Related Post: Early Autumn Canoe Tripping In the Heart Of Temagami
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The portage from Bob Lake to Diamond Lake done, we had originally planned to paddle up the north arm of the Lake that same afternoon to check out the pictographs. Having done a less-than-satisfactory job of documenting the rock painting site on our last visit in 2009, this time we planned on doing better! However, the wind and the waves had their own agenda, so we ended up camping on a small island at the south end of the arm. We hoped that by the next morning there would be less wind and no rain.
- Click here to open a Google Map view of Diamond Lake and area.
- Download the 041 P 01 Obabika Lake 1:50000 topographical map here.
Morning came and the weather for the next three hours would be the best of the entire five days of our early October trip. We paddled the 2.6 kilometers to the pictograph site on the west side of the arm on completely calm water. In my thoughts was the withering conclusion about the meaning of the Diamond Lake pictographs delivered by Canada’s then pre-eminent archaeologist David Boyle over a hundred years ago.
W. Phillips and David Boyle: 1906
The Annual Archaeological Report for 1906 (Being Part of the Appendix to the Report of the Minister of Education Ontario) included an article titled “Rock Paintings At Temagami District”. Near the end of the article attributed to W. Phillips but with Boyle as the editor, Boyle writes this –
This article (published in 1907) represents the first scholarly record of the Diamond Lake pictographs. Doing the recording was a W. Phillips, a “temporary Assistant” in the Archaeology Department at the Ontario Provincial Museum. As the Museum’s Superintendent, Boyle had sent Phillips up to Temagami to check reports of rock paintings. Here is Phillips’ own account of his visit –
As Phillips noted in his report, the ochre markings are spread out over a ten-meter length of the white quartzite surface. Overhead ledges protect the painted markings from the worst of the run-off water. They face east/southeast and are thus spared the worst of the winds from the NW. The above photo shows the site from the north end with the dot in the circle as the last of the pictographs.
In 1913 F.G. Speck visited Bear Island in Lake Temagami while working for the Geological Survey of the Canadian Federal Government’s Department of Mines. He was an American anthropologist whose main focus was Eastern Woodlands cultures (Algonkian and Iroquoian); at the time he was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He recorded this statement from one of the members of the Temagami Ojibwe community (he estimated its size as 95):
If one were to take the above account as reliable and accurate, it would mean that (almost all of) the pictographs in the area are not Anishinabe but rather Iroquois in origin. It would also date them back to no more than the 1780s when the Iroquois led by Thayendanegea (known to us as Joseph Brant) left the Five Nations territory of Upper New York State for what was then Upper Canada (i.e. Ontario), having picked the British side in the rebellion of the Thirteen Colonies. Since the Iroquois do not have a pictograph tradition, the story does not really stand up. Nor does the stated reason for the drawing of the pictographs. By the year 1800, any Iroquois “advance party” that was leaving the newly-formed U.S.A. would not be returning to their people!
If nothing else, this account shows that the very Ojibwe living with the pictographs in 1913 had no idea where they had come from and who put them there – and why. It may be that before the ancestors of these Ojibwe had moved into the Temagami area from the Sault Ste. Marie area in the late 1700s, the actual Anishinaabe people – not Ojibwe but Algonquins – who had done the pictographs had moved or died off. How else to explain the Bear Island Ojibwe understanding of the pictographs as Iroquois messages left for possible future Iroquois search parties after the year 1800? It would seem that Boyle got something right when he wrote in that 1907 Report discussed above, “Even the Indians of today are unable to give the least hint with respect to the meaning of anything in such pictographs.”
Click on the title to download a 5 Mb pdf copy of the booklet Speck wrote for the Department of Mines – Myths and Folk-Lore of the Temiskaming Algonquin and the Timagami Ojibwa. It was published in 1915. Speck does not mention having visited any of the pictograph sites in the Temagami area, of which the Diamond Lake site is the most impressive.
Selwyn Dewdney: 1959
It would be fifty-three years before the next visitor from the museum (now named The Royal Ontario Museum) would arrive. It was Selwyn Dewdney, then at the start of his decade-long quest to document the pictograph sites of the Canadian Shield. The Diamond Lake Site would be #40 of the more than 260 he would eventually visit. In the 1962 first edition of the book Indian Rock Paintings of The Great Lakes (click on the title to access) he writes the following –
Sometime before Dewdney visited the site (in 1942 to be exact), a local lumber company had built a dam just north of the pictograph site at the point where Diamond Lake flows into the south arm of Lady Evelyn Lake. This point – once known as Lady Evelyn Falls but, thanks to massive flooding when another earlier dam had raised the water level of Lady Evelyn Lake itself, is now referred to as the Lady Evelyn Lift-Over and is the subject of an insightful Ottertooth article. The writer (Brian Back) writes this of the dam at the outlet of Diamond Lake –
Thor Conway: 1974
Since Dewdney, with a few exceptions, there has been very little discussion and research of the Diamond Lake pictographs – or of the pictographs of the Temagami area in general. One exception is the work of Thor Conway. It was Conway who, as a young archaeologist, visited the Diamond Lake site with Dewdney in the mid-1970’s and who continues to publish material on pictograph sites all across the Canadian Shield area. His book on the Agawa Rock pictograph site, for example, stands as the definitive study of that Ojibwe rock painting location.
Conway first visited the Diamond Lake site in 1974. As luck would have it, the previous year the dam had been destroyed by a work crew from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the water had come down to its natural level. Two years later he was there again with a CBC film crew. Along for the visit were Dewdney and Gilles Tache, a Quebec archaeologist also focussed on the pictograph quest. During their visit, they were able to determine that water levels were lower by about 4.5 feet (1.37 meters) from where they had been on Dewdney’s 1959 visit. The dynamiting of the dam in 1973 made that much of a difference.
Conway’s book Discovering Rock Art In Ontario’s Provincial Parks (2009) has a chapter on the Diamond Lake pictographs. Though the 2009 book is impossible to find, the fall of 2016 saw the publication of a revised edition of the book with 35 pages of introductory material followed by 240 of discussion of twelve rock art sites across Ontario.
Titled Discovering Rock Art: A Personal Journey With Tribal Elders it preserves the traditional knowledge of Ojibwe elders from across northern Ontario which the Conways had gathered in their years spent in various First Nations communities. Any reader will come away with a bit more of an understanding of the Anishinaabe culture behind the images painted with hematite on rock faces across Ontario – and of the Canadian Shield in general. Clearly, the elders had scrapped the notion of the Iroquois origins of the Temagami-area pictographs in the intervening years.
We approached the pictograph from the south. The following sequence of images follows the ten meters of rock face from south to north. In doing so we followed the order in which Phillips presents his drawings of the various pictographs. Conway has counted 77 individual ochre marks or paintings in the entire site; we were not as successful!
The site begins at the south end with some indecipherable ochre marks and concludes some ten meters or so further north with the most well-known of the Diamond Lake rock paintings.
They were “painted” with a mixture of ground hematite and perhaps fish oil or bear grease and then applied to the rock surface, not with a brush, but with a finger or two. The figures are usually no more an inch (2.5 cm) wide and up to five or six inches long. People are sometimes disappointed when they see them since, in the grand scheme of things, these are admittedly very rudimentary expressions of the values and beliefs of a Palaeolithic culture. However, even if they are not the Lascaux Cave paintings, they speak to anyone who has experienced the rugged beauty of the Canadian Shield.
The photo above is of the first of them, three ochre marks of which what may be a star pattern or a figure with outstretched arms is the most visible.
The next evidence of ochre comes just a meter further north. Still visible is what looks like a T. It is with this pictograph that Phillips began his drawings of the Diamond Lake pictographs; it is #1 in his inventory. There is an ochre smudge above and to the right of the T but it is badly eroded.
We have now moved up about four meters of the site. So far there is very little to make sense of. We were now looking at what seems to correspond to pictographs #2 and #4 on the top of Phillips’ Plate IV above. The ochre marks in between could be #3. It is impossible to say from the image below. Are we are looking at crane footprints being used as a clan emblem or are we are looking at rudimentary Thunderbird images?
