Friday, September 20, 2013

First Nation Rock Art

For the past two years, archaeologists with Parks Canada have been working closely with different Aboriginal communities to preserve, protect, and interpret different rock art sites in the vicinity of the National Parks in the Rocky Mountains. The ultimate goals of the project are to physically protect the sites using digital photography, cultural preservation using traditional knowledge, and communication of the information gathered. The biggest challenge for the project was the fact that many rock art sites are disappearing due to time, weather, vandalism, or some combination of the three. With the help of a digital enhancement technique, known as decorrelation stretch or DStretch, archaeologists are able to enhance images of pictographs for better interpretation and understanding.  

Pictographs are paintings that were created using a mixture of red ochre, a natural iron-based mineral, and animal fat. The mixture was painted onto rock faces to tell stories, describe journeys, and give warnings, among a host of other meanings. Petroglyphs are rock carvings that are created by removing a part of a rock's surface through a variety of techniques.  

If you've been following my blog you will have noticed that I enjoy searching for these sites and photographing what's left of them. Many of the sites are considered sacred so I don't take anything but photographs and leave the site completely undisturbed, as I don't mean any disrespect.

DStretch is a free plugin for ImageJ created by Jon Harman and is available for download on his website. ImageJ is an image processing and analysis program that is written in Java and is also free to download. I downloaded both ImageJ and the DStretch plugin to see if my photos of pictographs held any secrets. The results are below...

Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park, British Columbia
I was first introduced to these pictographs during a white-water rafting trip down the Adams River during our annual family vacation in the Shuswap area. The pictographs found on the canyon walls were most likely painted by the Shuswap people long before the arrival of Europeans. If you search nearby you can see depressions in the ground that are all that remain from kekulis, or pit houses, that were also built by the Shuswap people.

An animal shape painted on the canyon walls
The same photograph after being processed with DStretch
All that remains of the other pictographs in the canyon are red smudges
Unfortunately DStretch isn't a miracle worker and after processing very little can still be seen
Grotto Canyon, Alberta
These pictographs are between 500 and 1,500 years old. There are many interpretations as to how these pictographs arrived at this location. One popular theory is that they were created by the Hopi people who visited the area from their home region in present-day Arizona. The artwork depicts both human figures and animals and there is also one of the flute player known as Kokopelli, which is a traditional symbol of the Hopi people. It is believed that these pictographs are linked to the ones found near Grassi Lakes.

For additional information about the Grotto Canyon pictographs please read the story I wrote for the Calgary Guardian titled Paintings From The Past.

Extremely faded pictographs in Grotto Canyon
After processing triangle-bodied, anthropomorphic figures appear
Very faint
A human figure and the bent-over Kokopelli flute-player on the left
Unfortunately the pictographs in Grotto Canyon have been the victims of continued vandalism
A human figure with a spear hunting a line of animals
It's very hard to distinguish what this is
After processing an animal figure appears
Just a red smudge on the rock wall
This is still very hard to distinguish
Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta
The Milk River Valley contains the largest concentration of First Nation rock art on the great plains of North America. There is evidence that the valley was inhabited as far back as 9,000 years ago and it is believed that the Blackfoot people created most of the artwork in the valley. This is just a sample of what can be seen in the valley. The rest of the artwork is only accessible by guided tour. I hope to get down there and take the tour in the near future.

Update: I was finally able to return to Writing-On-Stone in the summer of 2015 and was fortunate to take the guided tour. You can read all about it on my blog post here.

Petroglyphs carved into the cliffs
These appear to be guns and bullets
I think these are groups human figures separated by circles
A close-up of the triangle-shaped people
Grassi Lakes, Alberta
As mentioned above the pictographs located here are thought to be linked to the ones found in Grotto Canyon and created by the same people; the Hopi. These pictographs are thought to be more than 1,000 years old. One of the pictographs depicts a human-figure holding a large ring. It is believed that this represents a Medicine Man, which happens to be one of the most famous of Hopi legends. The Hopi people, along with many other First Nation groups, believe that Medicine Men were not only healers but were also considered to be seers and philosophers of their own tribes.

A faint human figure holding a small ring
It's definitely clearer after being processed
Another faint pictograph
Although it is much clearer I am still unsure what it is or what it represents
Another pictograph
This one might be some type of animal with large horns or antlers
Another human figure with a much larger ring. Could this be the Medicine Man?
The Medicine Man is very clear, but what about the figure to the right? Is that another human or is it an animal?
Blake Point in Magna Bay, Shuswap Lake, British Columbia
I stumbled across these pictographs on one of our annual Shuswap family vacations. Unfortunately I don't know any of the history about these pictographs. I am assuming they were painted by the Shuswap people. They are located right along the lakeshore and can be seen from the water.

