Related Post: Anishinaabe Rock Art
N.B. The term Algonquian (also spelled Algonkian) refers to one of North America’s largest indigenous language families. Individual tribes or First Nations like the Innu, the Abenaki, the Mikmaq, the Algonquin, the Nipissing, the Ojibwe (Chippewa in the U.S.), and the Cree all speak a version of Algonquian. (See here for a primer.) These people know themselves as Anishinaabe, the Original People.
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.
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 there 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 sloping rock outcrop, 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. He also did not know that thirty years before, someone else had come upon it too! As the ministry account on the park’s history (see here) notes:
The petroglyphs site was discovered in 1924 by Mr. Charles
Kingam, a local resident and a member of the Peterborough Historical Society. His discovery was not widely publicized.
While little came of Kingam’s “discovery”, a year after Davis the Royal Ontario Museum sent a U of Toronto team led by Paul Sweetman and James Gooding to examine the site. Based on a quick mapping of the site and their identification of about 100 petroglyphs, an account of their findings – A preliminary report on the Peterborough petroglyphs – was published by the Museum in 1955.
Note that the image above is from 1961 and that is not Everett Davis! 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.
The rock face in the photo above is completely exposed and a few of the cavities have been coloured in, probably with charcoal crayons by the Sweetman/Gooding crew to aid in their visibility and identification. In the mid-60s, the Vastokas team also made use of charcoal crayons to make yet more glyphs easier to see.
Who carved the images into the rock?
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.
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 Algonkian-speaking communities (the Anishinaabeg) to the north who lived in small mobile hunter-gatherer (foraging) bands and Iroquoian-speaking communities (the Wendat and Haudenosaunee) with their larger and more advanced agriculture-based villages to the south.
The answer to who hammered out the images on the relatively soft limestone rock face can be traced back to one of these two Indigenous Peoples, 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. Oiseau Rock on the Ottawa river and Mazinaw Rock in Bon Echo Park are two well-known Anishinaabe pictograph sites. Thus, placing the petroglyphs in an Algonquian context fits the evidence best.
The map below (see here for the source) shows the extent of the Iroquoian world before contact with the Europeans. Note that the northern boundary passes just below the north side of Stony Lake and shows the estimated extent of Wendat – i.e. Huron – territory before 1550.
The map is from a 2015 paper titled “Current Research on the Historical Development of Northern Iroquoian Societies” by Jennifer Birch in the Journal of Archaeological Research. It represents the current consensus view of archaeologists of the extent of Iroquoian settlement during the 1000-1550 CE period.
Burleigh Falls and Stony lake mark the southern edge of the Canadian Shield. While the Iroquoian-speaking groups were not a people of the Shield, the Anishinaabeg certainly were.
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-European Contact archaeology. At the very least, this puts the creation of the petroglyphs pre-contact – i.e. before the arrival of the French in the early 1600s.
Who is responsible for the site?
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 early 1700s. Their present community is found on Buckhorn Lake southwest of and above Burleigh Falls.
It is about a forty-kilometer hike and paddle from the petroglyph site to their community although the area may have been considered the hunting grounds of one of their families before the lumbermen, farmers, and miners started arriving in the 1850s. 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 Most Detailed Study of the Site:
For almost thirty years after the discovery of the site, it received only a 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. In the mid-1960s 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. Almost a half-century later it remains the definitive study of the site. It is also a difficult book to get a hold of – in December 2020 an Amazon seller had a used copy available for CDN $556.86 + $5. for shipping! The Toronto Public Library system does not have a single copy.
The Internet Archive site has a digital copy of the book!
July 2021 Update: A digital copy of the book can be found at the archive.org site! While it cannot be downloaded as a pdf or other file, it can be borrowed for one hour at a time. Signing up with the Internet Archive site is free. Click here to access the site.
Update: After this post was written – but before I found the archive.org site – I stumbled upon this brief passage from the Vastokas book. It examines the history of the site and its connection to those First Nations people now living near it. It supports some of what you’ll read in this post:
“. . . there are no indications that the early settlers or the government survey teams ever came across the site in the course of lumbering, hunting, or exploration. Nor are there any references in the pioneer literature of the area to suggest that the native inhabitants at Chemong Lake or Rice Lake had any knowledge of the petroglyphs.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Stony Lake and the streams and lakes in its vicinity were apparently claimed by the Ojibwa chief Handsome Jack as his hunting and fishing grounds. However, among the interesting details collected by Pelham Mulvaney in 1884 about Handsome Jack, his family, and their lands there is no mention of the petroglyphs.
In 1904, Chief Robert Paudash, a Mississauga from the Rice Lake settlement, recorded the oral traditions concerning the coming of his ancestors from the north shore of Lake Huron to the Trent Valley. Robert Paudash came from a long line of hereditary chiefs and was capable and anxious to record the achievements of the Mississaugas; had he known of the Stony Lake site he would have probably referred to it in the context of the Rice Lake Serpent Mounds, whose authorship he attributed to his forefathers.
In addition, it should be borne in mind that when the Mississaugas arrived in southern Ontario in the eighteenth century, they had already been exposed to considerable contact and trade, and that some of the elements of their new culture might have found their way into the array of engraved forms. There is nothing in the site, however, to suggest European contact.
At the present, therefore, it is not possible to establish a direct link between the native inhabitants at the nearby Chemong Lake and Rice Lake settlements and the petroglyphs at Stony Lake. Nor is it at all likely that the artists were the Ontario Iroquois who occupied sections of the Trent waterway during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The most probable conclusion that can be drawn on the available evidence is that the petroglyphs were engraved by prehistoric Algonkians at the latter end of the Woodland period, sometime between 900 and 1400 A.D.” (Vastokas.1973:26-27).
See here for the online source of the above Vastokas exerpt.
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 one 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 theatre 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.
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 1900s than the paleolithic foraging culture 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 myth of the “Ecological Indian” and the 1970s-penned wisdom of Chief Seattle mixed with various environmentalist concepts. I didn’t realize it at the time but this modern blend of New Age spirituality and 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 select group of 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 Algonkian-speaking cultures, it is referred to as traditional knowledge supposedly not accessible to “outsiders”.
While the original purpose of the site can be guessed at –
- vision quests?
- initiations for shamans?
- the shamans’ source of medicines or guidance from resident manitous? –
the Learning Center repurposes the petroglyph site for interested Anishinaabe as they live their lives in 2015. It has turned into The Teaching Rocks, a site where young select youth were bought by spiritually advanced elders to be introduced to deep religious mysteries.
Culture is indeed a living thing and it changes to suit new realities.
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 Midewiwin (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.
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.
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. Lloyd Walton film: 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. Not clear is if he also wrote it.
See here for a transcript of the film’s narration, along with some additional commentary.
The Vimeo website ,which once hosted the film, had the following brief summary:
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.
In April of 2021 the documentary was uploaded to Youtube. See the full-screen version by going to Youtube.
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.
Fred Wheatley’s Advice To Anishinaabe Youth:
On top of close-up clips of the animals of the Shield country – the moose, beaver, bear, and heron – the narrator provides a commentary that 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 to teach an Ojibwe-language class in a grass-killing structure.
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 ethnocentric “wisdom” for today’s young Ojibwe as they try to find a meaningful role for themselves in the world which they are told is poisoned by the “white man”, who is presented as the ignorant and greedy despoiler of “our mother, the earth”.
Romanticizing the past – advocating a return to an indigenous past that never actually existed – surely is not the answer. And just what do “traditional ways” include? Does it include electricity? Computers? Cell phones? Money? Snowmobiles? Rifles? Boats with kickers? Literacy? Modern medicine and surgery? Hip-hop music? Speaking English or French? A house that you live in all year-’round? A teaching job at one of the white man’s universities? Will “traditional” ways include white dog sacrifices? Special isolated menstruation huts? Vision quests?
A Misrepresentation of the Past:
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”. [For the Ojibwe the Iroquois were the big snakes.] Also known as the Dakotas, the Sioux were a neighbouring people who lived at the west end of 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 battles between the two cultural groups 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 that 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
- Click here to download a copy of William Warren’s
- History of the Ojibways, Based Upon Traditions and Oral Statements, written in the 1850s. He provides detailed accounts of the Ojibwa conflict with the Dakotas.
- See also this article – “The Ojibwa-Iroquois War: The War The Five Nations Did Not Win” for a comprehensive and well-researched summary that sets the record straight.
- The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario by Peter Schmalz (1991) has an excellent summary of the Ojibwa-Iroquois War of the late 1600s. See Chapter 2 –Conquest – “By the Power of the Great Serpent”. The book is available at Amazon here.
Today’s petroglyph site is presented as “The Teaching Rocks”, a place where select young people were supposedly taken as a step in the initiation into becoming shamans. Using the images on the rock as teaching tools, Wheatley states that the young person would learn some of the truths that he would need to become a medicine man in his own right.
It is unlikely that the creators and original users of this rock face used it in this way. What we have here is a modern repurposing of the rock face to fit in with the reality of a contemporary Ojibwe being swamped by external cultural forces and an attempt by its leaders to create a focal point for cultural revival three hundred years after the deluge began.
3. The Petroglyph Site
The Request For No Photos
As we approached the petroglyph site, another sign reminds us – yet again! – that given the sacredness of the site, no photography is allowed. The stated intent is to reinforce the deep spiritual significance of the site. Is it because taking photos would rob the site of its essence – just as some of our ancestors believed that their souls would be stolen if their photo portraits were taken. 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 stupa 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 feels, more than anything else, like petty politics. Having let the folks on duty know my view on the matter, I did abide by it.
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.
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. (Click on the title above to access)
Controversy: Should The Building Have Been Erected?
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 that 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 (who studied under Vastokas) which gives a similar negative assessment of the 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 view on the building – while it may not be perfect, it was the best solution to the realities of the soft limestone rock and the need to protect the ongoing erosion of the petroglyphs from the environment and the impact of visitors walking on the surface of the rock.
Inside The Building Covering The Site:
Once we entered the building itself, I did not take any more photos. For study purposes, it would have been nice to have a set of images that 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. Their five-minute visit left us wondering why they had even 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.
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.
In the above drawings, there are a few images that 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.
Update: I found the following image of the entire site in a Pinterest thread. It provides another perspective of the site –
What Do The Various Images Mean?
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 Algonkian-speaking people like the Algonquin 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.
Female Figure with Menstrual Blood?
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 round pothole as female genitalia. 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 a thanksgiving ritual.
Camel, Moose, or Mishipeshu?
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!”
It most likely is meant to represent a moose or caribou. Another possible 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. It was only after contact with the Jesuits that The Great Lynx came to be associated with evil, right down to the horns of the devil on his head! Whether the cultural group that created these images actually shared the Mishipeshu myth with the Lake Superior Ojibwe is unclear.
The Serpent As Positive Symbol:
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.
A Reference To the Serpent Mounds At Rice Lake?
However, the 1977 Parks document does provide a questionable interpretation of another collection of petroglyphs also featuring a serpent flanked by a row of small circular glyphs:
…one petroglyph depicting a snake with dots signifying eggs is a reproduction of the landscape of the Adena-Hopewell Indian burial ground at Serpent Mounds Provincial Park. See here for the source, p.36
The image below is the “snake with dots signifying eggs” petroglyph referred to in the quote.
This interpretation can be traced back to the Vastokas’ study from 1973.
It presumes that David Boyle was correct in his interpretation of the large burial mound as a serpent effigy and the other oval or circular mounds as “eggs”.
A Google search for a site map of the Serpent Mounds area turned up a sketch drawn by David Boyle, Canada’s pre-eminent archaeologist in the late 1800s, after his 1896 visit to the Rice Lake site, the first by an archaeologist.
The so-called snake mound is about 60 meters (200′) long with the “head” of the snake pointing east/northeast and facing two small mounds. On the south side of the snake are other small mounds. Oddly, Boyle’s ground plan has flipped the layout horizontally; he has the head on the left (i.e.west) side.
To state that what is carved above is a “reproduction of the landscape” of the Rice Lake Serpent Mound is not supported by the facts and the reality on the ground.
While Boyle applied the name “serpent” to the mound in 1896, the two subsequent archaeologists to visit the site both cast doubt and in essence rejected his interpretation –
- Henry Montgomery after a 1909 visit and
- Richard Johnson after five years of work at the site with his Royal Ontario Museum/U of Toronto team from 1955-1960.
Here is the sketch which the Johnson team made of Mound E, Boyle’s “serpent”. It lays to rest Boyle’s notion that the mound was meant to represent a serpent and that the serpent glyph with a row of dots on either side was meant to be a reproduction of or show “a formal affinity” with the Rice Lake burial mounds.
For a deeper look at the Rice Lake Serpent Mounds, check out the following post –
Mikinak – The Turtle:
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 and resist the urge to create a story based on nearby glyphs.
Kitchi Manitou, shaman, or something else?
One unusual image that provokes puzzlement is the one to the right. 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 states: “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 Kitchi Manitou (often translated as “Great Mystery”), it seems unlikely that such an image would have been made. Missing from the phrase “some First Nations” is the qualifier ” a few members of…”. Given that most members of nearby First Nations communities have moved on from traditional Anishinaabe myth and religion, they would be unlikely to have any thoughts on the matter.
Carving a representative image of Kitchi Manitou would be as if the Hindus were to depict Brahman, the God beyond all gods. It was not done. Depictions of the primordial Greek god Ouranos are also very scarce. I have yet to read of or see another example on the Canadian Shield of a depiction of Kitchi Manitou. (Let me know if you can think of one.)
The eminent Canadian archaeologist J.V.Wright, who worked at the Canadian Museum of Civilization for forty years, provides this summary of the pictograph, its possible origin, and its usual interpretation. (Click on his name to access a brief bio.)
[If the Vastokas dates for the petroglyphs are correct, for the Abenaki to be hunting beaver that far west before the arrival of the French – and before it became an essential item of barter which they had depleted further east – does seem unlikely.]
Here is another image – one from Robin Lyke taken in the summer of 1970. It also includes a second circle on a pole but it is not attached to what one could interpret as legs with torso. It should be remembered that the site’s petroglyph cavities were coloured in with carbon crayons and that those who did the colouring may have emphasized or exaggerated certain aspects of the cavities. The image of “Kitchi Manitou” below looks much more defined and definite than the image above.
Looking at the photo above, 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 may say more about how the human mind works than it does about what the rock carvers engraved in the rock face.
Shaman With Turtle Rattle?
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 –
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 –
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!)
Also in the above image, you will find two images associated with Nanaboozoo or Nanabush, the rabbit-eared “trickster” of the 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!
The Jim Werner Website and Images of the Petroglyphs:
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 in the early 1970s. His website has an excellent discussion of the site and has 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 reconstruction 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:
1. The Ontario Gov’t’s 1977 Master Plan for the Park:
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 fewer people are visiting now than forty years ago! If so, I wonder why?
2. Dagmara Zawadzka’s academic paper on the site:
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 chooses to acknowledge) the physical building over the site by the MNR and not its ideological repurposing by some members of the Curve Lake First Nation.
3. Access To a Chapter On the Site by Joan Vastokas
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.
4. A Wide-Ranging and Philosophical Approach To the Site and Its Meaning
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.
5, An Alternative History Approach:
Robert Burcher has developed the unlikely argument that the petroglyphs are the result of an Anishinaabeg hunting party encounter with Celtic sailors sone 2000 years ago. He writes –
The hunters, confounded and frightened, turned back into the safety of the forest. They raced north to a sacred site where they could communicate with their gods. They carved images of the invaders on an expanse of white rock in explanation, perhaps a warning, to their kinsmen who also searched these woods for food and fuel.
With this as the fantastical premise, Burcher’s book The Leather Boat fleshes out a tale in which Celtic-inspired images ended up in the limestone of the central Ontario wilds some 2000 years ago. Entering a world of fiction requires that the audience suspend its disbelief and accept certain things as “true”. Given the out-of-the-way location of the rock face, it would have had zero value as a place to put a warning to kinsmen; it also assumes they would even be able to “read” the supposedly never-seen-before images hammered into the rocks – especially the one on the book’s front cover of the Celtic ship – correctly!
Like me, Burcher 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 to sign out for a quick read.
Next Post – We travel to Bon Echo Provincial Park and check out