The Peterborough Petroglyphs: Building Over An Ancient Algonquian Ritual Site

Previous Post: Peterborough’s The Canadian Canoe Museum  – Journey Into An Epic Past

N.B. The term Algonquian (also spelled Algonkian) refers to one of  North America’s largest aboriginal language families. Individual tribes or First Nations like the Innu, the Micmac, the Algonquin, the Ojibwe, and the Cree all speak a version of Algonquian.  (See here for a primer.)

A one-hour drive from Peterborough and the Canadian Canoe Museum and we were approaching the entrance to Petroglyphs Provincial Park.  It is a day-use-only  park with hiking trails but its real reason for existing is the 90′ x 120′ outcrop of gently sloping white marble (limestone) in the center of the park.

From Peterborough to Petroglyphs Provincial Park

From Peterborough to Petroglyphs Provincial Park

Peterborugh Petroglyphs with man examining In 1954 a prospector, Everett Davis, sat on this rock face as he surveyed the area east of Eels Creek and north of Upper Stony Lake. He had been here before but had never noticed anything special; this time the sun’s light hit the rock just right and the images came out of the rock – some recognizable as humans or animals and others more abstract or fantastical.  As he pushed away the leaves and moss covering some of the rock face, more and more petroglyphs were revealed.  He did not know it at the time but he was standing on one of the largest petroglyph sites in Canada.

(N.B. That is not Everett Davis in the image!  It is also not how it would have looked like to Davis, who found the site overgrown and covered in places with grass, shallow rooted plants and deadfall.  Not clear is what makes the petroglyphs pop out as they do. Have the cavities created by the original carvers been filled up with sediment over time or were the petroglyphs coloured in even before the Vastokas team used charcoal crayons to make them more visible? )

entrance to Petroglyphs Provincial Park

entrance to Petroglyphs Provincial Park from Highway 56 (Northey Bay Road)

Since 1954 – and especially since the late 1960’s –  the site has seen increasing numbers of curious visitors. Wild theories popped up to explain the nine hundred or so marks and images – many of them difficult to see – hammered out of the rock face. Who put them there? Phoenicians, Vikings, Celts – these were just some of the suggested answers.  As entertaining as they may have been, the explanations of people from far away do not stand up to any serious examination of what we know about those cultures and their iconography.

Milwaukee Journal headline from October 27, 1962

Milwaukee Journal headline from October 27, 1962

The answer lies much closer to nearby Stony Lake.  The territory lies on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield and before the arrival of the Europeans it was in the cultural transition zone between Algonquian-speaking cultures to the north who lived in small mobile hunter-gathering bands and the Iroquoian-speaking cultures with their more advanced agricultural villages to the south.

Fred Bruemmer photo of some of the Peterborough Petroglyph rock face - Milwaulkee Journal Oct. 27, 1962.

Fred Bruemmer  – Milwaukee Journal Oct. 27, 1962. Note the coloured-in look of the petroglyphs.

The answer to who hammered out the images on the relatively soft limestone rock face can be traced back to one of these two cultures, and since there is no evidence – for example, common iconography at other sites –  connecting the Iroquois with the petroglyphs,  we are left with one of the Algonquian-speaking peoples.  A number of the images on the rock have parallels with pictographs at other sites on the Canadian Shield which are known to be Algonquin or Ojibwe or Cree. Thus, placing the petroglyphs in an Algonquian context fits the evidence best and is in keeping with the principle of Occam’s Razor.

Since carbon dating a petroglyph is not possible, the discovery of other datable material at the site  helped set a rough parameter for when it was used.  Found in the crevasses of the rock were bits of pottery – the remains of small offering bowls? –  which were dated back about 1000 years, placing it in the Woodlands Period of pre-Columbian archaeology.  At the very least, this puts their creation before the arrival of the French in the 1600’s.

Petroglyphs Provincial Park

In 1976  the Ontario government of the day created a new park – Petroglyphs Provincial Park.  Since 1990 Ontario Parks has managed the site along with members of a nearby Ojibwa First Nation whose ancestors first moved into the area in the late 1700’s.  Their present community is found on Buckhorn Lake southwest of and above Burleigh Falls.

Burleigh Falls below the bridge

Burleigh Falls below the bridge – water tumbling into Stoney Lake

It is about a forty-kilometre hike and paddle from the petroglyph site to their community though they may have lived closer to the site before the lumbermen, farmers, and miners started arriving in the 1850’s.  While the Ojibwe community has no direct link to the petroglyphs, the 2015 Park Information Guide informs us that –

Today the local First Nation of Curve Lake acts as a steward of the petroglyph site  providing Ontario Parks with guidance in this culturally significant and ceremonial place.

This guidance is presumably because the current “spiritual caretakers” of the site share some cultural traits with the creators of the petroglyphs, in particular a mythological worldview that they can use to explain the meaning of the images. The ongoing mystery about the exact meaning of the petroglyphs shows how tenuous that cultural connection really is.

