Pictograph Cave Collection, circa 1937-1941 and 1958

Overview of the Collection

Pictograph Cave Collection
circa 1937-1941 and 1958 (inclusive)
96 drawings
Collection Number
Mss 527 (collection)
This collection includes hand-drawn tracings of 107 pictograph drawings from the Pictograph Cave and hand-drawn versions of 14 index pages used in William Mulloy's 1958 work, A Preliminary Historical Outline for the Northwestern Plains.
University of Montana, Mansfield Library, Archives and Special Collections
Archives and Special Collections
Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library
University of Montana
32 Campus Dr. #9936
Missoula, MT
Telephone: 406-243-2053
Access Restrictions

Researchers must use collection in accordance with the policies of Archives and Special Collections, the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, and The University of Montana--Missoula.

Funding for creating this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Historic Publications and Records Commission. Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Historical NoteReturn to Top

The archaeological significance of the Pictograph Cave (also known as the Inscription Cave) was first discovered in 1937 by Mr. H.S. Barringer of Billings, Montana, Mr. and Mrs. Jim Browne, then of Billings; and Mr. Oscar Lewis, then of Glendive, Montana. The cavern is a large erosional recess in a sandstone escarpment located approximately seven miles southeast of Billings, Montana. It had been known to local inhabitants, both Native American and white, as an interesting location due to the many painted pictographs of Native American origin that covered its walls.

The site was acquired by the Montana Highway Commission and excavated with labor provided by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration and River Basin Surveys. The project was initially placed under the direction of H. Melville Sayre, a geologist from the Montana School of Mines, and his crew chief Oscar Lewis, an amateur collector from Hardin, Montana. Sayre documented 106 pictographs inside the cave. William Mulloy took over the excavations in 1939 following Sayre's death.

World War II brought an end to the WPA archaeological excavation at Pictograph Cave in 1941. By that time more than eight thousand cubic meters of dirt had been dug up and sifted and over thirty thousand artifacts uncovered from the distinct cultural occupation levels. Many of the artifacts, as well as field notes and sketches made during the excavation, are now preserved at the University of Montana in Missoula.

After studying the artifacts, Mulloy suggested that the longest occupation at the site was by ancestors of the Crow Indians, who were in transition from an agricultural economy to a nomadic buffalo-hunting culture. Mulloy later used the findings at Pictograph Cave to develop a chronology of prehistoric northern plains cultures, which, for the most part, has withstood the test of time.

In the post-war years Pictograph Cave suffered. Vandals burned down the museum and defaced the pictographs with graffiti. Litter cluttered the landscape, and vegetation choked the trails. In the early 1960s the Billings Archaeological Society and city boosters started a movement to protect and promote Pictograph Cave as a tourist attraction, and in 1963 Billings mayor Willard Fraser signed an agreement with the state to manage and develop the site. Fraser declared Pictograph Cave a city park and spearheaded an effort to have it designated a National Historic Landmark, which it became in 1964. Fraser also established the Indian Caves Commission to clean up the site and design a development plan for the park, but the city council refused to allocate funds for a park outside the city limits and volunteer efforts could not quell the vandalism. In 1968 the federal government threatened to rescind Pictograph Cave's landmark status due to its continued degradation. The following year the city of Billings surrendered management of the caves to the Parks Division of the Montana Department of Fish and Game, and the site was renamed Pictograph Caves State Historic Site.

The state agency launched a program to improve and protect the park in 1972. Crews built trails, outhouses, and picnic facilities, and they installed interpretive signs, sandblasted away the graffiti that marred the pictographs inside the cave, and took steps to protect the park from further damage. Although the park continued to be a popular local picnic spot, it also began to attract a growing number of tourists. Pictograph Cave became a state park in 1991.

In the years since, growing concern over the loss of pictographs to fading and sloughing has spurred conservation efforts. Studies conducted in the 1990s identified only 44 of the 106 images that archaeologists recorded in the 1930s. Some have been obscured by a patina of mineral deposits. Others have been lost to erosion, vandalism, and earlier attempts to remove graffiti from the cave walls.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

This collection includes hand-drawn tracings of 107 pictograph drawings from the Pictograph Cave and hand-drawn versions of 14 index pages used in William Mulloy's 1958 work, A Preliminary Historical Outline for the Northwestern Plains. Records imply the tracings and drawings were created by William Mulloy, H. Melville Sayre, and Oscar Lewis, but there is no direct evidence on the materials themselves.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

Restrictions on Use

Researchers are responsible for using in accordance with 17 U.S.C. and any other applicable statutes. Copyright not transferred to The University of Montana.

Preferred Citation

[Name of document or photograph number], Pictograph Cave Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana--Missoula.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top


The collection is arranged in a single series.

Acquisition Information

Donor and date of acquisition unknown.

Processing Note

This collection was processed in 2001. Each sheet in the collection was previously encapsulated in mylar at an unknown date. This collection was organized using the numbering system established by Mulloy which categorized the pictographs as human representations, animal representations, bird and turtle representations, and miscellaneous representations. In 2023, 6 drawings were rolled and boxed due to their size. The remaining drawings were foldered.

Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

Container(s) Description Dates
1 1-7: Human representations (drawing 6 is missing) circa 1937-1941
OS 7 8: Human representations circa 1937-1941
1 9-24: Human representations circa 1937-1941
OS 8 25/26: Human representations circa 1937-1941
1 27-38: Human representations (drawing 34 is missing) circa 1937-1941
OS 9 39: Human representations circa 1937-1941
2 40: Animal representations circa 1937-1941
OS 10 41: Human representations circa 1937-1941
2 42-59: Animal representations circa 1937-1941
3 60-66: Bird and turtle representations (drawings 65 & 66 are missing) circa 1937-1941
4 67-97: Miscellaneous representations (drawings 83, 86, & 95 are missing) circa 1937-1941
OS 11 98: Miscellaneous representations circa 1937-1941
OS 12 99: Miscellaneous representations circa 1937-1941
4 100-106: Miscellaneous representations (drawings 83, 86, 95, and 106 are missing) circa 1937-1941
5 42-55: Drawing index pages circa 1937-1941
6 Black and red reduced size copies of pictograph representations circa 1958

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

Subject Terms

  • Caves--Montana
  • Indians of North America--Antiquities
  • Petoglyphs--Montana--Pictograph Cave State Park

Geographical Names

  • Montana--Antiquities
  • Pictograph Cave (Mont.)

Other Creators

  • Personal Names
    • Mulloy, William T. (William Thomas), 1917-