Faint red paintings on the rocks
You get a better sense of the details after processing
Red smudges here and there
There looks to be both humans and animals here. Potentially even the sacred Thunderbird as well.
More red markings
This almost looks like a human/bird hybrid. A spirit symbol perhaps?
Very hard to see
Another human-type figure emerges, but I am unsure what the object is on the right
These could be paintings that represent people
The lower figure looks like a human, but the upper one appears to be a bird or a spirit perhaps
There are a lot of different paintings at this one spot
I am unsure what this one represents
Faded red paint on a white rock
This could be a large animal, like a moose, with a couple of human hunters above
Really tough to tell what's here
To me this looks like a human standing below the sun
Copper Island, Shuswap Lake, British Columbia
Again, I don't know any of the history about these pictographs and again I am assuming they were created by the Shuswap people. Most of them have been lost to time as only faint smudges remain. According to legend Ta Lana, the great bear, sleeps under the island in a large cave.

Faint red smudges on the steep walls of Copper Island
Even after processing all you can see is the fact something was painted here once
More faint pictographs
This could be a human-figure, but it's very hard to tell
Okotoks Erratic, Alberta
The paintings on the Big Rock near Okotoks are anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years old. The rock itself was used by the Blackfoot as a landmark for finding a crossing over the Sheep River before European settlers arrived. There are many legends associated with the rock, so please visit my post dedicated to the Big Rock for further information. According to Elders, the painting on the rock is, "a journey. The arrows point in the direction the people traveled (north), while the moons (circles - at left) tell the time it took to complete the trek. There are seventeen moons in all, it took seventeen months to complete the journey. The symbols and figures at the top of the pictograph painting indicate why the journey was made."

Many of the pictographs on the Big Rock have been badly damaged by repeated vandalism
After processing it still looks like a red smudge
Faint red paint
It still looks like a smear of red
Extremely unclear
Much clearer, but still indecipherable
Large painting under an overhang
This is the painting of the journey that is talked about above. You can see the arrows and the moons.
Cochrane Ranche Historic Site, Alberta
There is a single pictograph and a single petroglyph at the Cochrane Ranche Historic Site. The petroglyph depicts the sun, while the pictograph is of a shield-bearing warrior. This is all the information I have at this time about the history of this site.

A petroglyph of the sun
A very faint pictograph nearby
After processing a shield-bearing warrior becomes very visible
Zephyr Creek, Alberta
Archaeologists believe these pictographs are over 300 years old and were painted by either the Kootenai or Salish First Nation people who lived on the edge of the prairies. Due to their isolated location it is believed that the pictographs are from a successful completion of a Vision Quest ceremony. The site was originally  home to a large collection of artwork, but a rock slide in 1975 destroyed most of them. Today there are two very distinct paintings with a couple more above that have been eroded by time and weather.

This is the clearest pictograph I've seen. Even before processing you can see a human standing in front of an animal.
Running it through DStretch just makes it brighter!
This is the second pictograph that is quite clear
Although damaged, it still resembles a Thunderbird I believe
These red smudges are located above the two clear paintings
After processing you can see that there was a lot of artwork here at one time
We climbed up the steep slope beside these pictographs in search of others
All we found were these two red smudges that have clearly been lost to time
Michel Natal/McGillivray Shelter, British Columbia
This site has two separate human-like figures that are slowly fading away. From what I've read these pictographs are typical of traditional Columbia Plateau Art and it is believed they represent dreams and the acquisition of spiritual power obtained during a Vision Quest.

A red smudge on the rocks
It could be a human body with a spiritual head
The second pictograph is located nearby
It becomes much clearer after processing
Crowsnest Cave on Crowsnest Lake, Alberta
This site holds great spiritual significance for First Nation people. The cave was known to the Blackfoot as, "where the Oldman comes out of the mountain." The entrance to the cave was once covered with pictographs, but sadly today they have been badly vandalized by common graffiti and are all but indecipherable.

Dark red smudges at the cave's entrance
It looks like two separate figures
Another smudged pictograph
I am unsure what this is supposed to be
Ancient artwork competing with modern graffiti
This is a large painting. Could that be a human on the right?
Another painting that has been destroyed by vandalism
It stands out after being processed, but is still unclear
More paintings
This one looks like a human standing inside a circle
Pine Coulee, Alberta
There are two theories about what the pictographs at this site represent. Archaeologists from the Glenbow Museum feel that the pictograph depicts shield-bearing warriors before the introduction of horses, similar to the painting at the Cochrane Ranche site. A member of the Blackfoot community, however, feels that the artwork is telling the legend of the Wedding of Napi. I don't know which theory is correct, but it's neat to hear two completely different theories about the same piece of art.

These pictographs are also quite clear, like the ones at Zephyr Creek
They become even clearer after being processed through DStretch
A rock wall nearby with faded red markings
They stand out a little more now, but are still very unclear
The end of the rock wall
That almost looks like a human hand print
You can read more about the pictograph and petroglyph sites I have visited by visiting my Western Canadian Rock Art section on the Bradshaw Foundation's webpage.

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