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Site Profile: Writing-On-Stone

Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park

Nothing about the gently rolling prairie of south-centralAlberta - not even Montana's smoky Sweetgrass Hills on thesouthern horizon - prepares you for the sudden spectacle ofWriting-On-Stone. The experience is akin to stumbling upon acathedral in the desert, only in this instance your gaze travelsnot up but down for this remarkable place abruptly descends intothe earth, away from the heavens.

A Petroglyph from Writing-On-Stone Provincial parkAt the end of the last ice age, 11,000 years ago, torrents ofwater from melting mountain glaciers turned into a raging riverslicing through soft sandstone deposited 80 million years earlieron what had been a shallow marine shelf. As the glacial watersebbed and the Milk River slowly shriveled to the gentle meander itis today, a steep and immense canyon was left, its exposed cliffs,some as high as 50 metres (164 feet), further eroded by wind,water and the cycles of freezing and thawing. The result: alandscape at once compelling and forbidding. In sunlight, it is agarden of shadows, unearthly, almost unnerving. Even the mostdedicated disciple of the rational can't elude the feeling thatWriting-On-Stone is a supernaturally charged spot.

The Siksika, the people of the Blackfoot Nation which began todominate southern Alberta several hundred years ago, named thesite along the Milk River Aisinai'pi - "it has beenwritten." What they found (and what they themselvesaugmented) were hundreds of petroglyphs (rock carvings) andpictographs (rock paintings), the largest single concentration ofnative rock art on the North American plains. While Archaeologicalevidence suggests that people have camped at Writing-On-Stone forat least 3,000 years, it appears most o the rock art is between100 and 500 years old with some of the depictions possibly as oldas 1,000 years. Very early works may have simply weathered away.

Petroglyph outline from Writing-On-StoneAn important stop on the seasonal round in pre-contact timesfor the nomadic Shoshone, Kutenai and Atsina peoples as well asfor the Siksika who supplanted them, the Milk River Valley wasattractive for its abundance of game and berries, its availablewater, and its shelter from the wind. The petroglyphs (incised,using sharpened bone or stone) and the pictographs (painted, usingochre - iron ore mixed with water) vividly record in stylizedfashion both the ceremonial and biographical details of nativelife. Chief among the latter are the accomplishments of successfulhunters and warriors, the weapons they used (bows and spears), theanimals they hunted (bison, bear ,mountain sheep, deer andantelope) and the enemies they slew.

But the spectacular cliffs and otherworldly rock formations ofWriting-On-Stone undoubtedly quickened the spiritual pulse ofAlberta's first peoples. Many of the details carved into therock - heraldic devices on shields, headdresses of horns andsunbursts, cryptic lines and shapes - appear to have aceremonial purpose and may represent the relationship betweenindividuals and the spirit world or commemorate visions. Such artis strongly associated with the vision quest, the rite of passagein which a young person fasted in an isolated sacred locationwaiting for a guiding vision, even though Writing-On-Stone was nota typical vision quest site.

A Petroglyph from Writing-On-Stone Provincial parkSince the Siksika believed the "writings" were thework of the spirit world in earlier times, elders often visitedWriting-On-Stone to consult the rock art for signs and portentsand to create new works based on their own visions of the spiritworld. Accounts of the Blackfoot suggest their people maintained arespectful distance from the writings on the steep cliff walls,visiting rather than camping. Until recently, archaeologistsbelieved this to be true of other cultures as well. Whilearrowheads, stone tools and firepits had been found inWriting-On-Stone Provincial Park, no tipi rings were evident. Morerecently, however, such rings, as well as a medicine wheel on thevalley rim seem to indicate that the valley was used as more thana temporary camp. Further, near the cliff walls, graves have beenfound, apparently of men of stature, for with the bodies weregrave goods such as tools, clothing and beads, underscoring thestatus of the deceased and the sacramental nature of the site.

A Pictograph from Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park

Erosion is the architect of this phantasmagoria. Raging glacial meltwater laid the groundwork 11,000 years ago, but wind and rain, freezing and thawing, have carried on the task ever since.Life changed dramatically for the people of Alberta with theintrusion of Europeans into the northwestern plains. That changeis readily discernible in the altered style and content of theglyphs, notably by renderings of the horse and the gun, each ofwhich was introduced into the area after about 1730AD. Inpre-contact glyphs, human figures are represented by eitherdistinctive V-neck or rectangular body shapes, accompanied bylances, bows or clubs, and, notably, by large shields withheraldic designs. After 1730, the human figures become morestick-like, less precise in execution but more fluid in motion,often engaged riding horses in combat. Lines of dots indicate gunfire and dashes represent flying arrows. The shields, likely toocumbersome for mounted warfare, are gone. One of the mostelaborate of the 58 rock art sites at Writing-On-Stone is fromthis period. Featuring 71 warriors in an attack on an encampmentof tipis, it is thought to be the portrayal of a great battlefought in 1866 between the Atsina and Peigan or Piikani, one ofthe three tribes of the Siksika nation.

For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, people drawn to Writing-On-Stone's ethereal beauty have left signs of their passing, sometimes carving or painting on the soft sandstone figures such as those to the right, commemorating a successful hunt or battle. Most of this precious rock art can now be seen only by guided tour.By the end of the 19th century, with the bison gone and thetraditional Siksika way of life under severe stress, renderingvisions and stories on the sandstone cliffs of Writing-On-Stonevirtually ceased. What has endured on the cliffs will one day belost. Natural erosion cannot be stopped. But for now, thetantalizing images remain, drawing us nearer to a past that maynever be gully illumined.

GETTING THERE: Approximately 320 kilometres (198 miles)southeast of Calgary, Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park straddlesthe Milk River eight kilometers (five miles) north of theCanada/U.S. border. From Milk River on Highway 4, go east onHighway 501 for 31 kilometres (19 miles), then 10 kilometres (6.2miles) south following the signs. Some rock art may be viewedalong a self-guiding interpretive trail. Most sites, however, areaccessible only by guided walks, scheduled from mid-May to earlySeptember.

Writing-on-Stone archaeological calendar

Reprinted from Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway's InSearch of Ancient Alberta with kind permission from HeartlandAssociates, Inc.

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