The covered structure over the petroglyph site

The mid-1980’s structure – 35′ high with lots of windows –  built to protect  the petroglyph site

For almost thirty years after the discovery of the site it received only the minimum of attention from authorities. At first it was completely open and one could walk over the rock face. Eventually concerns about the deterioration of the site – and a few examples of graffiti left by unthinking visitors – motivated officials to erect a series of fences, increasingly serious, to keep people away from the sloping rock face while still permitting it to be viewed. Sacred Art Of The Algonkians In the mid-1960’s Joan Vastokas (then of U of T) and Romas Vastokas of Trent U in nearby Peterborough began their study of the site with their students. Among other things, they used a charcoal-coloured crayon to enhance some of the petroglyphs so that they could be better seen. Their findings  were eventually written up in Sacred Art of the Algonkians  which was published in 1973. Forty years later it remains the definitive study of the site.  It is also a difficult book to get a hold of – sellers at  Amazon have used copies available for $175. U.S.! The Toronto Public Library system does not have a single copy and I have yet to read it.

do and don't sign at the entrance of Petroglyphs Provincial Park

do and don’t sign at the entrance of Petroglyphs Provincial Park

Peterborough Petroglyphs plaque

The Canadian Heritage Site Plaque beside the  site

Petroglyphs Park after the parking lot

Petroglyphs Park after the parking lot

Other than the various hiking trail options, there are three other activities available to visitors. It begins at the Learning Centre and its various poster displays,  continues with a brief 18-minute film overview of Ojibwa culture, and concludes with a visit to the site itself. I’ll take a look at each of them in turn.

1. The Learning Centre 

The Visitors’ Centre, also called The Learning Centre, opened to the public in 2002 and is where the visit to the site begins.  While the building has a small gift shop with various souvenirs and a movie theater with seats for perhaps 80 visitors, the main attraction is a colourful multi-panelled poster display.  We spent some time reading our way through the various snippets of text. I had expected an introduction to the petroglyphs and their meaning to be the main focus but it soon became clear that there was something else being presented here.

welcome center display

welcome center (The Learning Place) display

The wall in the photo above, nicely decorated with Norval Morrisseau-esque spirit lines emanating from the sun symbol, sums it up.  “A culture is a living thing”.  What the folks responsible for the exhibit have done is use this space to present an updated version of indigenous spirituality, an adaptation felt to be more relevant to the late 1900’s than the paleolithic original.  Pretty much absent is any reference to the animistic beliefs that ruled the lives of the actual people who created the petroglyphs.

In its place we have the principles of Deep ecology and the environmentalist ethos of Grey Owl mixed with New Age concepts. I didn’t realize it at the time but this spiritual version of environmentalism as a defining feature of being aboriginal is a widely held view.  At the Assembly of First Nations website, for example, I found this statement –

Indigenous peoples are caretakers of Mother Earth and realize and respect her gifts of water, air and fire. First Nations peoples’ have a special relationship with the earth and all living things in it. This relationship is based on a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that guided indigenous peoples to practice reverence, humility and reciprocity.                           (see here for source)

It left me wondering where a non-indigenous person fits in.  Presumably not as a “caretaker” since (s)he lacks  “a special relationship” and “profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth”.  This race-based approach has parallels with the stance taken in many of the world’s religions –  also built on the notion that this one people has a special relationship with the Great Spirit.  In the Tanak (The Jewish “Bible”), for example, this relationship is called a covenant – and the ones making it with the Great Spirit are His Chosen People.

Having established this special relationship, the next step is to claim possession of some sacred text with the very words of that God in it.  Or, if not a book then for pre-literate societies, at least some sort of special knowledge.  In the case of the Algonquian-speaking cultures, it is referred to as traditional knowledge supposedly not accessible to “outsiders”.

The Teaching Rocks

The Teaching Rocks – building a new worldview on ancient rocks

It is the place we come to reflect...

It is a place where we come to reflect…

While the original purpose of the site can be guessed at – vision quests? initiation rituals for males and/or females? initiations for shamans? the shamans’ source of medicines or guidance? –  the Learning Center repurposes the petroglyph site for interested Anishinaabe as they live their lives in 2015.  Culture is indeed a living thing and it changes to suit new realities.

overview of panels at the learning center

The environmental ethos

a statement of the  environmental ethos of contemporary Anishinaabe culture but with traditional gender-assigned roles still intact

The above poster alludes to the possibility that the Anishinaabe (i.e. Ojibwe) once lived on the shores of the Atlantic at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.  From details of the various accounts told by members of the Medewiwin (the shamans’ exclusive medicine society),  some scholars date the migration westward towards Lake Superior somewhere around 1350. They connect it to the arrival of the Black Plague along with European fishermen on the eastern shores of North America at that time.

From careful mystery to clear message - the teaching rocks speak to us

Changing one’s worldview in response to changing times is not uncommon. It is also not uncommon to reinterpret and repurpose older cultural expressions –  like the petroglyphs – which you did not have a hand in creating and which you can make no special claim to understanding. While the sentiment expressed in the poster above is laudable and may well be true to those who now visit the site, there is no basis for the claim that this is what the rock was all about.

If our legends fall silent...

If our legends fall silent…there will be new legends and new heroes

The Turtle ...

The Turtle …

Cryptic figures on the rock face have much to teach us

Shrouded in mystery but having much to reveal.  Really?

What The Bear Teaches ...

What The Bear Teaches …

Miigwech...to Mother Earth

Miigwech…to Mother Earth (Aki)

The Learning Centre reveals surprisingly little about the meaning of the petroglyphs we are about to see. The primary focus is on Mother Earth and how we should treat it – perhaps given the difficulty of saying much about the petroglyphs, the hope is that this environmentalist focus will give visitors an acceptable alternative lens through which to see the images on the rock face.

2. The Teaching Rocks

We moved on from the poster displays to the movie theater.  My brother and I were the only two there that afternoon but the Park ranger – I did not get his name – graciously set up the film for us to watch. Entitled The Teaching Rocks, the nineteen-minute documentary-style film dates back to 1987.  The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources commissioned the cinematographer Lloyd Walton to direct the project; Fred Wheatley, an Ojibwe language teacher at Peterborough’s Trent U as well as an Ojibwe elder, did the narration.

