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Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

Etched in Time

The Mysterious Carvings of Writing-On-Stone

By Terri Mason

Deep in the undulating hills of southern Alberta, towering spears of sandstone etched with mysterious carvings rise up the banks of the aptly named Milk River. Called Aysin'eep-"has been written"-by the Blackfoot, the surreal landscape of Writing-On-Stone is one of the largest and most studied ancient rock-art sites on the North American Plains. The wheeling hawks overhead and the prairie wind moaning through the hoodoos adds credence to the legend that this is indeed the home of the spirits. "Discovered" in 1855 by treaty negotiator James Doty, these time-worn carvings and paintings have largely defied interpretation and have held fast to their secrets; mainly, who made them and when.

The provincial park was created in 1957 to protect the badly eroded and often defaced markings. Recently named a national historic site, Writing-On-Stone is also the top candidate to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, of which Alberta already has five.

It is suggested that the hoodoos of Writing-On-Stone were a sacred place to a succession of Native cultures. Archaeologists believe that the Shoshoni, who frequented the Milk River valley about 700 years ago, made the earliest surviving carvings. The Shoshoni, who spread northward from the United States, were probably attracted to the area by the abundance of game in an otherwise arid and lifeless landscape. Many of the animals depicted are stylized creatures with characteristics such as antlers, hooves and tails identifying elk. Rattlesnakes and skunks are among the other images. Animals appear as isolated figures or in hunting scenes with humans. Surprisingly, images of bison are scarce, even though they were the lifeblood of the Plains Natives.

To a culture whose strong beliefs centered on the spirit world, the strange shapes of the hoodoos must have seemed an ideal location for a vision quest. Such rituals were usually performed by adolescent boys coming of age or by medicine men seeking guidance. The vision quest ritual of isolation, fasting and sensory deprivation encourages visions of spirits who would aid the seeker in life. The symbolic form of many of the petroglyphs suggests that the seekers carved them-perhaps as a method to gain power or communicate with the spirit world. The true meanings will never be known, as visions granted to a seeker were regarded as personal, and not to be shared.

Perhaps rock-art already existed at the site, encouraging the newcomers to add their own. The Shoshoni developed a distinctive carving style of deeply incised human and animal figures. Notably, there are no horses depicted in the Shoshoni panels, leading to the conclusion that the artwork was created before the early 1700s, before the horse was established on the plains. The Blackfoot, who pushed out the Shoshoni after the horse became established, believed that the petroglyphs were carved by spirits, and were not the handiwork of man. Though Blackfoot artists would later create their own petroglyphs, this belief has persisted down through the ages. Rock carving was probably a very personal act and therefore not revealed to others, so the appearance of new carvings to some may have seemed to be the work of the spirits. We will probably never know for sure, as erosion of the soft sandstone has erased many petroglyphs, and accurate dating is proving to be a daunting task, and perhaps impossible.

Dating pictographs and petroglyphs is very difficult. The usual methods-radiocarbon dating and stratigraphic comparisons-are virtually impossible to apply. Radiocarbon dating is very accurate, providing that the specimen has some organic component such as wood, blood or bone. Unfortunately, grooves in sandstone have none of these characteristics. The same difficulty arises with stratigraphic comparisons, which date specimens based on the sedimentary layer from which they were uncovered. The Writing-On-Stone petroglyphs are not, not have they ever been, buried. To further compound the dating difficulties, the petroglyphs have been exposed to the harsh weathering effects of sun, wind, rain, hail and snow for hundreds of years. Another innovative method of dating-the measurement of lichen growth-has also proved to be disappointing. The vagaries of weather greatly affect growth patterns, and have proven to be an unreliable dating method in the Writing-On-Stone area.

Ironically, it is the visual content of petroglyphs themselves that have given a clue to their actual age. Momentous events in the Plains Native history such as the coming of the horse (estimated around the early 1700s) and the arrival of the gun have proven to be the most accurate dating method of all.

Dating the length of time people have lived in the area has proven to be easier. Archaeologists working at the base of the Milk River cliffs have determined that humans have inhabited this area for at least 3,000 years. Many of the recovered artifacts were buried beneath a meter of sand that had eroded from the cliff face. Erosion, and vandalism, is the greatest dangers facing the sites.  
Visitors can also see evidence of the earliest known vandals-the North West Mounted Police. Frederick Bagley, who travelled through the region in 1874 with a NWMP patrol, wrote, "Many of us, of course, scratched our names on the rock walls." The establishment of a NWMP outpost in 1887 to curb whiskey trading across the Montana-Alberta border also established the first recorded graffiti at the site. Bored men would painstakingly carve their names and initials into the cliff that guarded the entrance to Police Coulee. The cliff, now called Signature Rock, provides a 31-year roll call of the men stationed there. Marksmanship, while a major necessity to life on the plains, nearly spelled disaster for the carvings. They proved to be a tempting target, as bullet holes mar several of the panels. The vandalism did not stop when the outpost was abandoned, but continued unabated until the formation of the provincial park. Because many vandals have defaced the carvings, access is now restricted, and the sites may be visited only on guided tours.

The greatest threat to the site, and most difficult to combat, is nature itself. The soft sandstone cliffs are literally being blown away by erosion. The damage done by the slow, inexorable march of time has obliterated petroglyphs that were photographically recorded a mere 70 years ago. A method to slow or halt the damage has so far eluded archaeologists and researchers, and the site may be doomed to fade into oblivion over the next few centuries.

Writing-On-Stone is a popular recreational site for many vacationers. For some, the campgrounds, walking trails and of course the petroglyphs and pictographs are the main draw to the area. For others, the pull to visit this sacred site transcends the five senses. After chattering visitors have left and twilight descends on the river valley, the area seems more like sacred ground. As the wind moans low through the hoodoos, they seem to take on a life-and a voice-that echoes down through the ages.

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