As a member of the Mid-America Geographic Foundation, I've been called on to serve as "media coordinator" for the 2005 ESRARA Rock Art Conference being held at Ripon College later this month. In that capacity, to call attention to the conference and to the study of rock art, I have prepared a news release and interviews with two of the conference participants; these went out Friday for release on May 9, 2005. I'm sharing that material here as well: yesterday, the news release; today, an interview with conference organizer and presenter Jack Steinbring of Ripon College and the University of Wisconsin-Oshksoh; tomorrow, an interview with Robert (Ernie) Boszhardt of the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who will speak at the ESRARA banquet and help lead the field trip to western Wisconsin.
Q. What is your official title?
Q. What is your official title?
Steinbring: I'm an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and an Adjunct Scholar in Anthropology at Ripon College. I retired from a career at the University of Winnipeg after founding the anthropology department there and chairing it for nine years. I am the coordinator for the 2005 ESRARA Conference and also belong to the Mid-America Geographic Foundation and the Rock River Archaeological Society, which are the local hosts of this conference. At the ESRARA conference in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2003, Mid-America issued an invitation to the organization to hold its 2005 conference in Wisconsin. They accepted the invitation. Ripon College is an excellent facility for a conference of this sort, at an excellent price. Mid-America hosted an earlier rock art conference at Ripon and everyone appreciated the facilities here. Rock River has several sites that will be on our field trips and they will also be providing help at the conference.
Q. 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.
Q. 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.
Such lines may have astronomical properties; the alignment may be to a sky phenomenon, such as the rising and falling of Venus or Mars, the moon, Polaris, etc. We found a long alignment of boulders at Tie Creek with the rising of the midsummer sun, which is also found at other sites. Once you kick boulders out of line, you lose those astronomical properties and you lose the value of the site.
I was not bashful about telling people the site was endangered by tracked vehicles. I approached the Provincial government about protecting the site. I first heard of the site in 1966, we published the first major study of it in 1970, and by 1977 the government had still done nothing to protect it. In 1977 I delivered a paper to the Canadian Association of Landscape Architects. You might say it was an "electric" paper. It got the government to move, to protect the site. They have surrounded the entire nine acres of the site with an eight foot steel fence with three inch steel posts – all the way around the circumference. They had to drill holes into the Canadian Shield for the posts. By late 1978, the job was done. One gate, one lock, one key.
It's a compelling site. The Indians there, mostly Ojibway, feel the site has mystical properties. So would you if you were standing on it. My research couldn't establish a connection between the site and existing cultures.
That's how I got involved in rock art – a major research and major conservation project.
Most of the time since then I've had rock art as one of my conscious directions. I continued to do research with the aboriginal communities – for instance, I initiated the investigation into the impact of television on Native children. I was always doing three or four things at the same time, and one or two of them would involve rock art.
It was about 1969 that I got involved with my first rock painting. I was living at the Little Black River Indian Reserve off and on doing field anthropology for six or eight years, then I did research on the Jackhead Indian Reserve after that. The brother of my mentor at the Little Black River Reserve said to me, "Jack, how did those old people know about airplanes and rockets and all that stuff?"
"Well, go up in those rocks, there are pictures of airplanes and rockets."
"Where are they?"
"You know where Rice River comes down a little from Rice Lake? On the north side of the river, you'll see a picture of a man."
Peter Douglas Elias was flying over that way to do some work. I said to him, "When you go over Rice River, have the pilot get down low so you can get a photo of that rock formation." So he did that. He couldn't see anything on the rock face from the airplane, but he took the photograph and sent me the film. I had it developed, and had it blown up to almost life size, and there's the rock painting.
I said to my mentor, "Edward, how would you like to ride in an airplane?" He'd flown before, into the bush to fight forest fires. The pilot landed on the river in front of Edward's house. We flew to Rice River. There was a boat moored on the river. We got that and I did my work – measurements, examining the lichens, etc. How do you tie this to a living culture? I asked Edward to interpret the image for me. He said, "That's a medicine man. He's going down to Black Island. He's a Midewewin. He's going down the river to participate in rituals on Black Island."
The figure had an hour glass shape. I said to Edward, "What is this that he is standing on?"
"That's a bed," Edward said. "That's the bed the old people had in the trees. They would stare at the sun. That's where they would get their dreams."
