Among ancient shrines Donald Blakeslee has found, several limestone boulders in Tami and Greg Norwood’s backyard stand out.
Sculptors from the Wichita Nation carved the images hundreds of years ago. There are small holes with basins just below them, and from the basins, curved miniature channels, some shaped like stairsteps moving down the sloping face of the stone.
Nobody made much of this rock art, not even previous archaeologists who’d looked at it.
But two years ago, Blakeslee, an anthropologist, stood under the shade of the Norwood’s trees, and felt a little flash of recognition.
“It has to do with souls.”
So he picked up his water bottle, and poured.
The water pooled, in basins under the holes. The water filled the little basins, then trickled down the carved channels, which curved around and then came together, or spread out.
He’d discovered an interactive sacred shrine, still functional after four centuries.
“It is in their religion that everything is in three layers — the sky, this world, and the underground — and that water moves between these worlds,” he said.
The shrine was rooted deeply in religious beliefs of the Wichita Nation. Moving water was sacred. Believers also thought they could look into a pool on a moonlit night and talk with spirits and souls in reflections they saw.
Blakeslee keeps finding more images, and thinks it’ll be possible to record more about the lost mythology of the Wichita.
Many stones beside springs were sacred. A few feet from the water shrine sits another boulder, with dozens of small, smooth depressions carved into stone. Women hundreds of years ago carved the little holes, filled them with water, then drank that water while saying a prayer for successful pregnancies.
Springs and water pools, especially those coming out of caves, were sacred portals, he said. And that’s where the Norwood’s boulders come in.
The pastures of Rice County and the bluffs and ravines around Arkansas City and Etzanoa are nourished by burbling springs that likely became drinking supplies and sacred shrines.
This has fascinated Gary McAdams, who has held leadership positions with the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, headquartered in Anadarko, Okla.
Among the ancient Wichita, he said, “Water is transformational — you go into a stream or a spring, and come out transformed. When babies are born, they baptized them with water. They would pray to the spirit in the water, or in the moon.
“And when they were about to do something important, a battle or some other big undertaking, they would go to a nearby stream and bathe, a preparatory thing they would do with prayers.
“They would do that also when someone passes away, the family would make sure to bathe, to get rid of a bad feeling — a cleansing action, to bathe, and do it with prayers.
“Things have changed now.”