Petroglyphs have survived the elements, but people have always been their greatest threat. In 1874, a Lakota guide directed George Custer’s Black Hills Expedition to cliffs and boulders featuring ancient drawings. Soldiers promptly defaced the art. “JT, July 11, 1874” is scrawled into one cliff face in the Cave Hills. Locals were no more respectful. “Jack and Madge” visited the same spot in 1938 and professed their love by carving a heart with an arrow through it almost on top of a centuries-old shield.
Much of the Cave Hills rock art is on federal land, where simply carving your initials into them can carry prison time. But housing subdivisions and their curious occupants in the Black Hills are encroaching upon many sites. “People think it’s great to go out and draw these things over with chalk or charcoal, but it actually damages the carvings,” Sundstrom says. “You have to think of these as paintings or pieces of art.”
John Koller grew up surrounded by petroglyphs on his family’s 2,500-acre ranch east of Edgemont. “I was told they were there, but as a kid out here, you work,” Koller says. “So when you pick up a rock and throw it at a cow to get it out of a box canyon, you don’t have time to stop and look at these wonderful finds. I crawled around these petroglyphs all the time, but didn’t pay attention.”
In adulthood he began to appreciate the history in which his ranch along the Cheyenne River is immersed. It features two distinct levels of petroglyphs, one dating back 8,000 years and another 2,500 to 3,000 years. He believes a member of Custer’s expedition, maybe even Custer himself, carved “The Explorer” into a sandstone cliff.
About five years ago drought struck the ranch, and Koller was forced to sell his cattle. He started Rock and Pine Adventures, which included three-hour round trip hours of the petroglyphs to supplement his income. Koller closely guided each tour, especially after visitors in 1998 carved their initials into one of the petroglyphs. “The importance of protecting them became more evident,” Koller says. “I never just turned people loose. I would physically be with them so I could explain their fragility. If you mess with them, they aren’t going to last another thousand years.”
Visitors dwindled during the recession, so he returned to ranching full time. He no longer formally offers tours, but if people are curious he may make an exception. “They’re here to share with the world,” he says. “I’m tickled to show them off if I can find the time.”