambled to record the ancient images before they disappeared. 

By the way, if you have old photos of rock art from the Columbia Gorge and are willing to share them we would love to hear from you! Just send an email to

A number of petroglyphs and pictographs were actually "salvaged" by being physically removed from areas about to be submerged. Some of these rescued boulders, including a number of those shown in the old Benjamin Markham photos in this article, can be seen today along the Temani Peshwa Trail (photo below) at Columbia Hills State Park and at the Ginkgo Petrified Forest Recreation Area near Vantage, WA.

So let's take a look at the old photos! When available we've included both a historic picture (black and white) and a modern photo (color) so you can see how the rock art has changed in the last 75-100 years.

The photo on the left below was taken by Benjamin Markham in the 1920's. It shows the panel of petroglyphs in situ, still part of the cliff wall at Petroglyph Canyon. The same panel is visible at center left in the Willis Vail photo above. On the right below is the salvaged panel, now located on the Temani Peshwa Trail.


You will notice that the contrast between the petroglyphs and the background rock is much greater in the old photos. Historically it was a common practice to color or outline rock art with white chalk to make the images show up clearly in photos. This practice is now regarded as vandalism because it may take decades for the chalk to disappear.

Images in situ at Petroglyph Canyon. 
Markham Photo.

Salvaged boulder as it sits today on the Temni Peshwa Trail.

       Images in situ at Petroglyph Canyon (at left above, Markham Photo circa 1920's) and as they looks today on the Temani Peshwa Trail at Columbia Hills State Park.

The photo on the left (attributed to Markham but unsigned) was taken near Wishram, WA. A modern photo shows the beautiful color of the images which are a combination of petroglyphs and pictographs (painted on the rock surface).

The two photos below were also taken by Markham 
in the 1920's. Unfortunately we don't have any modern 
photos to compare them with. The image on the left was taken 
in Petroglyph Canyon and is now assumed to be 
submerged. The other was taken at a rock art site in 
Sherman County, Oregon.

Check out the historic photos at and when the weather warms up (after April 1) head out to Columbia Hills State Park where you can take a self-guided tour of the Tamani Peshwa Trail (whenever the park is open) and also a free guided tour of the other extensive rock art sites at the park (reservation required for the free tour, there is a small fee to enter the park).

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