This article is reprinted from the Enterprise’s annual history magazine, “Journey Into Malheur County’s Rich History.” Copies of Journey are available for free at the Enterprise office and at local businesses in the area.
Traditionally, the phrase “written in stone,” implies something permanent, unchangeable. In the case of sandstone, however, weather, water, wind and time can wear away marks left behind – sometimes during the lifetime of the person who carved them.
There are a few such monuments in the Vale area on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management – places where individuals, groups, lovers and families left a semi-permanent record of the history and people of Malheur County.
“It’s really nice to have a written historical record that celebrates our participation on the landscape,” said Michael Wanzenried, an archaeologist with the BLM’s Vale District Office. “In some cases, there are three or four generations of the same family” whose names are carved into the rock, he said, “which is another kind of history.”
He said a member of the Malheur Country Historical Society told him many of the names were of families that had lived in the Vale area for generations.
Wanzenried believes these carvings could start conversations in families – talking about what was happening in their life at the time they left their mark on the rock, why they chose to do it, and how they discovered the location. Did they plan ahead and bring a chisel, did they grab a nearby rock, use a pocketknife, or did they run back to their vehicle to get a screwdriver out of the toolbox? Wanzenried said he has seen evidence of parties at the location of the largest stone, so the spot is sometimes used as a “party location.”
Wanzenried said he was introduced to the carvings by Vale resident Bob Butler, whose property is near a sandstone formation with carved names and dates. Those dates go back to the 1901 or 1902, Butler said. Butler said he purchased the property from his father, who was aware of the carvings.
“He took several of my children out there before I saw them,” Butler said. He added that when he showed the carvings to Wanzenried, “I was surprised how much it had deteriorated since I had seen it before. I keep people away from it, because I don’t want it to deteriorate further.”
As president of the Malheur Country Historical Society, Butler is eager to preserve the carvings. One way of doing that was to show them to Wanzenried, who has photographed and documented them. Another way is to invite Wanzenried to speak at a Historical Society meeting, and record the meeting, so the information is maintained in a historical record.
The carvings, he noted, won’t be around forever.
Humans carving things in rock is an activity dating back 2.6 million years, to the Stone Age. According to history.com, that’s when researchers found the earliest evidence of humans using stone tools. It wasn’t until the Iron Age in about 1200 B.C. that metal became strong enough to leave impressions in stone. The convenience of this method of carving led to stone use in art and architecture, and Wanzenried said it’s likely some of the sandstone found near Vale was used in constructing homes and buildings in the area.
The carvers probably don’t realize it at the time, but “they’re actually creating history. Something for others to consider,” Wanzenried said.
“There’s a poetry in the impermanence” of the local markings, Wanzenried said, but there is also frustration, because many of the names have been obscured by people shooting at the rock.
“People don’t shoot basalt as much as they shoot sandstone,” he noted, lamenting the loss of these bits of carved history.
“Rock art is cool. These things are important,” he said.
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