by Tim Jones, originally published in The Green & White: University of Saskatchewan Alumni Association Magazine, Spring, 1984
Wherever rock outcroppings occur across the earth, a suitable medium exists for either rock paintings (pigment applied to a rock surface) or rock carvings ("petroglyphs" - figures made by incising part of a rock surface).
There are tens of thousands of places where prehistoric hunter/gatherers and pastoralists have carved or painted images of their material and non-material interests on durable rock faces. Rock art is the earliest of human artistic endeavors, dating back some 40,000 years in western Europe, and may be found on every continent except Antarctica.
Various international bodies such as UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites recently affirmed the importance of this form of cultural heritage by taking steps toward a world strategy to safeguard and evaluate it, and to promote knowledge and information the field of rock art.
Canada and Saskatchewan share some of this heritage, but we still have not even recorded all our rock art sites, let alone determined their ages, meanings, or authors. And there still is only a handful of researchers working in this field.
From the inception of the University of Saskatchewan's Department of Anthropology and Archaeology in 1964-65 however, this University has made its contribution to this unique part of our cultural and historic heritage.
In 1964 Zenon Pohorecky became the first professor to teach anthropology at the U of S. He immediately became very busy, responding to all manner of anthropological questions from students, colleagues, and the general public.
I was one of his first students, and early in the term took to him some color slides I had recently shot of some small, red, rock paintings on Kipahigan Lake, 70 km north of Flin Flon, Manitoba (photo above is of Kipahigan Lake). Because Dr. Pohorecky was so busy and because the subject matter of anthropology and archaeology was so vast, I thought he might be only mildly interested in seeing the photographs.
I had been working that summer on a geological field party and heard there were rock paintings only 11 kilometres from our camp on Kipahigan Lake. Visiting the site, I was intrigued and resolved to learn more about these animal, human, and abstract figures on the low cliffs jutting from the water.
One excellent book, Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes (1962), by Selwyn Dewdney and Kenneth Kidd, detailed what was then known about the art; but the authors revealed that a great deal more was unknown, and that there was a need for more archaeological study of it.
I was wrong about Dr. Pohorecky's likely reaction to my slides - he was most interested, and very enthusiastic about having this little-known part of Saskatchewan's archaeology studied. Would I be interested in spending the next summer recording rock paintings if money could be found? I hadn't thought about it, but sure, why not?
Thanks particularly to the good offices of Dr. Walter Kupsch, director of the then-existing Institute for Northern Studies, Dr. Pohorecky's application for costs for myself and an assistant was successful. Thus, through a series of small discoveries and with the Institute's support and encouragement, I began my career as an anthropologist and archaeologist.
In the summer of 1965, Wayne Morris and I logged over 1,600 kilometres with a canoe and small motor, visiting 26 sites, mostly on the Churchill, Reindeer, and Sturgeon-Weir Rivers. Our prime concerns in this new area of research were to try to determine how many sites there were, how they could be located, and what techniques should be used to record them on firm, celluloid, and paper.
The logistical problems, though considerable, were easily enough solved through the hospitality and assistance of northern people during our travels over the years. The Rocky and Swampy Cree trappers, fishermen, and other northerners in Manitoba and Saskatchewan pinpointed virtually all the sites, and provided abundant historical, folkloric, and other cultural information on the rock paintings.
Rock art poses many such challenges and many fascinating questions. It is for these reasons the Canadian Rock Art Research Associates (CRARA) was formed in 1969. This organization has a Canada-wide membership of scholars and interested citizens, as well as members in other countries. The Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the U of S has actively supported this aspect of rock art activity as well, organizing two of CRARA's national conferences in 1971 and 1980, and publishing the CRARA Newsletter since 1978.
What have we learned about the rock paintings of the Canadian Shield since the mid 1960s?
We now know that the Canadian Shield style of rock art paintings occurs in a geographical region stretching from northwestern Saskatchewan as far east as Quebec, as far north as Reindeer Lake, and as far south as Minnesota. There are at least 70 known sites in northern Saskatchewan, and some 700 sites throughout the region as a whole, The paintings were made using iron oxide (haematite) as the mineral pigment, probably isinglass fish glue as the binder, and fingers, feathers or other simple brushes as the applicator.
From the evidence of Cree and Ojibwa Indian oral traditions, and early European explorers' writings, many of the paintings are known to be at least 200-300 years old, but archaeological cross-dating evidence from the Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union suggests that our paintings could be 3,500 years old or more. The Urals rock paintings occur in very similar geological and climatic circumstances to the northern Canadian ones.
Most evidence appears to indicate that the paintings reflect the religious philosophy of historical and ancestral Cree and Ojibwa. These hunters and fishers emphasized individual vision-seeking as the major focus of religious experience.
Youths would go into the forest alone and fast, and would dream of particular objects or animals. One of these would be singled out as the guardian spirit of the faster, and would thereafter be a special guiding and protecting force in that person's life. The images we see in the rock paintings that have escaped erosion or human destruction are probably connected with these puberty-period visions or with predictive or curing ceremonies conducted by the Cree religious specialists, the shamans or "medicine men".
Because many of the images are abstract or esoteric, and highly individualistic, we can probably never fully interpret or fathom their meanings. The artists are now far-removed in time and remain distant in cultural experience from ourselves; but we can still appreciate and wonder at this "natural art" in its original and appropriate settings.
The Cree word for the paintings on the vertical rock faces next to the water translates, more or less, as "writings on the rocks." Modern descendants of the ancient artists regard the paintings as a form of "writing" - that is, visual communication symbols - which most people today can no longer interpret. This is as appropriate a description as any.
To the modern archaeologist or other observer who tries to understand (knowing that we may not be able to interpret) this writing, the rock paintings are a unique visual record of some aspects of the life of the cultures that engaged in this form of cultural expression.