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Imagine you’re the curator of a huge museum, full of so many precious works that most of them haven’t even been catalogued. Yet even as you’re racing to document and interpret them, vandals are destroying some of them with graffiti and thieves are carting others away. The ones that remain are slowly fading before your eyes—and there’s not a thing you can do to preserve them.
That, in a nutshell, is the conundrum facing the archaeologists who specialize in “rock art”—images left behind by native peoples around the world on cliffs, boulders and other outdoor stone surfaces. There are two types of rock art, and they are both found across Canada. Pictographs are paintings, while petroglyphs are carvings.
Most Canadian pictographs were created using red ochre, a pigment made from an iron ore called hematite, which was then mixed with clay minerals. Petroglyphs were chipped, scraped or picked out of the rock using a variety of tools, such as stone implements, sharpened bones or, later, metal tools. Specifically, artists removed the mineral coating, or patina, that forms when elements in rocks react with water, air or organic residue. This patina is darker than the core of the rock below it, so when it is removed, a lighter-coloured outline is created.
Symbols in rock art range from elements of the natural world, such as birds and fish, to manufactured objects such as arrows. Celestial bodies—the sun, moon and stars—often play a large role. Many works include human images. And rock art created after Europeans arrived in North America sometimes features ships, altars and other things the new arrivals brought with them.
In a few cases, archaeologists and First Nations groups working together have developed plausible theories about the meaning of certain works. In Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site in Nova Scotia, for instance, a well-studied petroglyph appears to be part of the Mi’kmaq legend of two girls who dreamed of marrying stars. When they woke up, they found themselves in the sky with star husbands, and needed the help of a crane to return to earth.
In other instances, it seems fairly likely that rock art was created to foster good luck, such as paintings of many fish on rocks near the mouth of a river where fish came to spawn.
But the meanings of most pieces of rock art are shrouded in mystery. Tim Jones, the executive director of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, says researchers can make educated guesses, based on what is already known about the geography of a particular site and the people who lived there. “All of those things give more context to an interpretation,” he explains. “Context is what it’s all about, really.”
That said, Jones emphasizes that most “definitive” interpretations of the meaning of a particular petroglyph or pictograph should be treated with scepticism. “Interpreting rock art is easy—but whether you’re right is another story,” he says with a chuckle. “We just do the best we can…and try to get corroborative information from other sources.” In many cases, that corroborative information comes from First Nations elders and oral historians.
If the same interpretation of a work comes up several times in slightly different variations, that’s a good lead, says Grant Keddie, curator of archaeology with the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. “If you have a long, drawn-out story and there are three or four versions of it, chances are higher that it’s a true story,” he explains.
Some B.C. rock art sites seem to be related to spirit quests, says Keddie. In a spirit quest, a native person would retreat to the wilderness in a solitary journey to determine the identity of his or her guardian spirit. In some native cultures, people engaged in spirit quests were expected to record the experience in art—particularly if they were the religious leaders known as shamans. “Shamans often would have what were considered more powerful guardian spirits,” says Keddie. Shamans’ paintings and carvings often featured images of the sun, moon and stars, as these were the most powerful spirit guardians a person could have.
This association with spirit quests and vision trances may be one reason why so much of Canada’s rock art is found on visually stunning sites near water, such as cliffs and boulders—artists were seeking a landscape that mirrored the intensity of their experience. “I picture somebody in a canoe, maybe in a vision trance,” says Ian N.M. Wainwright. He is a scientist and recently retired manager of the Analytical Research Laboratory at the Canadian Conservation Institute, a federal government agency that preserves and restores elements of Canada’s cultural heritage. Other pieces of rock art seem to have been painted overlooking waterways as an effective way for different native groups to delineate their territories.
Aboriginal artists’ affinity for dramatic sites can make archaeologists’ jobs tricky, Wainwright says. He recalls arduous efforts to take pictures of waterfront rock art. “We tried to set up the photographic equipment from the water, but it was never stable enough. Then we hit on the idea of doing it in the winter, on the ice. That works, but it’s a lot colder!”
One wonders how the original artists were able to paint while standing in a canoe, but some of the sites present even greater mysteries. “Some of them are quite high up and sometimes you wonder how they got up there,” says Wainwright. Without modern scaffolds and cranes, getting access to some sites would indeed be difficult.
The vast majority of Canada’s petroglyphs are found on vertical surfaces, such as cliff faces and cave walls, to make it more easily visible. But the more than 800 petroglyphs at Petroglyphs Provincial Park near Peterborough, Ont., were created on horizontal stretches of marble. The Peterborough images were likely made on this surface for several reasons, says Lisa Roach, the park’s assistant superintendent. First, the soft marble at the site was relatively easy to carve. Second, the site slopes to the southeast, meaning that it is bathed with light at sunrise. Finally, an intermittent underground stream can sometimes be heard through small holes in the rock, which may have led native people in the area to consider the site as a good place to communicate with the spirit world, Roach explains.
That spiritual association may explain why all of the hundreds of images seem to have shamanic links. Unlike many rock art sites elsewhere in Canada, none of the images in Peterborough depict everyday activities such as hunting, says Roach. As a result, members of the nearby Curve Lake First Nation—who are the petroglyphs’ recognized custodians—consider the site particularly sacred and occasionally hold ceremonies there.
Besides the unusual concentration of shamanic images, the Peterborough site is notable for another reason: most of the petroglyphs have been protected from the elements by a large glass enclosure, which opened in 1985. Constructing enclosures over pictographs and petroglyphs is one of the very few ways experts have found to preserve the fragile artworks. They are prey to a variety of menaces, including erosion and frost-induced cracking. “It’s a slow deterioration process that doesn’t have really ready answers,” says Jones.