The figure was of a shaman going down river to the Grand Medicine Society fall event on Black Island. The medicine man himself put the image up there, to commemorate the ceremony. In 1926, Edward had been present at the last Midewewin ceremony in the Lake Winnipeg area. The figure on the rock had been put there about 1800. The color of the pigment is what makes me give that date. The deep red was an older pigment.
All my career I've tried linking living cultures with archeological phenomena. I haven't always been successful, but this was one success.
I've always been interested in finding things out. Studying rock art is an exploration of the past, a look into the mind of past peoples. Rock art is non-utilitarian. So much of the debris of the past is utilitarian – arrowheads, pottery shards. Rock art leads into the non-material aspects of the culture of those ancient peoples, the only way to peer into their supernatural perceptions and their thinking about the mystical governance of human affairs.
It's easy to be sidetracked, to get captivated by the imagination involved in all of this. I don't mind. I'll take a crack at it.
I became involved in rock art in 1966 and by 1976 I had attended my first meeting of the American Rock Art Research Association in Ridgecrest, California. That was the first time my wife was able to go to a conference with me – our children had grown to the point where we could do that. After that, she became my field assistant and would take all of my dictation in the field. I would do my dictation on the site, all these measurements and so on.
I've published a lot of papers reporting on my research. As I say, I'm always doing two or three or four things at the same time. It works. I do that, and I don't know why, and I don't know that I want to know.
Q. Tell me about the paper you'll be delivering at the conference on the origins of rock art in the Americas. What are participants going to hear?
Steinbring: I'll convey ideas about the origin of prehistoric rock art in the Americas. I want to link the iconography of this art with identifiable archeological complexes. Right now we are living in revolutionary times in Archeology. The "Clovis First" paradigm has dominated perceptions of early man in the Americas since 1930. We are now coming to the conclusion that this culture probably was not the first to inhabit North America, that there was something that preceded Clovis. And I myself believe that rock art was present in the Americas before the full establishment of Clovis culture. And there is clear evidence that Clovis culture had at least a mobiliary [portable] form of rock art, small decorated limestone cobbles and pebbles. The counterpart of this iconography is present on rock art on formations. I'll show enough slides to convince them of the connection between the Clovis cobbles and rock art images. I call this kind of art "elemental forms," pit and grooves, which is regarded as the earliest form here. Elemental forms as so simple they can be re-invented infinitely. I have to distinguish between those that are really old and those that are not – and I can do that. Some of the sites are at least 6700 years old, overlaid with ash from the Mazama eruption.
Q. Tell me about your work with the Peachy petroform site near Rosendale, Wisconsin, which will be on Sunday's field trip. What is the site? How old is it? When and how did it get there? What does it mean?
Steinbring: The Peachy petroform site is significant because there has been a large number of stone tools recovered from the surrounding area. There are at least three petroforms at the site which are not disturbed. The environment was oak-savanna remnant in what is now low ground. Initially it was puzzling why they'd produced these boulder arrangements in a such low area. Then we found that the site had originally been an oak-savanna remnant, which suggests it could 7000-8000 years old – that was a time of extreme heat and aridity.
I've been conducting excavations at the site for three years; 2005 will be our fourth year at it.
At this site, the boulders were laid down at a time when soil formation had accumulated to a point 12 cm. above the glacial lake. How long does it take for 12 cm. of soil to develop, assuming the glacial lake dried up 9000-10,000 years ago. The 12 cm. of soil would put the site in the age range of 7000-8000 years.
We found where some posts had been driven into the ground, but not in an arrangement that would suggest dwellings. Since the petroforms are some form of ceremonial structure, posts might have been standards for suspending some ritual objects. The boulders were laid down after the posts had been in position and had rotted away and were already becoming soil again.
In the early part of the creation of this site, animal bones had been broken up and scattered on the soil before the boulders were laid down. There are precedents for that. There's a good site in Canada that shows a similar scattering of animal bones.
The stone artifacts found in the vicinity of this site all seem to be from the same period as the arrangement of boulders. The style of the artifacts helps us determine their age. On the field trip, we'll have the Peachy collection available for people to look at.
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.
Tomorrow: An Interview with Robert (Ernie) Boszhardt