Vimeo - The Teaching Rocks The following week I would google my way to a copy of my own.  The film is available for on-line viewing or for download at the Vimeo website (click here to access). The brief synopsis of the film reads like this  –

A visually arresting film, concentrates on the native art of the Ojibwa tribe. Much Ojibwa history and philosophy has been related through the rock carvings and paintings which are featured throughout this work. The voices of the Elders are heard in the film, describing the tales of creation and existence that mark the group’s iconography. A sense of mystery informs this evocative film as the realization strikes that no individual can expect to penetrate the mythos of the Ojibwa.

The film begins with a scrolling text which tells us that “the precise meaning of the petroglyphs are carefully shrouded in mystery” thus putting a positive spin on the difficulty of entering into the minds of those who put these images and markings here some time ago. Given that the documentary is meant to teach us about Ojibwe culture it makes remarkably little use of traditional Ojibwe myth and legend.

Missing is any discussion of Thunderbird and Mishipeshu, of Nanabush and the Giant Beaver…what we are offered instead are musings and platitudes on Mother Earth. Walton does combine some nicely filmed scenes of the rocks and water of the Canadian Shield, as well as shots of pictograph sites at Agawa Rock on Lake Superior and Lake Missinaibi, and I think a couple of seconds of  Mazinaw Rock.

a stretch of mazinaw Rock

a stretch of Mazinaw Rock

On top of close-up clips of the animals of the Shield country – the moose, beaver, bear, and heron – the narrator provides a commentary which emphasizes the same environmentalist ethos presented by the displays in the Learning Centre.  The narrator – he speaks as an elder – tells us that –

We were put on this earth to look after our mother , the earth … Every blade of grass has a right to grow and whenever you set your tipi up, or your shelter, don’t leave it there for long because you will kill the grass if you leave it there. That’s why the Great Spirit has given you a strong body to be able to do these things…

Given that the narrator was an Ojibwe language teacher at Trent University in Peterborough with a classroom in a large concrete block on the banks of the Otonobee River, you have to wonder just what he was seriously advocating other people to do while he showed up for class in his grass-killing mega-longhouse.

Elsewhere he says this –

It is up to us to go back to our traditional ways  and to try to warn the white man before he has poisoned the whole earth. Don’t contribute to the mess that’s being made…

Consider the usefulness of this elder’s “wisdom” for today’s young Ojibwe as they try to find a meaningful role for themselves in the world being poisoned by “the ignorant – or worse – white man”.   Romanticizing the past – advocating a return to an indigenous past that never actually existed – surely is not the answer.  And just what does “traditional ways” include?  Electricity?  Cell phones?  Snowmobiles? Boats with kickers?  Modern medicine?  Hip hop music? Smokes? One house that you live in all year ’round?

To emphasize the harmonious nature of life before the coming of the white man, Wheatley tells us of the annual month-of-May  Ojibwe “meetings with the Sioux on the south shore of Lake superior to exchange medicines“.  The word “Sioux”  is Ojibwe in origin and had the uncomplimentary meaning of  “little snake”.  Also known as the Dakotas, they were a neighbouring tribe who lived at the west end Lake Superior.  When the Ojibwe moved into this area from further east around 1650 to 1700 they battled with the Dakota for control of this land. For generations there were back and forth raids and wars between the two tribes for control; the Ojibwe won out and the Dakota moved further west.

For generations the Ojibwe were also at war with the Iroquois tribes. This is in the historical record; what Wheatley presents is a  pre-European-contact paradise which never existed.  This may suit his purpose but it gives those watching the film a false idea of the way things actually were.

(Access a pdf copy of George Copway’s 1851 book The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation here and check out chapter 5 for an account of those wars. Copway was an Ojibwe from the Trenton area to the east of the petroglyph site. He was born in 1818. See also this article – The Ojibwa-Iroquois War: The War The Five Nations Did Not Win  for a comprehensive scholarly summary.

The petroglyph site is presented as “The Teaching Rocks”, a place where select young people were taken as a step in the initiation into becoming shamans. Using the images on the rock as teaching tools,  the young person would learn some of the truths that he would need to become a medicine man in his own right.  It may be that the creators and original users of this rock face also used it in this way.  However, more likely is that we have here a modern repurposing of the rock face to fit in with the reality of a contemporary Ojibwe culture being swamped by external forces and an attempt to create a focal point for cultural revival two hundred years after the deluge began.

3. The Petroglyph Site

As we approached the petroglyph site, another sign reminds us – yet again! – that given the sacredness of the site, no photography is allowed. Given the cellphones with cameras that almost everyone has these days, this must be a tough one to enforce.  I think back at pix I’ve taken on Temple Mount in Jerusalem,  the Sistine Chapel in Rome, or more recently at the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar – the Shwedagon Pagoda – with its gold-plated dome and relics said to be of the Buddha himself.  The Myanmar site even has free internet access provided on the temple grounds for visitors!  The reason for the “no photo” rule here escapes me. More than anything else, it feels like politics.  Having let the folks on duty know my view on the matter, I did abide by it.

Notice at the entry to the fenced site

Notice at the entry to the fenced site

We walked through a gate in the fence which I assume rings the entire site and separates it from the rest of the park. The photo below sets the scene as you approach the site.  The structure covering the petroglyph site was built in 1984. The glass walls reach a height of about 40′ (12 meters) and let in a fair amount of subdued light.

approaching the petroglyph site

approaching the petroglyph site

Not far from the site archaeologists – perhaps the Vastokas team –  found gneiss rock hammers which the creators of the petroglyphs used to peck and grind out the images. Somewhere nearby there are two smaller petroglyph sites. The 1977 Master Plan for Petroglyphs Park provides this information –

One of the smaller sites is directly north of the major concentration, while the other site is 250 m to the northwest.The second small site consists of 23 distinct glyphs. In addition to these sites, there are a few glyphs scattered through the peripheral areas of the site.