Vandalism is such a prevalent problem that people who study rock art rarely publicize the exact location of the sites. Even in parks designed to educate the public about rock art, copies of the art are often displayed so that visitors can make rubbings of them or study them up close in other ways without disturbing the original artwork.
Keddie tells of one park, Petroglyph Provincial Park in Nanaimo, B.C., where the original petroglyphs were subject to vandalism until the park put reproductions of the carvings on display. Oddly but fortunately, the vandals turned their attention to the copies and left the originals alone.
Over the years, archaeologists have tried various ways to preserve and enhance rock art, particularly petroglyphs. It was once common to make rubbings or tracings of petroglyphs. In other instances, researchers filled in the cut surfaces of carvings with grease pencil or chalk, to make the images easier to see and photograph. These methods are generally frowned on these days, says Roach, because of the risk that they could alter or damage the art. Instead, archaeologists now make latex moulds of petroglyphs, which they then use to make very accurate copper casts of the images.
Recently, researchers in the United States developed a method of recording petroglyphs. The images are notoriously difficult to photograph, as the lighting has to be exactly right to get a clear image on film. But with the new process, researchers can aim a green laser beam at petroglyphs. The dark patina and the lighter stone exposed by the carver reflect different intensities of laser light. As a result, researchers can create a three-dimensional “map” of the image, with the carved-out sections of rock highlighted in a different colour.
Moulds and laser mapping aren’t useful when it comes to recording pictographs. Pictographs are often easier to photograph, however. And interestingly, aboriginal paintings are more durable on rock than paintings created using modern materials would be, says Wainwright. Modern pigments are usually mixed with a binding agent that ensures the pigment adheres to the painting surface. Researchers originally assumed that the red ochre used in pictographs incorporated such a binding agent, but Wainwright disagrees. “From our studies, we could not detect any binding agent, although they may be there microscopically.” It’s now thought native artists may have used a slurry of red ochre and water, which would be thin enough to foster a spontaneous style of painting.
“In fact, it is because there was no binding agent that we still have this rock art,” Wainwright continues. A modern painting created on rock with paint laced with modern binding agents will disappear quickly, he says. But because ancient paints had no binding agents, the patina of oxidized minerals that forms naturally on rocks—the same patina that other artists chip through to make petroglyphs—coats aboriginal pictographs and protects them. Even so, pictographs are subject to the ravages of wind and water.
Preservation and interpretation are not the only problems confronting archaeologists when it comes to rock art. It is also frustratingly complicated to determine the age of a particular carving or painting. Sometimes images in the artwork provide clues to its age. For example, the sailing ships and Christian churches depicted in some Mi’kmaq rock art in Nova Scotia indicate that it was likely created after significant numbers of Europeans started arriving in the 1600s. Similarly, images of horses in rock art in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta would have been made after horses were introduced to the area in 1730.
In other cases, artistic styles can be linked to certain cultures known to have inhabited a particular region at certain times, such as the human faces carved on soapstone outcrops at Qajartalik in the Eastern Arctic. They resemble masks known to have been created by some of the last members of the Dorset culture, which disappeared from the area sometime between 1200 and 1500 AD. Most archaeologists believe that most of Canada’s existing rock art is no older than 2,000 years—anything older than that has been reclaimed by natural forces.
Radiocarbon dating, which tracks the presence and half-life of radioactive substances such as carbon-14, has been used since the 1950s to date items such as mummies. However, it is largely useless for dating rock art because it can be used only on organic materials—that is, things that were once alive. Petroglyphs contain no organic matter, since they’re carved out of rock. The pigments used to paint pictographs sometimes do contain organic matter, such as animal blood, but it can be extremely difficult to separate the old paint from later materials that might have become embedded in the artwork, such as decomposed leaves. And extracting the paint in the first place could damage the artwork. Even so, researchers occasionally find chips of paint that have flaked off pictographs, which they can have tested if they choose. But such tests can cost up to $1,000 apiece, according to Jones, so it’s not something most researchers can afford to do often.
Finances are a continuing problem for archaeologists. There are just so many rock art sites to be visited and catalogued. British Columbia is home to more sites than any other Canadian province, and the task ahead is enormous. “I would guess that we have thousands recorded, but that we’ve found less than half of them,” says Keddie.
In the face of such daunting problems, what keeps researchers motivated? Rock art, it seems, is just something that takes you by the throat.
Wainwright, for example, first fell in love with it in the 1970s, when he was studying pictographs at the Agawa site in Ontario’s Lake Superior Provincial Park. “There is an image of Mishipeshu that is quite spectacular. Mishipeshu is a mythical creature from the Ojibwa culture. He’s a lynx and he’s often depicted near running water,” he recalls. That image stayed with him, and he was hooked.
He’s far from the first researcher to become fascinated with rock art. In the 1880s, a Nova Scotia postmaster named George Creed spent several summers camping with his family in the McGowan Lake and Kejimkujik areas and documenting the Mi’kmaq rock art they found. Their tracings of petroglyphs at McGowan Lake are particularly valuable, since some of these artworks were submerged underwater when a hydroelectric dam was built in the 1940s.
The power of such ancient, mysterious images drives researchers across Canada and around the world to race against time to preserve these fragile links to a world long since disappeared. “Birch bark and skin doesn’t survive, but rock does, so it’s one of our few windows into their culture,” says Wainwright.