CWI students pitch in to record priceless bits of Idaho's culture

awebb@idahostatesman.comApril 1, 2014 

  • TAKE A TRIP TO CELEBRATION PARK

    Celebration Park opened as an archaeological park in 1989. Many of the boulders there date from 15,000 years ago. The park offers a variety of activities, including hiking nearby trails. The historic Guffey railroad bridge stands at the park entrance. The bridge, built in 1897, was part of the Boise/Nampa/Owyhee Railroad. It carried gold and silver ore from Silver City.

    Visit: Celebration Park is open year-round. The visitor center offers tours April 1 to Oct. 31 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

    Info: Call the park at 455-6022.

    Finding the park

    The address is 6530 Hot Spot Lane, Melba.

    • To get there from Boise: Head west on I-84 and take the Meridian/Kuna exit. Turn left onto South Meridian Road. Continue onto East Avalon. Turn left onto Swan Falls Road. Turn right onto Victory Lane; continue onto Warren Spur Road. Turn left onto Sinker Road. Turn left at Guffey railroad bridge.

    • Directions from Nampa/Caldwell: Head south on Idaho 45/12th Avenue Road. Turn left onto Ferry Road, right onto Hill Road and right onto Sinker Road. Turn left at Guffey Bridge.

Over the years, many people have sketched and photographed the drawings carved into boulders at Celebration Park near Melba.

But one of the big holes in the research has been a lack of images recorded to scientific standards.

The American Rock Art Association sets standards that allow scientists to put Idaho rock art into a context with rock art from anywhere else, said Tom Bicak, the director of Canyon County Parks, Recreation and Waterways.

"We want to be able to compare our drawings to drawings all over the West," said Bicak.

Fifteen to 18 students from the College of Western Idaho spent their spring break helping map and record Celebration Park's petroglyphs. They also helped create an academic relationship between CWI and the park that could last a long time.

As many as 5,000 ancient rock drawings exist in the area, stretching along the Snake River from Celebration Park to Swan Falls Dam, said Bicak.

"We'll have decades of activities for those kids," he said.

Preserving data is key in a world of constant erosion, vandalism and freeze-and- thaw cycles that can eventually turn basalt boulders into dirt.

The petroglyphs range in age from around 5,000 to 200 years, Bicak said. Experts have different perspectives on the drawings' origins, he added, but some certainly were drawn by members of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes who lived in the area.

CWI's students join those from Boise State University. The university has conducted research in the park for many years. Boise State also is partnering with the park to build a new museum/indoor classroom/dorm space scheduled to open soon.

A RARE OPPORTUNITY

"The benefit of a field experience is that these anthropology and geology students are able to take what they've been reading and apply it," said Nikki Gorrell, coordinator for CWI's anthropology program and head of the spring break project.

The petroglyph recording is notable for its scientific value - by the end of the week, students had mapped, drawn and photographed several hundred glyphs. But it also represented a rare opportunity for the students.

"Not a lot of community colleges are able to offer programs like this, and particularly for younger students," Gorrell said. Most field projects are open to juniors and seniors; and while the average age of the community college students on the trip was 30, they came from all grade levels.

"Students got to operate at a level beyond their studies," said Gorrell.

Planning the trip took six months. It involved students from a variety of disciplines, including geology students who assigned GPS coordinates to each boulder to make finding specific petroglyphs easier.

"That's important in a field of hundreds and hundreds of boulders," said Gorrell.

The documentation team included students who fashioned grids that lay over boulders, which helped artists make scale drawings. The team also had a professional photographer and a team of sketch artists, including a couple of art majors.

A HIDDEN TREASURE

Gorrell said that the American West is home to many famous petroglyphs, the best known in the Southwest.

"In the Northwest, Celebration Park is a treasure. There's really nothing else like it, the way drawings continue all the way up the canyon," said Gorrell.

"The park is just enough out of the way that people don't know about it."

The isolation has sometimes made the park vulnerable to vandalism - or to homeowners seeking rocks for home landscaping. The park has boosted on-site security in the past 15 years. It also has grown a strong educational outreach program: Thousands of school kids tour the site each year. They develop, managers hope, an appreciation for the cultural resources there.

Gorrell and her CWI students will decide what to do with their research and how to make it accessible to scholars as well as casual visitors.

"This is just phase one," she said. "There might be an app someday to help you find specific petroglyphs."

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