Castle Gardens

By AHW Staff

August 16, 2017

The Castle Gardens Petroglyph Site is located in central Wyoming approximately 45 miles east of Riverton. The name of the area comes from the outcropping of sandstone that the wind has eroded into fanciful shapes resembling the turrets and towers of castles. This unusual formation has been luring visitors for thousands of years, and many of them left their mark in the soft sandstone – the area holds a treasure of Native American rock art, or petroglyphs.

The most famous petroglyphs were done in the Castle Gardens Shield Style, the oldest recognizable example of the shield-bearing warrior figure type. It is described as “elaborate and carefully made figures,” and it “combines several different manufacturing techniques that serve to distinguish the type as unique in the Bighorn and Wind River Basins. The style is also unique in that it depicts shields alone as well as shield-bearing warriors” (Francis & Loendorf 2002:136).

Shields petroglyphs at Castle Gardens

Shields petroglyphs at Castle Gardens

First, the prehistoric artist prepared the rock surface by scraping the surface smooth removing the less-consolidated exterior sandstone surface to expose the harder inner layer for incising and painting. Next, the artist deeply incised the pattern of a circular shield or shield-bearing warrior. Incised images could have been made with a variety of stone, bone, antler or metal tools depending on the hardness of the rock surface. Also, abrading or smoothing the rock surface was likely done with a stone block or flattened cobble. Often, the shield is divided into quadrants or pie-shaped sections by incising geometric or animal forms. Once figures/shapes were incised, the artist filled in the figures with several layers of paint. Colors included two shades of red (one more purple than the other), two shades of orange (one more yellow than the other), black, white and green. Polychrome painting and the use of green pigment are very rare in Wyoming and serve as distinguishing characteristics for the Castle Gardens shield style. The Great Turtle figure (housed at the Wyoming State Museum) exemplifies many of the hallmarks of this style.

The Alliance for Historic Wyoming hosted a tour of the Castle Gardens site in 2014

The Alliance for Historic Wyoming hosted a tour of the Castle Gardens site in 2014

Careful management of Castle Gardens is essential to protect the site from vandalism and deterioration. The site was opened to the public and developed by the BLM in the 1960s as a recreational spot and promoted through the Wyoming State Highway Map, tourist brochures, and directional signs. It was believed that this would help protect the rock art images, which even at that time were being stolen and vandalized. Unfortunately, this accelerated the destruction. Also, foot traffic in front of the fenced off panels increased and created erosion that exposed previously buried cultural deposits. Vandalism has been a problem at the site for scores of years. Modern graffiti mars the sandstone, and in 1940, vandals chiseled the Great Turtle shield out of the rock. The shield was anonymously donated to the State Museum on September 29, 1941, where it’s been ever since.

BLM sign points to the location of Castle Gardens

BLM sign points to the location of Castle Gardens

Recently the Lander BLM has completed a rock art condition evaluation and stabilization project in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the condition of rock art sites, experiment with stabilization methods, and developing a rock art management manual for Federal agency managers. Currently the BLM is in the process of improving the protection of the archaeological site from vandalism as well as enhancing the visitor experience.

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