(Featuring images from: https://www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/parks/popular_parks/eastern/whiteshell_petro.html)
2005 ESRARA ROCK ART CONFERENCE: AN INTERVIEW WITH JACK STEINBRING
Tom Montag - May 10, 2005
How do you define "rock art?"
Steinbring: Rock art is intentional imagery of some kind placed on or made with rock. Leaving a mark is not confined to the human species. Animals have markings too. When the marking is made by humans, they use human attributes, notably their manual dexterity. The markings are first only elemental marks, but these eventually become formalized and take shapes not found in nature but in the mind and imagination of man. Why rock? Rock is permanent; it will last for a long, long time. We see erosion taking place and markings becoming obliterated over time. Yet in India we still see markings that go back 300,000 years. Some assert that human markings can go back farther than that. It becomes exceedingly complicated as time goes by.
Unfortunately, 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.
How did you become interested in rock art?
Steinbring: Back about 1966 I was lecturing to an introductory anthropology class at the University of Winnipeg and one of the students in the class, who was also studying at the University of Manitoba, came up to me and said, "We were flying over Whiteshell Forest Preserve [now Whiteshell Provincial Park] and we think we found the ruins of an ancient city."
I thought to myself, "Yeah, you did."
"Bring me some pictures and if it is of interest, I'll go take a look."
He brought in photos showing lines of boulders. They looked intriguing. "Maybe you should go out and do a little mapping and measuring," I said. He did. I was getting sold on the idea that there was something there.
It turned out to be the Tie Creek site, the largest petroform site in North America. 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.
First, we had to meticulously map the site. That took three years. We did the first major study of the site, which was published in 1970. The question is: what is this? It's symbolic imagery. It has a shape that precludes ordinary uses. It demonstrates a ceremonial or non-utilitarian function, which puts it in the general category of art. In the American southwest, images like this were already known. They were called "geo-glyphs," big features imagined from a perspective of altitude. They are best seen from above, which is why it is essential that you map them. In the American southwest, they can go on for many hundreds of feet, made not with boulders but by scratching away the desert varnish. The "varnish" is due to the patination of particles on the surface. The images in the American southwest were figures of humans and snakes and long lines that could be visualized from the sky. The Tie Creek site was like that. So my first experience with rock art was with petroforms.
In fact, the group that investigated the Tie Creek site invented the term "petroform," specifically Dr. Peter Douglas Elias, which is actually the fellow who called my attention to the site in the first place. He got more and more interested in anthropology and eventually got a PhD in the field. In the course of our work, we found out that a lot of people already knew about the site.
I felt compelled to study the site because I was the only anthropologist available who had training in both cultural anthropology and archeology. The images were commonly thought to have been created by the Ojibway. But we found evidence that the site was older than that.
The site was threatened by snowmobiles and tracked vehicles fighting forest fires; the vehicles were dislodging boulders. We had evidence that tracked vehicles had already disrupted lines…
Q. How would you explain rock art for today's busy and somewhat material-minded Americans? Why is rock art important? What is its significance to us? Why should we care about preserving it?
Steinbring: I don't think the stereotypically busy, goal-driven, middle class American mind can be changed to appreciate the ancient art of aboriginal America. We have to work indirectly to inspire interest in these things, to educate people who are motivated to learn about ancient art and its meaning. And we have to hope that these people can inspire education that will promote a diversity of non-practical interests. In the final analysis, everything we do, think, or say is dependent on education. If people fail to take an interest in cultural things, it is because education has failed. Education is everything.
Archeology is a lot like poetry – you can't drive it around the block, you can't eat it. It's not utilitarian. You have to love it or leave it alone. Everything I've done in my career has been intended to help people overcome their lack of interest in things cultural. I'll still probably fail, but it won't stop me.
How do we mark our sacred spaces - with pictograph and petroform as earlier people did? Not exactly, though eons hence perhaps someone will have to wonder over the lay of our rocks, the cast of our bronze.
While the work is archeology and anthropology- somewhat cold and disinterested - the task of understanding sacred sites is also holy work and there is room in it for more than the professional. There is room for poet and farmer and any and all of us who care about these places.
(Also from Tom Montag)
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL