The Bighorn Basin has hundreds of petroglyphs. Bonnie Smith is investigating whether petroglyphs depicting thunderbirds like this one were created near ancient golden eagle nests. (Bonnie Smith)

Bonnie Smith wondered about a connection the moment she first saw the petroglyphs depicting thunderbirds near the golden eagle nests in the Bighorn Basin.

Smith, the curatorial assistant at the Draper Natural History Museum in Cody, was out with Charles Preston, the founding curator-in-charge at the museum, looking for golden eagle nests for Preston’s research on the birds in 2013. Preston mentioned the nearby rock art to Smith, who has a degree in anthropology from UCLA. As soon as she saw the outline of the birds, she wondered if the person who painstakingly chiseled the image into the sandstone thousands of years ago picked the site because it was near a nesting site then.

When she asked colleagues about the connection or research on it, she learned no one had studied it.

For the past four years Smith has documented nest sites near petroglyphs depicting thunderbirds in the Bighorn Basin. She has found dozens of nests situated near rock art depicting birds and one eagle trap site with nearby petroglyphs. Smith hopes to eventually publish her findings, but because the research is a personal project, data collection is slow.

There are hundreds of rock art sites throughout the Bighorn Basin. Even though many don’t feature thunderbirds, or they aren’t near a nest, each site provides more data. Smith wants to understand why some of them were etched where they are. She thinks it’s tied to the eagles.

“It’s a numbers game,” to find the correlation between the existing nesting sites and the petroglyphs, she said. She wants as many data points as possible, but didn’t say how many she thinks are needed to prove a correlation.

Smith earned a degree in anthropology with a concentration in archaeology and a minor in art history from UCLA. Days after she graduated in 2009, she moved back to Cody, eager to be home. She took a job in the gift shop at the museum in 2010. Eventually she moved from the gift shop to working with Preston and became a curatorial assistant.

Part of her work has been helping Preston document golden eagle nests in the area. Golden eagles mate for life and return to the same nesting spot year-after-year, she said.

Bonnie Smith, in the orange hat, works on golden eagle research with other staff from the Draper Natural History Museum. Smith has a degree in anthropology and took a personal interest in rock art near eagle nests that Draper staff studied. (Bonnie Smith)

What if the birds returned to nesting areas through the generations and the petroglyphs portrayed the ancestors of the birds that now live in the area? she said she wondered.

“It seemed such an obvious question and connection,” she said.

A study in Greenland showed falcons used a nest site for 2,500 years, so it seems possible, she said.

The Bighorn Basin was home or a stopping point for Paleo-Indians dating back thousands of years, Smith said. The petroglyphs are challenging to date because people have cleaned out the dirt in the lines, or outlined the pictures in chalk for better visibility, but some in the area have been estimated to be 10,000 years old, she said.

These images were created when simply surviving was a challenge, Smith said. The artists used harder rocks to carve depictions of birds and warriors into the softer sandstone.

The eagle has been a revered symbol of courage among Native Americans, Smith said. For some people it was synonymous with the thunderbird. Legends vary in different tribes, but the eagle is almost always associated with bravery and warriors, Smith said.

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Smith gives presentations on the petroglyphs near eagle sites at the museum. She talks about the area’s rock art, golden eagle biology and also the importance of preserving historic sites. She eventually wants to publish a scientific paper when she finishes her research and hopes to write a book on the subject.

Smith said she’s always respected golden eagles, but her research has changed how she thinks of the birds.

“Talk about something that strikes an imposing shadow in the sky with its wingspan,” she said. “And then, there is a person sitting there, pecking away at the rock to capture its image. What would it sound like? What kind of experience would that be for that person? That’s what I like to think about.”

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. I visited Legend Rock in September. Just mind-blowing. I don’t recall who told me this, but it’s possible the Legend Rock area is halfway between Yellowstone and Thermopolis, and this may have had some kind of connection with the two of them.

    Hope all is well Kelsey,

    Tom Morton