The covered structure over the petroglyph site

The covered structure over the petroglyph site

Not everyone is happy about the building covering the site.  Joan Vastokas, mentioned above as one of the authors of the still-definitive study of the site, has said that the structure itself is the biggest act of vandalism which has been done to the site.

At the end of the post is a link to a paper written by Dagmara Zawadzka of Université du Québec à Montréal which gives a negative assessment of Ontario Parks solution to protect the site. I did photograph the information board – see below – in which the Park officials present the reasons for doing what they did.  My overall impression – while the building may not be perfect it is still the best solution to the realities of the soft limestone rock and the need to protect it from the impact of visitors.

Peterborough Petroglyphs Site Info Panel- Part 1

Peterborough Petroglyphs Site Info Panel – Part 1

Peterborough Petroglyphs Site Info Panel- Part 2

Peterborough Petroglyphs Site Info panel –  Part 2

Once we entered the building itself, I obviously did not take any more photos.  For study purposes, it would have been nice to have a set of images which I could examine in more detail at my leisure.  We did have the benefit of having the park official – the same young man who had set up the movie for us – as a guide.  We had him to ourselves for about forty-five minutes and he gave us a fantastic tour of the rock face, taking us from one end to the other and pointing out key petroglyphs and some of the meanings given to them and their supposed relationship to others nearby.  Only two other people – a young couple – came in while we were there and their, at most, five-minute visit left us wondering why they had bothered coming all this way.

As you enter the building, there is a rack with pamphlets available; they explain the overall significance of the site, as well as a few of the dominant images. The tone of the pamphlet is more like what I had expected at the Learning Centre.   Also on the wall was a 24″x36″ or so drawing of the rock face and its many petroglyphs. I’d imagine it is from the Vastokas book mentioned above. At the end of the tour, the park official was good enough to take it off its wall hook and bring it outside the building where I took a couple of photos of at least parts of it.

drawing of some of the petroglyph rock face

photo of drawing of some of the petroglyph rock face

While this Wikipedia entry tells you that there are 1200 petroglyphs at the site it – an unlikely high number – it does not go on to say that maybe 200 to 250 of them are still recognizable.

photo of same drawing - the far corner of the rock face

photo of same drawing – the far corner of the rock face

In the above drawings there are a few images which jump out, probably because our minds can find some sort of meaning in them. Human forms and animal forms are definitely there, as are objects like canoes. Some are fantastical and others are more abstract geometric forms.

The photo below was shot in 1970 and is one of a dozen that can be found at Jim Werner’s website. Serpents, turtles, a “rabbit-eared” human figure, the 56″ long crane, the attention-grabbing triangles…obviously while the charcoal crayon which Vastokas’ students used to colour in the petroglyphs helps us see them better, we are seeing the site in a manner not thought of by the various people who hammered their images out of the rock. One could characterize the colouring in of the cavities as an act of vandalism in itself.

Robin Lyke Peterboro Petroglyph - used with permission of the owner

Robin Lyke  – Peterboro Petroglyph  (1970) – used with permission of the owner

This is where you ask the question – what does it all mean? The first thing to recognize is that the images were not all put here at the same time. It is more accurate to picture the site as one to which the image makers – the shamans? – came over a period of generations to leave their mark for whatever purpose.

Having said that, it is important to resist the very human impulse to take two adjacent images and create some sort of “story” that explains their connection.  Chances are they actually have nothing to do with each other. So – what is the key to unlocking their meaning?

There is no Rosetta Stone; there is no “grand theory of everything” which we can apply here. However, the images are the product of a particular culture with its set of myths and stories developed over time to explain all that they needed to explain. And what culture? As already indicated – the culture of an Algonquian-speaking people like the Algonquin or Ojibwe seems like a safe bet.

An interesting feature of the site is the number of crevasses and cracks in the rock face. One in particular goes diagonally across the entire rock face. Even more significant, there is a stream that passes underneath and at least in the past one could apparently hear the echo of the moving water. The sounds were given a spiritual twist and taken as voices of the manitous who dwelt in or under the rock. A parallel Ojibwe belief would be in the maymaygweshiwuk who lived in underwater caves associated with rock faces where shamans would leave their ochre images as a part of the ritual of obtaining favour or medicine from these spirits. A number of my posts on pictograph sites on the Canadian shield have images of such rock faces.

woman with vagina hole-2

Another interesting feature – and one that some people feel uncomfortable dealing with –  are the holes at different places on the rock face. The Parks site pamphlet mentioned above discreetly omits this petroglyph from the discussion even though it may have been one of the first to be put there.  Apparently a seam of reddish iron oxide runs right through the figure and is thought to symbolize menstrual blood. The drawing can be seen directly above and an internet- sourced image on the left makes it all clear – the creator of the image has incorporated the hole as vagina. On the upper body one can make out a breast. On the day we were there a small amount of tobacco sat on top of the outstretched right arm of the female figure, presumably left by someone as a part of a petition or of thanksgiving ritual.

