From Spiritual and Biographic to Boundary-Marketing Deterrent Art: A Reinterpretation of Writing of Writing-on-Stone

By Bouchet-Bert, Luc | Plains Anthropologist, February 1999 | Go to article overview

From Spiritual and Biographic to Boundary-Marketing Deterrent Art: A Reinterpretation of Writing of Writing-on-Stone


Bouchet-Bert, Luc, Plains Anthropologist


ABSTRACT

Writing-On-Stone art has long been interpreted as having been created only for spiritual reasons. While not denying that spiritualism was important at Writing-On-Stone, an examination of the social, political, and geographic contexts of its historic rock art leads to the theory that Writing-On-Stone was also a Blackfoot boundary-marker, and a warning to their enemies not to cross it. Writing-On-Stone was located between the Blackfoot and numerous hostile nations to the south, in an area through which many different groups passed on military and hunting raids into Blackfoot territory. Because Natives used narrative art to boast of prowess and skill and to elevate their status, the heavy presence of this art at Writing-On-Stone in historic times is interpreted as a deliberate message to various enemy groups that the Blackfoot were a force best left unprovoked.

Keywords: Writing-On-Stone; rock art; boundary marking; intimidation tactics; Blackfoot

Writing-On-Stone is a concentration of rock art along a seven km stretch of the Milk River, north of the Sweetgrass Hills, near the Alberta-Montana border. Here eroded sandstone outcrops provide the canvases for the highest concentration of rock art found on the northwestern Plains (Klassen 1995:196). While the origins of this art have remained somewhat controversial, its purpose has been consistently interpreted by scholars as being spiritualistic (ceremonial or iconic) and story-telling (biographic or narrative) in nature. Though agreeing with that basic interpretation, this study considers the entire social, political, and environmental context in which the art was created, and uses textual and archaeological evidence to suggest that this art also functioned as a tribal boundary marker to deter potential enemies.

INTRODUCTION TO THE ART

Writing-On-Stone art is composed of several motifs, including anthropomorphs, zoomorphs, material culture items, tool grooves, and geometric abstracts (Keyser 1977a:124-166). Anthropomorphs are the most common motif, with over 700 at 46 of the 58 sites known in 1977. These comprise several categories: shield-bearing warriors; classic V-neck; other, "more simple" V-necks; rectangular body; X-shaped; stick figure; and abstract and unclassifiable. Anthropomorphs are often depicted in action scenes, most notably horseback riding, combat scenes, battle scenes, and, rarely, hunting scenes (Figure 1 a-d). Material items associated with these anthropomorphs include clothing, weapons, rake-like (ceremonial?) objects, and tipis, while horses are shown with bridles, whips, halters, travois, armor, and saddles.

Horses are by far the most common zoomorph, with 250 at 41 sites (Keyser 1977a:138). Only 12 bison are depicted (keeping with the fact that bison are rare in Northwestern Plains art). