As readers know, I’m fascinated by rock art, so Tom Montag – The Middlewesterner’s recent posts about a rock art conference that he is involved with really grabbed my attention. As media coordinator for the 2005 ESRARA Rock Art Conference in Wisconsin, Tom interviewed two participants.
The first one with Jack Steinbring particularly interested me when I read that in the early part of his career he was founder and chair of the anthropology department at the University of Winnipeg. (As some readers know, my childhood and early adult years were spent in Winnipeg, and many happy holidays in the Whiteshell.)
Jack Steinbring describes in fascinating detail the finding and mapping (1966-1970), with a student of his, of the largest petroform site in North America at Tie Creek in Whiteshell Provincial Park. It covers nine acres. It has seven interconnected features, one of them over a hundred feet long. One has a bird shape, one is a huge rectangle, there’s a circle with a triangle in the middle, and a great elliptical shape. These were obviously placed there by man, not by natural agency. The term “petroform” was invented by that student who later became Dr. Peter Douglas Elias. These big features and images imagined from a perspective of altitude were already known in the American southwest and called “geo-glyphs”. After many requests for protection of the site, it was fenced in and locked in 1978. I have never heard about this site or about petroforms until reading this, so it’s exciting to me.
He also says, the image present in the mind of the public is greatly conditioned by the cave art in Europe, which is spectacular, and more attention was directed toward it at the beginning of interest in ancient art. Now we call this “Euro-centric,” meaning that judgments about rock art are conditioned by the rock art of Europe, when in fact rock art covers the globe. There are many areas around the world that have immensely greater concentrations of rock art than Europe – for instance, Australia, South Africa, and the southwestern United States. There’s much more fascinating information, including about the Peachy petroform site near Rosendale, Wisconsin, which will be part of a field trip for the conference participants.
The second interview with Robert (Ernie) Boszhardt is also interesting, dealing mainly with Wisconsin’s petroforms. He adds, The problem is that there are not many rock art sites openly accessible to the public. That is because of the fear of vandalism to the sites, such as the spray-painting at Roche-a-Cri. Or at the Goschell site, where a person tried to saw a piece of rock art out of the rock face and destroyed a pristine site in the process. The dilemma is this: you want to let people see the rock art, so they become excited about it, and at the same time you want to protect the rock art. It takes only one vandal to destroy a site.
In fact it’s also hard to find any images and information on the petroforms online, including Tie Creek petroform site in Manitoba. Manitoba Conservation’s Parks page has a bit about Bannock Point Petroforms: The Bannock Point Petroforms are figures laid out on bedrock in the forms of turtles, snakes and humans, and also in abstract patterns. Anishinabe and other First Nations people believe that they were left here long ago for the benefit of all people that might visit this site to receive their teachings and healing. There are no fixed interpretations of the figures. There are many levels of understanding, therefore, many ways to interpret the teachings.
The Petroforms of Manitoba provides more information with a few illustrations, such as “Teaching Places, Healing Places” on how the sites are still used as sacred places by the Anishinabe. Here’s a definition of petroforms : Petroforms are defined as features formed by the placement (not piling) of stones to create the outlines of figures or shapes. The stones or small boulders are arranged on bedrock outcrops in the shapes of snakes, turtles, humans and geometric forms. Archaeologists group petroforms with rock paintings or “pictographs” and refer to them as “rock art,” although both are thought to have been made by Native people for religious purposes. It seems likely that petroforms were intentionally built in remote places so that whatever ceremonies were conducted there could be done privately.
Some illustrations here remind me of the Seidas of Northern Europe, the ones on fields or forest glens with the rocks laid out in formations, not the stacked rocks. Once again there is evidence of a world-wide similarity in the rock art works of earliest man.
One of the few interpretations given is of this illustration I lifted of a human effigy feature as an example of the theme of Immortality: This feature has to do with a teaching or legend that has a meaning for all people. In the legend, one of the Anishinabe people asked Waynaboozhoo (who is both good and evil, both human and spirit) for everlasting life. This person wanted immortality, so Waynaboozhoo turned him into a rock. We must be careful what we wish for.