Mishipeshu and the snakes

Mishipeshu and the snakes – Agawa Rock

In the third drawing above, a figure below the female figure has been interpreted as a camel! Notice the humps.  “Aha the “reasoning” goes – so the Phoenicians really were here! A less fantastical and more likely explanation – one that comes from traditional Ojibwe iconography is that it is a representation of  Mishipeshu. He is the underwater lynx who is seen as a counter-force to the Thunderbird (Animikii)) who is second only to Gitchi Manitou (the spirit above all other spirits)  in power.  The famous pictograph of Mishipeshu at Agawa Rock bears similarities to the animal depicted here.

Also very common on this rock face are depictions of snakes. Unlike the Christian spin put on the snake – Satan the deceiver in the Garden of Eden – for the Algonquins and Ojibwe the snake, often depicted with two horns (Mishikinebik) is a positive force associated with the medicine and wisdom that a shaman would have come for. The Park pamphlet puts it this way – “Because snakes live and move between the spirit worlds, they are often viewed as messengers from the underworld and protectors of the springs.” Look at the first photo of the drawings – not having any photos to double check I am assuming that whoever drew the images did so accurately!  –  and you’ll see three different snake figures with the double horns indicated. There are apparently thirty or so snake images at the site, with some of them incorporating the crevasses and cracks of the rock face.

Petroglyph Park turtle image

Petroglyph Park turtle image

Another animal figure which figures prominently on the site is the turtle Mikinak. It is seen at pictograph sites across the Algonquian world and represents the messenger who brings the manitous’ communication to the shamans. At this site there are a dozen turtle images – one of them is depicted in the image to the left.  One interpretation has the dots as eggs which symbolize new life. There was even an explanation for the number of eggs – 13? – which I have forgotten. It is probably best to take many of the explanations with a touch of skepticism.

gitchi manitou? One unusual image that provokes puzzlement is the one to the left. It seems to show the lower part of a human body and then a sun symbol on a vertical line which could be the upper body.  The park pamphlet writes:  “This large central figure near the centre of the site is thought by some First Nations to be a carving of ‘Gitchi Manitou’…it may also represent a shaman who has been given powers by the creator.” Given the transcendent nature of the Great Spirit it seems highly unlikely that such an image would be made. It would be as if the Hindus were to depict Brahman, the God beyond all gods. I have yet to read of or see another example on the Canadian Shield of such a depiction. (Let me know if you can think of one.)

Looking at the photo another answer comes to mind – perhaps we are looking at two different pictographs, one on top of the other and not actually related or even done at the same time by the same person. The fact that we link the two says more about how the human mind works than it does about what the rock carvers engraved in the rock face.

shaman Another image commented on in the pamphlet is one of what may be a shaman or “medicine man”. The object in the figure’s right hand “may possibly be a turtle rattle used in ceremonial practices.  The cone shaped hat over the person’s head may indicate his/her connection to the spirit world and the power of healing.” The shaman figures I have seen further west share some common elements with this one.  Like this one they are always standing figures who hold something in an outstretched arm.  That “something” is interpreted to be an otter skin  medicine bag. This image from the Bloodvein River is typical –

Artery Lake Pictograph Site- Face IV Shaman figure

Artery Lake Pictograph Site- Face IV Shaman with Medicine Bag figure

While the Artery lake figure does not have the conical hat, he does have what could be interpreted as a spirit line coming out of his head.  Perhaps there is a parallel there? Here is a drawing from the Smithsonian Institute’s anthropological archives. It depicts a medicine man with a ritual object in his left hand which he seems to be spinning or shaking  –

Ojibwe shaman with rattle

Ojibwe shaman with rattle – Smithsonian Institute’s anthropological archives – see here for source

the crane and the Nanabush figures

the crane and the Nanabush figures

A physically large petroglyph is that of the crane or heron that you see in the image to the right. It measures some 56″ from top to bottom. According to the Park pamphlet the crane “is a common totem bird among the different Algonkian peoples. Playing a relevant role in the world of shamanism, signified as helping spirits that aid in revealing prophecies, and they are receptacles of the souls of the dead, as birds can read the future.  Members of this clan traditionally are the speakers at meetings.”  (Someone at Parks Ontario  needs to rewrite this passage!)

Mazinaw Rock's Rabbit man panel

Mazinaw Rock’s Rabbit man panel

Also in the above image you will find two images associated with Nanaboozoo or Nanabush, the rabbit-eared “trickster” of Ojibwe myth. The next day we would see a similar ochre pictograph at Mazinaw Rock – a human figure with two large “ears” protruding from his head.  In all of southern Ontario –  everything from Sudbury to the Ottawa River on down to Lake Ontario, there are really only two aboriginal rock image sites – Mazinaw Rock at Bon Echo and this petroglyph site. Interestingly, both are the biggest sites of their kind in Ontario – and maybe in Canada.  See here for our visit to Mazinaw.

The walkway takes you right around the site; every few meters there is an information board with an explanation of particular images.  Normally I would have taken photos of them and reread them after the visit.  The pamphlet deals with most of the ones I’ve covered above.  It also has a bit to say about the canoe images, the thunderbird, what looks like large arrowheads but which could be a shaman’s spirit (the pamphlet’s suggestion) or Christmas trees (a silly suggestion made in that Milwaukee Journal at the start of the post).  I haven’t seen anything like it in all the pictograph sites I have been to – or seen images from.

More time and access to photos of different parts of the site would add more substance to my analysis. So would reading the Vastokas’ book!

Lyke Peterboro Petroglyph 2-2

Robin Lyke 1970 photo-  used with permission from J. Werner – in this photo the animal below her feet looks like a long-legged moose

If you want to see more images of the petroglyphs, the best collection I have found on-line belongs to Jim Werner; the photos were actually taken by his uncle Robin L. Lyke.  His website has an excellent discussion of the site and twelve images; you can access it here.

