‘Preservation’ of Peterborough’s Petroglyphs: When Non-Indigenous People Just Don’t Get it Right
In Part 1, ‘The Mystery of the Peterborough Petroglyphs’, we presented the background to this remarkable collection of over 900 images carved into limestone in Peterborough in Ontario, Canada.
The petroglyphs depict an enormous range of images and scenes from humans going about their daily activities, to gods, shamans, animals, solar symbols, geometric shapes and boats. The local Anishnawbe people and other native Algonquin tribes of Ontario call the rock slab Kinomagewapkong, meaning "the rocks that teach”. The Native people see these rock carvings as a source of great spiritual wisdom.
However, there is much more to this sacred site than just the carvings themselves. The whole area is considered to be a holy place where you could go to enter into the spirit world where nature and the symbols of the rocks became one. There is an intermittent underground stream that, when the water level is high, causes sounds to burble up through the rocks. These noises, along with the sounds of the wind and the rain as they pass the rocks often imitate human voices and Native people believed this was the "Voice of the Spirits" speaking to them.
For the Algonquin people, landscape is sacred and rock art sites are located at the junction of the layers of the universe, that is the Upperworld, the Earth’s plane and the Underwater and Underworld where communication between the cosmic levels is effectuated through openings in the rocks such as caves and crevices where spirits live. Rock art sites are also places where the four elements of water (e.g. underground stream), earth, air and fire (sun) meet and can be experienced physically and spiritually. The four elements are essential in Ojibwa religious thought because they are the primordial substances from which the entire physical world (earth, celestial bodies, plants, animals and people) has been fashioned (Zawadzka, 2008).
Following rediscovery of this site in 1954, the mysterious petroglyphs attracted scholarly attention and captivated the popular imagination leading to an influx of visitors who wished to marvel at the fascinating carvings. Fearing vandalism and deterioration, measures were undertaken to protect the site and in 1984 a building was erected over the white limestone outcrop which completely enclosed the site – without the wind and rain passing through the rock, the “voices of the spirits” could no longer be heard.
When the work crews sponsored by the Ontario Government entered the site to build the paths so that in future years visitors could see the rock outcroppings, they came laden with sledgehammers, pick-axes and shovels and cleared the land of beaver dams, drained the swamps, and cut down trees. Their intentions were to protect a sacred site for future generations to enjoy in the years to come.
And the intentions alone cannot be criticised. The newly constructed building, which effectively turned the site into a museum, was designed to promote respect for the site and educate visitors about indigenous heritage. Pamphlets speak of the sacred nature of the site and photography has been prohibited. Nevertheless, the ‘preservation’ of the Peterborough petroglyphs is a case of good intentions gone wrong and reflects how out of touch non-indigenous people are to nature and surrounding landscape, as well as uneducated about the beliefs and cultural practices of indigenous tribes.
The protective building detracts from the site’s relationship to its natural setting and fails to convey the true spirit of the place. It severs the complex relationship between the images, the sacred rock which is considered a living entity, and the landscape (e.g. the sound of the underground stream has been affected and the visitors are deprived of the sounds surrounding the site and of tactile experiences, such as wind touching one’s skin). While designed to prevent vandalism, the construction of the building itself represents the biggest act of vandalism to have ever taken place at the site.
Moreover, the museum casts Indigenous heritage as a thing of the past and fails to emphasize the continuous relationship and use of the site by Indigenous people. The interpretation of the main glyphs offered on the panels at the site also contributes to the stagnation of the meaning of the images, and the panels “act as tombstones” (Zawadzka, 2008).
It is hard to know what the ancient creators of the site would have thought about attempts to preserve their carvings. Would they have accepted the measures taken to protect their sacred art, or would they have viewed the building as an intrusion into the workings of nature in which decay is an inevitable component of life?
Dagmara Zawadzka (2008). The Peterborough Petroglyphs/ Kinoomaagewaabkong: Confining the Spirit of Place. http://openarchive.icomos.org/233/1/80-W9Fu-143.pdf