Shield Cave is a large limestone cavern in Eagle County that contains painted rock art dating to the Historic period and deposits of the iron mineral pigment material used to make ochre-color paint. This site is one of hundreds of caverns that have developed in the Mississippian Period Leadville Limestone geological formation in Colorado, but one of only a few such caves that exhibit evidence of human activity predating the Colorado Gold Rush. Painted rock art panels, called pictographs, in the forms represented at Shield Cave have been interpreted as belonging to the Early Historic Ute Indian style dating to 1600–1830 CE.
Few artifacts have been documented at the Shield Cave site other than modified chunks of mineralized pigment stone. Most of these materials are brick red in color, the tint resulting from the presence of hematite in the rock. This iron mineral also discolors the soil in patches outside the mouth of the cave, and in high enough concentrations could also be used to manufacture paints. A minor amount of pigment stone in Shield Cave is yellow, as are a few of the rock art motifs painted on the cave walls. Other motifs are painted partly or entirely in shades of gray to black using charcoal, presumably salvaged from campfire debris. Archaeologists have conducted only minor test excavations here in a single project in 1985, which was focused on repairing damage from earlier illicit digging. No buried artifacts were found in the test.
The numerous pictographs at Shield Cave are scattered along the cave’s interior walls and on the most easily accessed outer wall near its mouth. Part of the cave opening has been closed off by the gradual accumulation of rock and soil washing down the adjacent slope. Most of the painted images are small in scale and painted red, consisting of human forms, animals, objects, and tally-like lines. Some of the human figures are shown on horseback while others are overlaid by painted circles and are called shield figures. All the human forms (called “anthropomorphs” by specialists) and the animal figures (“zoomorphs”) are simple illustrations with little detail added. Rock art expert Sally Cole has identified such unadorned figures as characteristic of the Early Historic Ute style, which developed into more detailed scenes in the subsequent Late Historic Ute style represented in scores of panels elsewhere in western Colorado.
More Than Paint
Beyond creating pictographs, hematite was used in ceremonial contexts and for myriad painting needs such as body adornment, decorative drawings, or all-over coatings on artifacts of virtually any material. The history of its use spans the entire human history of North America, including in Colorado, where a Paleo-Indian site in Larimer County contained human skeletal remains coated with red ochre. With its vivid color, many cultures viewed it as the blood of the earth, and the places where it occurred in abundance were treated with reverence. While hematite-colored rocks and soil are commonplace in widely scattered locations throughout the west, large sources like Shield Cave are rare.
In addition, many peoples believed caves were portals connecting the natural and spirit worlds, which may help explain the prevalence of rock art in caves the world over. Throughout their homeland, the Ute people consider both caves and hematite sources as sacred places, so Shield Cave holds a very special place in their history.
Unfortunately, caves are also targeted by both vandals and unscrupulous antiquities dealers. Efforts to curb such illegal activities are an ongoing challenge for everyone concerned with the preservation of these unique cultural resources. Remote places such as Shield Cave are especially vulnerable to unmonitored visitation. Some of the conservation options pursued at these sensitive sites include public education via interpretive signs and classes, site stewardship programs that schedule visits by trained volunteers, limited access to and publicity about site locations, and vigorous enforcement of laws protecting sites against vandalism and unauthorized digging.