The drive to Petroglyphs Provincial Park took us about an hour from Peterborough. We had spent the morning at the Canadian Canoe Museum so we got there about 2:30. I am glad we took the time to finally check it out.  As is often the case, we left with more questions than we had arrived with – but isn’t that why we travel and check out things we don’t know about?  We came expecting to see the physical structure over the petroglyph site; we left wondering about the ideological construction undertaken by some members of the Curve Lake Ojibwe community.

This post was my attempt to grapple with some of those questions.  I have a feeling that in the coming months I will be returning to this post – rethinking, revising, researching, and replying to comments of those who may or may not agree with my view of things.

Useful Links For More Insight:            

The 1977 Ontario Government “Master Plan” for Petroglyph Provincial Park is worth skimming through.  You can access it here. I also took pp. 32-36, the section on the history of the site,  and put it into a 1.2 Mb pdf file which you can download here.

Among the statistics in the report were the annual visits for 1974 (14,227) and 1975 (13,613).  The most recent statistics I could find were for 2010 (13,254). If the stats are all measuring exactly the same thing, it would seem that less people are visiting now than forty years ago!  If so, I wonder why?


Dagmara Zawadzka of Université du Québec à Montréal has a 2008 paper accessible online as a pdf file.
 It is entitled  The Peterborough Petroglyphs/ Kinoomaagewaabkong: Confining the Spirit of Place. Concerned with the structure built over and around the petroglyph site in the early 1980’s her stated aim is this –

Due to the site’s uniqueness and popularity, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) implemented measures to protect and conserve it, as well as to transform it into a tourist attraction. One such measure was the construction of a building directly on top of the site. In the following paper, I demonstrate that this building thwarts the understanding of the meaning inherent in this sacred Indigenous site, and that less intrusive and culturally sensitive conservation measures might be more suited for transmitting the spirit of the place.

 It is definitely worth a read before your visit even if Zawadzka only sees (or acknowledges) the physical building over the site by the MNR and not the ideological repurposing by some members of the  Curve Lake First Nation.
________________________________________________________________

leather-boat-book-cover

Robert Burcher has developed the  argument the petroglyphs should be attributed to the Celts.  His book The Leather Boat fleshes out his theory as to how people from Ireland came to carve images into the limestone in the central Ontario wilds some 2000 years ago.  Like me he is a WordPress blogger; unlike me he has a book for sale. See here for details!    Alas, no copies in the Toronto Public Library system!


Carol Diaz-Granados and James R. Duncan have edited a collection of papers in The Rock-Art of Eastern North America: Capturing Images and Insight  (2004). Chapter 16 – The Peterborough Petroglyphs: Native or Norse? – is a contribution by Joan Vastokas.  The teaser blurb begins –

This chapter discusses the ongoing debate over the Peterborough Petroglyphs and whether they were created by Native Americans or Norsemen. First, a history of the debate is covered positing the various theories. Then, forms of writing that have been compared to the Peterborough Petroglyphs are addressed and their similarities and differences explained. Throughout the chapter, I present evidence that concludes a Native Ameri-…

And they leave it at that! Given the author we can guess what the conclusion is. Most of the chapter (except for three pages)  can be read here at Google Books.


Charles Lock is currently a Professor of English at the University of Copenhagen but for twelve years (1983-1995) he taught at the University of Toronto. He  has a 15-page paper in a 1994 issue of Semiotica (special edition on Prehistoric Signs)  entitled “Petroglyphs In And Out Of Perspective”.  It is available here.  While written for an academic audience and occasionally an obtuse read (just like this post), it is worth the effort. He uses the Peterborough Petroglyphs to illustrate some of the points he makes about how and why modern scholars study “primitive” art. Here is a brief sample from the article:

Unlike prehistoric artefacts in Europe , but like mediaeval ones, the petroglyphs of North and Central America are still, or have become again, the focus of cult. The most famous petroglyph site in Ontario — near Peterborough — was discovered in 1954, and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources undertook to preserve ‘this important part of our national heritage … for future generations of Canadians’ (Sweetman 1955: 108). Fences of increasing seriousness were built to protect the site from visitors — not only from wear, but from the graffiti that graffiti always invites — until it was recognized that the main damage was caused by the weather. Before their discovery the petroglyphs had been well protected by moss and undergrowth. In the late 1970s the Ministry built a large structure over the entire rock surface; the atmosphere inside is now fully controlled. In 1976 the site was designated a Provincial Park . I first visited the petroglyphs in 1984, and my thought then was that as the petroglyph would not go to the Museum, the Museum had gone to the petroglyph. Sometime between then and my next visit in 1990 a wooden sign appeared, on the path between the car-park and the site, and visitors are now informed that this is a sacred place, honored and used for ritual purposes by Native Americans; non-Natives are asked to behave with respect. Native people are now the guides and wardens of the Park, and there is talk of the Ontario government ‘handing back’ the petroglyphs to Native Americans.

The way we view these petroglyphs has changed radically. No longer a museum, ideologically neutral and spatially homogeneous, the structure belongs to others and is to be entered on sufferance. Should one remove one’s hat? One’s shoes? Voices are lowered. And one certainly gets a ‘romantic thrill’ from seeing on that great rock, at a discreet distance from any carving, the traces of a tobacco offering. Visiting in 1992, however, I noticed not only tobacco and feathers and stones, but also red, yellow, and white ribbon. These ribbons are traditional and authentic, but my aesthetic sense inwardly protested that the effect was tawdry. With petroglyphs as with icons, offerings must be placed in contiguity with the object of devotion, and thus become part of it; one cannot open a site to cultic devotion and then ask that offerings be left elsewhere, to the side. As a visitor, one knows that one’s aesthetic protest would be, if voiced, a mark of disrespect. In a museum, of course, complaints are expected.