Conway comments that the Phillips #3 drawing may represent an otter skin. If so, it certainly would be an abstract rendition of the otter’s skin laid out flat. It was of otter skin that a shaman’s “medicine” bag would typically be made. Philips’s #3 can be seen at the bottom left of the image below.
And then we come to the core of the site – the stretch beginning to the right of the deep cut into the rock face. The first pictograph we see is of the moose. It is #6 on Phillips’ Plate IV (see below). Underneath the moose body is evidence of an impact – from a bullet or a hammer-head perhaps. Conway states this in his book –
It would seem that he locates the “removed” pictograph in the space below the moose painting. His assumption seems to be based on something Dewdney saw in his earlier visit. He is not the only one to make this claim of a removed rock painting. In a transcript of a CBC radio program called Morning North, “Backroads Bill” (Bill Steer) makes this comment in “Glimpses of the Past”:
It is also possible that the slab of rock just broke off from the rock face and fell into the water below, Seeing a copy of the supposed Dewdney drawing or description would help. However, if a painting has indeed been removed I am left wondering why Phillips did not include a drawing of it on Plate IV. All of the Phillips drawings from #4 to #7 are visible on the rock face. If there was indeed a pictograph striking enough to motivate someone to remove it from below the moose image, Phillips would have included it along with all the others.
Update: A visit to the Ottertooth forum turned up a 2006 thread (click here) which discusses this very topic – scroll down the thread a bit from Ed’s initial post and you will find the following statement from Ed – and then a whole lot of response!
The space underneath the moose pictograph is identified as the claimed location of the missing pictograph. Do continue reading the thread on page 2 where you will find Brian Back’s summation of the evidence. Included is a photo from 1954 – five years before Dewdney – which shows the area around the moose pictograph looking pretty much as it does now. So just what did Thor Conway and Backroads Bill think was vandalized? Very interesting!
To the right (i.e. north) of the moose painting are three other clearly visible pictographs. On the Phillips Plate, they are numbered
- #7 (the six vertical lines, often referred to as tally marks but who can say for sure?),
- #9 (a puzzling construction we called “the half banana”), and
- #10 (usually interpreted as a canoe with 6 paddlers, an image meant to convey the strength and power or of a hunting party).
Looking more closely at the panel, other faint and lines can be seen, with the highest one looking like Phillips #8 with the five fading vertical lines. All that is missing these days is the moss! Click on the photo below to enlarge it and see for yourself.
Then we arrive at the last three panels of the site as pictured in the shot below. Plate V (see below) of the Phillips drawings contains all of them. (If Plate VI, which I included here, also records further Diamond Lake pictographs, then we did not see them. More likely it is the record of the Lady Evelyn South Arm pictograph site. See the end of this post for an explanation of what has happened to the Lady Evelyn site since Phillips and Ryder visited in 1906.)
Dewdney devotes very little space to the Diamond Lake pictographs in his book. The one quote above, along with the sketch of the core of the site, and the quote which follows is pretty much all he had to say.
Looking at Phillips’ Plate V,
- #14 would represent the “clumsy heron”,
- #12 the maymaygwayshi, though it hardly seems like a vestige!
- #19 the circle with the center.
- #16 is perhaps included in his catch-all phrase “stick figures”.
Picking up on Conway’s comment, #11 and #13 possibly represent the otter skins associated with the shaman’s medicine bag.
It is surprising that Dewdney did not identify Phillip’s #16 as the horned snake of Anishinaabe myth. #17, looking very much like a square root symbol, is another stick figure. Not mentioned by Dewdney are the three dots, what looks like a canoe with two paddlers, more crane or heron footprints, and other impossible-to-say-what marks.
As if to point out the problem of saying exactly what it means, Dewdney concludes his comments on the site by noting this about the circle with the dot –Ending the statement with an exclamation point does point out that these two inventories, both from the mid-1800s, come up with different meanings.
