Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is nestled into the winding valleys and coulees along Milk River in Southern Alberta. Painted and carved on its fragile sandstone walls are one of the largest collections of rock art in North America. Appropriately named, Writing-on-Stone is a rocky canvas of ancient and historic art that spans many centuries.
To increase awareness of this unique piece of the past and to encourage the preservation of sensitive historic resources, a collaborative team of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the Royal Alberta Museum, and the University of Alberta initiated the Heritage Art Series project. The goal is to create artwork, like the piece depicted above, that captivates the public in order to encourage the appreciation and protection of Alberta’s past.
Rock Art in Alberta
Alberta’s rock art includes pictographs (paintings), petroglyphs (engravings), carved boulders, and effigies (rocks arranged to form shapes). Art that was applied to rock walls has a variety of functions and there are six major types in Alberta.
‘En Toto Pecked’ involves figures that were entirely pecked out of the rock wall and this tradition of art appears in Alberta from 2500-1500 years ago. It is thought to have originated in Wyoming.
‘Vertical Series’ may be a type of rock art that acted as a communication system that related events and actors. It may be ideographic (like Egyptian hieroglyphs) with name glyphs like the Mayans of Central America.
‘Columbia Plateau’ refers to vision quest or hunting ritual art thought to be made by people originally from interior B.C. This style of rock art ranges from a few hundred to several thousand years old.
‘Foothills Abstract’ is a rock art style that consists of enigmatic shapes and motifs that may be the work of religious figures. Subjects include handprints, animals (and their tracks), and stylized humans.
‘Plains Biographical’ refers to rock art that documents events, important figures, or tallies of things acquired/exchanged by the Blackfoot and their ancestors.
Lastly, ‘Plains Ceremonial’ refers to spiritually important rock art that is still of great significance to modern Blackfoot Nations. Out of respect for the power of these and other rock art images to modern First Nations, photographs of the various styles of rock art are not included here.
The Milk River Valley Through Time
First Nations pursued buffalo herds in the Milk River region and view the valley as a sacred place where stories and dreams were recorded on the rock walls. The earliest Europeans included a mix of traders, coal miners, and Northwest Mounted Police, the early history of which is still recorded in modern place names.
Cattle quickly replaced a vacancy left when buffalo were eliminated in the late 1800s. In addition to ranchers, new irrigation techniques and canals opened up the area to more intensive cultivation. Modern users of the Milk River landscape include farmers, Kainai First Nations, oil and gas operators, ranchers, and people in the tourism industry associated with Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and National Historic Site (the photograph below is of the morning light on the park’s sandstone hoodoos, courtesy of Robert Berdan). Just as the uses of the Milk River region have changed in the past, they will continue to evolve in the future.
The above painting by Anne McCartney is a textured narrative of landscape change in the Milk River Valley. The background is from an aerial photograph showing irrigated fields creeping to the valley’s edge. At lower right is a looming sandstone cliff that has witnessed a steady flow of First Nations, traders, miners, explorers, and farmers passing through the valley. In the upper left is a rock art panel depicting a battle scene from the deep past. Recent vandalism of that very panel highlights the need to protect and appreciate the landscape of Writing-on-Stone.
Protecting Rock Art Landscapes
The evocative and significant collection of art at Writing-on-Stone is under constant threat. Sadly, vandalism and graffiti have defaced some of the park’s art but through education and restricted access, much of the vandalism has now been curtailed. Instilling visitors with a healthy respect for the spiritual importance of the area to the modern Blackfoot will help ensure that the landscape is protected. Natural erosion, however, is unstoppable.
Much rock art has disappeared over the centuries from weathering of soft sandstone. New technologies are helping to better document the art and may lead to long term methods that slow rates of erosion. The park has been a key site in North America for experimentation with techniques to protect rock art.
Portable laser scanners have been used to record high-quality images and to produce near-perfect replicas. Artificial drip-lines and plastic caps are diverting water from some exposed panels and a consolidant has been applied in experimental non-rock art locations to test the ability to strengthen rock and prolong the life of rock art images. Note that none of the preservation measures will be applied directly to ancient images without thorough review and cooperation with the Blackfoot people. Rock art left in its natural setting will eventually be lost, but there is much that can be done to enable a prolonged period of appreciation and enjoyment from viewing the hopes and dreams of early artists.
Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, and Jack Brink, Royal Alberta Museum