Here we have a rare and spectacular instance of a prehistoric artefact which is now serving what we might call a ‘first-order purpose’. Obviously there has been no continuity of cult; the Ojibway Anishinabe band, who now revere the site and care for it, do not pretend that it was ever associated with their ancestors. Whether the contemporary cult is the same or similar to that practiced in prehistoric times is of course unknown; indeed, not everyone is agreed that these petroglyphs ever had sacred significance or were at any time the site of a cult. Probability certainly favors the Ojibway, and whatever the authenticity of the present cult, it must be considered ‘first-order’: there is a consensus among Native people which legitimates the cult, and the ritual has nothing to do with ‘second-order purposes’, the aesthetic and cognitive practices of non-Native viewers. Viewers, spectators, scholars, helpfully raised on the ramp that encircles the rock, prevented by railings from falling (or straying) onto the rock, we notice the little gate through which Natives may pass: the way in, not for viewers but only for participants.

 


Next Post – The Pictographs of Mazinaw Rock: Listening For Algonquian Echoes

This entry was posted in Pictographs of the Canadian Shield and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Peterborough Petroglyphs: Building Over An Ancient Algonquian Ritual Site

  1. jane tims says:

    A very insightful consideration of what you saw and read. Thank you!

  2. LLOYD WALTON says:

    Insightful, and you are close. I made the film THE TEACHING ROCKS under heavy pressure on what or what not to reveal. The original inscriptions were recorded on hide and taken west for protection. My teacher, who died at the age of 108, had the hide. After 30 years I was given permission to tell the story and it will be published soon. the working title is INTO THE STONE, but it could be called, LLOYD ISN’T HERE.

    • true_north says:

      Lloyd, it has been almost thirty years since you made that film! Thanks for pointing out something I did not consider – i.e. the constraints you faced in developing the film’s narrative. As for the scroll that will reveal all – and soon … well, I can see the Algonquian version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in that story.

      The way I understand it, the petrogplyphs were done by any number of people over an extended period of time and to impose some sort of narrative connecting the various images reveals more about the interpreter than it does the intentions of the original carvers.

      You’ll have to put me down as skeptical about the notion that one buffalo hide – surely not contemporaneous with the carvers of 800+ years ago – would capture the “true” meaning of the numerous images on the rock, which are mostly unrelated except for the fact that they are the product of common Algonquian worldview and mythology.

      I’ll be checking your website in the weeks to come to see if Into The Stone has been published!

  3. David says:

    i have a strong interest in the petroglyphs. I appreciated reading your take.

    Thank you.

    • true_north says:

      David, a bit more than a year ago I knew nothing about the Peterboro Petroglyphs! Our brief visit provided me with lots to make sense of. My post was an attempt to reconcile what I’ve learned over the last three years in my pictograph-related canoe trips with what we saw at the site. I have yet to get a hold of a copy of the Vastokas study, still the major work on the site after all these years!

      While I admit my “take” on the site does not fit in with the official narrative, it is nice to read a positive review! Thanks.

      • Norman Perrin says:

        I have a spare copy of the Vastokas book. Not sure if I wish to part with it but I can lend it out.

      • true_north says:

        Norm, thanks for the offer! If I could borrow it for a week or two that would be terrific! To think that it was written 45 years ago and is still the only serious examination of the site!

        I could lend you a couple of related books as collateral!

        I’ve got Thor Conway’s new book Discovering Rock Art as well as a copy of Grace Rajnovitch’s Reading Rock Art that you would probably enjoy leafing through (if you don’t already have them).

        Do you live in the GTA? I live in the Broadview/Danforth area.

        Email me at true_north@mac.com and maybe we can arrange something.

        Thanks again!

      • lloydwalton says:

        I have finally finished my manuscript, titled POSITIVELY NORTH STREET, and it is out with a literary agent. The story builds to a four day teaching on the rock that I witnessed by an elder from the west. Records of all of the inscriptions were written down on a hide and taken west in the late 1700’s as part of the Ojibway migration.

        This man, as he first said to me en route, “I have no reason to lie to you.” He also said, “A teacher knows what you need to know, and you have no right to ask me certain questions. I too have no right to answer you.” He proved beyond a doubt to all in attendance that he knew what the rock was teaching. My story also deals with the consequences of my resulting actions.

      • true_north says:

        Lloyd, your title’s twist on a great Dylan song got my attention and the brief summary you provided make me even more curious about the story you have to tell. From your quote, it is clear that the shaman’s traditional philosophy of education was at odds with the way things unfold in classrooms these days!

        I may have a question or two about that migration. I assume it was to the west end of Lake Superior? I thought that it happened perhaps a century earlier – i.e. around 1700 – when the invading Ojibwe began to displace the Dakota (i.e. the Sioux) nation then living in the upper Mississippi region.

      • lloydwalton says:

        They first went to Montana, then the Waterton Lake area, then up into Alberta, living beyond the settlers, and spooking the local aboriginals with their intense spirituality.

  4. lloydwalton says:

    There was a comment about the film not talking about myths. What I was told by the Mishomis was, ” These are not the things of dreams. Every thing on this rock can be proven. ” And he went on to prove it.

    • true_north says:

      Thanks for the clarification. I’m looking forward to reading your book. I hope it’s coming along! Just started reading Michael Angel’s Preserving the Sacred: Historical Perspectives on the Ojibwa Midewiwin.