Already noted was David Boyle’s statement near the end of the 1907 article “Rock Paintings At Temagami District”. He wrote: “It would be utterly vain to look for any interpretation.” In spite of that, he could not resist offering an interpretation and ends up proving his own point!
Rather than see the site as it is – associated in Anishinaabe tradition as the home of the maymaygwayshi and other powerful medicine spirits to which a number of shamans came over an extended period of time – he sees it as a tablet on which one person has written a “sentence” or two using the pictographs as script.
This one person, he writes, has written a “story”. Boyle is able to state quite categorically that the first sentence ends near the top of Plat VI! Oddly enough, the article ends with that assertion. I flipped the page, expecting to see a continuation somewhere but that statement is it – a peculiar way to end the article. To conclude, Boyle seems to be a victim of the notion that the pictograph site represents an application of a coherent Anishinaabe writing system. It is almost as if he sees the cliff face as another birchbark scroll.
There is no Rosetta Stone – in spite of the conflicting mid-1850’s inventories of symbols and their meanings left by Schoolcraft and Copway – to help us unravel the meaning of the Diamond Lake pictographs. However, those who have visited have given us more insight into the nature of pictographs and their significance. Boyle’s “utterly vain” can be amended to “much is still puzzling”. Thanks to more recent visitors we can now better see elements of the Anishinaabe worldview in the ochre, from possible references to their clan (doodem) system and their religious beliefs.
As we paddle past the dramatic quartzite rock face, the least we can do is stop and appreciate the fact that maybe two or three hundred years ago Anishinaabe shamans stopped at this same spot. As a part of a vision quest, perhaps, or as a visit to the home of the maymaygwayshi for powerful medicines, the rock paintings were part of the ritual.
From their birch bark canoes, they reached out to the rock and created enduring marks with their specially prepared mixture of finely ground hematite and fish oil. While we will never completely understand the significance of all the ochre paintings, we still stop and for a brief while enter into another world.
Just click on the blue text to access material.
You can access the pdf file of W. Phillips’ “Rock Paintings At Temagami District” here from my WordPress site. If you want to see where it came from, look here – The Annual Archaeological Report for 1906 (Being Part of Appendix to the Report of the Minister of Education Ontario) published in 1907.
the 1962 first edition of Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes is available for online reading or download. It documents the first 109 sites he visited. A second edition of the book came out in 1967 with documentation on an additional 155 sites. By this time his quest had taken him far beyond the field of study as stated in the title!
Thor Conway’s Discovering Rock Art: A Personal Journey With Tribal Elders can be purchased directly from the author.
The Thor and Julie Conway article on the Lake Obabika pictographs – “An Ethno-Archaeological Study of Algonkian Rock Art in Northeastern Ontario, Canada” – provide excellent background to the Diamond Lake pictographs, which are briefly mentioned in the article published in issue #49 of Ontario Archaeology in the mid-1980’s.
Brian Back’s Ottertooth article “The Lady Evelyn Lift-Over” provides an excellent historical summary of the impact of dams on water levels on Diamond Lake and Lady Evelyn Lake.
Dewdney mentions Cuttle lake in his discussion of the Diamond Lake rock paintings. Grace Rajnovitch’s article “Paired Morphs At Cuttle Lake” is in the Jan/Feb 1980 issue of Arch Notes, the newsletter of the Ontario Archaeological Society. It includes drawings from one of the panels and provides a point of comparison.
George Copway’s The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation can be read online or downloaded in various file formats. Pages 132-134 provide examples of pictographic symbols. Copway writes – “An Indian well versed in these can send a communication to another Indian, and by them make himself as well understood as a pale face can by letter.”
Another collection of Diamond Lake pictograph photos can be seen at the temagami.nativeweb.org site. The pix show some of the pictos from a better angle than our shots do. Go here – Ancient Pictographs at Diamond lake in Temagami How ancient they are is an open question. My guess would be no more than four hundred years.
Finally, I wonder whatever happened to the film footage shot by that CBC crew in 1976 for that episode of This Land.