A history museum in his own backyard

Photo by Eric Harrold/Fall River County Herald-Star

John Koller points out features of petroglyphs or “rock art” left by what likely were some of the first humans to live in Fall River County. The oldest of the carvings is estimated to be up to 9,000 years old.

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By Eric Harrold

EDGEMONT – Consecutive drought years in 2003 and 2004 put a wild idea in John Koller’s head. Cattle production wasn’t happening with the lack of sufficient rain for forage and hay production, so in 2005, he did the last thing that would probably cross a ranch owner’s mind and launched a tour guide business. How or why would he entertain such a notion? It just so happened to be that Koller’s ranch included a well-known archaeological site known as Buffalo Cave, which has drawings called petroglyphs, made by primitive people, which are between 2,000 and 9,000 years old, based on scientific examination. 

Koller’s connection and indeed ownership of the site came through family means. His grandparents homesteaded on adjacent property in 1911 and visited the property of Berland and Amy Lord that contained the sandstone cliff where the petroglyphs were etched in the rock. Koller’s father purchased the property when the Lords’ moved to town following retirement. He never visited the site in the years immediately after the purchase, only passing nearby when he was attempting to round up cattle. It was not until he was well into his adult years around the year 2000 that he took a personal interest in learning about the history of this and other southern Black Hills sites where evidence in the form of “cave art” was left at the base of canyon walls. 

Koller noted that the rock in which petroglyphs are carved is usually sandstone, which unlike igneous or metamorphic rock types provides a good canvas for etching rock art. Those harder rock types had a greater value for making into tools, he said. 

On Thursday, Oct. 27, Koller lead a tour for a small group of keenly interested participants after sharing some geological and historical information about the Black Hills region. On the tour, he pointed out that some petroglyphs are notably older than others as determined by archaeological dating methods, with the oldest being between 8,000 and 9,000 years and the newest dating between 2,500 and 3,000 years old. Koller added that the oldest site in the Black Hills, located west of Custer was dated to 12,000 years, but was largely destroyed during the construction of Highway 16. Koller says these sites were aged through radioactive dating of charcoal left behind in fire pits. In terms of the height of petroglyphs along the base of rock outcroppings they were etched in, Koller says it reflects the influence of erosion and subsequent lowering of the ground level as a result. He also pointed out that rock art of different ages would have different stylistic elements and over time archaeologists have come to recognize the association between different eras the artistic renderings of those who existed in a particular time period. 

Koller says it is unknown as to whether the people who left behind their rock art had written language as no relicts have been found with anything that could be interpreted as words or writing. He says there are some “interesting markings” that could have had meaning to those living in that day that is not apparent as representing letters or words. 

Koller expressed a fascination and curiosity with these early occupants of what is now Fall River County, posing questions about their government, survival techniques, and their social structure. 

As the tour concluded, Koller lead the group past some tipi rings on a cliff top overlooking the box canyon and the adjacent Cheyenne River Valley. He pointed out the gap between the time period of the “early” Americans and that of the modern Native people that first encountered Europeans that moved into the area. Edgemont is fortunate to have a longtime resident like Koller, with his enthusiasm for sharing the museum he has in his own back yard. 

Fall River County Herald Star

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