  5. Rich Stephenson says:

    Just ran across this site. It is very interesting and thanks to all those who commented too.

    Seeing the “picture” of the petroglyphs, what struck me was the idea that much of what was there was a map or an atlas, not just a spiritual landscape but a mainly practical one. Waterways were clearly marked, in my view, oriented specifically to give the direction . It was as if they were answering the questions one might have had as to the best places to get stone/flint for spear/arrowheads….how to get to the best hunting area for moose etc. Not everything pertained to food and other important but worldly concerns but my guess is that much of it did.

    Seeing the lines linking a series of ovals might indicate part of a path on water ….traversing the number of lakes (or widened areas) shown. Scale was irrelevant but perhaps some of the nearby symbols indicated the number of days travel.

    What appears to be a snake with a series of dots on each side could be a more detailed map indicating a river and the dots indicating major outcroppings of rock or cliffs…think of it as a representation of what we might see on a satellite photo.

    The twists and turns would not be shown because they were irrelevant, it was navigation by rock signposts perhaps.

    Any comments?

    • true_north says:

      Rich, your theory is an interesting one. As you read on, you’ll see I think it misses the point of the petroglyphs. I am sure you will think I’ve missed your point!

      The Petroglyph site is in an out-of-the way spot above Upper Stony Lake. It may have been chosen for that reason. It reminds me of the Cliff Lake pictograph site in NW Ontario. It too is somewhat removed from major river corridors of travel and was obviously a hallowed spot visited often for generations. What drew them to the Stony Lake site was the underground stream running under the rock which made a gurgling sound and which was probably associated with the manitous dwelling there. It would provide the reason to visit the site and leave a growing collection of images over time – that is, over three or four hundred years by generations of carvers, each with his own small contribution to make.

      The small band of Algonkian hunters/gatherers would probably camp nearby on Stony Lake – perhaps at Burleigh Falls – for the summer season while they fished and gathered berries. this would also be the time for meeting up with other small bands. It would be one of the stops on their annual circuit; by the fall they would have moved on in small groups to the moose hunting grounds in the interior to the north.

      You suggest that the site may actually be a map or atlas of their everyday world. This would mean that the entire site was chiseled by a team of people – the elders who knew all the details of the migratory pattern their band followed.

      A similar theory I have seen is that the rock face represents a map of the heavens – an atlas of the cosmos.

      The problem I have with these theories is that they totally ignore the culture of the people who visited the site and impose on it the way of thinking of another culture. Instead of understanding Algonkian spirituality and mythology on its own terms, we have them think like we do.

      A practical question might be – Why bother carving a map of their world – the annual circuit they travelled – on this rock face? Given that for most of the year you would be far away from the pictograph site anyway, what useful purpose would it serve? If you could find your way back to the spot – and clearly they did for generations – then you didn’t need to carve the map in the rock to begin with. Traditional Algonkian society revered the elders specifically because they were the living encyclopedias of the tribe and would know how to read the terrain and remember the migratory paths of their bands. Their culture was also fairly static so there wasn’t this constant upheaval in knowledge and technology that marks our world. To no great surprise, elders are not prized in our world of constant change!

      So – instead of carving a map in an out-of-the-way place, much more useful to have older members of the band who knew the path and recognized landmarks as they followed the seasons through the Central Ontario Boreal Shield country.

      If you still want to stick with the map or atlas idea, a more practical thing to have done is to create a map on a birchbark scroll and thus have it available at all times instead of just at one time of the year. However, there are no Algonkian – or other Indian – birchbark map examples that I can think of to support this idea. When the Ojibwe Midewiwin, for example, used birchbark scrolls, it dealt with spiritual matters and made use of images from traditional Algonkian mythology.

      This is exactly what the petroglyph site above Stony Lake deals with. The limestone rock face served generations of Algonkian shamans as a spiritual site and reflects their deepest understanding of the world as they knew it – an animistic worldview different from our own “modern” scientific one.

  6. edward says:

    The images that were carved into the white marble at Petroglyph Provincial Park centuries ago have also been faithfully reproduced by numerous cultures spanning over ten thousand years of the holocene and indeed beyond. I believe I know precisely what they are with the possible exception of 3 globally recurring glyphs.

    It is going to require a little journey down the road of paleoclimatology, ancient civilizations and astronomy. If 10Be and C14 isotope dating techniques don’t put you off and you have a good eye for recognizing patterns then I believe you will enjoy this immensely.

    • true_north says:

      Edward, you argue that many cultures have the same collection of images that they, to use your word, “faithfully” reproduce over thousands of years. And I would guess the motivation is the same in all cases too. A remarkable similarity that only a few have noticed!

      While the human mind is incredibly adept at finding parallels and exact correspondences where they don’t actually exist, it is simpler and truer to the facts to start with the people who lived with the petroglyphs and the pictographs of the Canadian Shield. That would be the Anishinaabe. There is no need to haul in Mesopotamians and paleoclimatology and a dozen other obscure and seemingly erudite references that make it sound like another Dan Brown novel.

      My post connects the images to the traditional pre-European-contact Algonquin bands that would have gathered on an annual basis in the Stony Lake area not far away from the out-of-the way site. If you “believe (you) know precisely what they (the images and their meanings) are with the possible exception of 3 globally recurring glyphs”, it would seem that my post missed the mark with the evidence it provided.

  7. Pingback: The Peterborough Petroglyphs: Building Over An Ancient Algonquian Ritual Site – Kærry Redwood Atjecoutay

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s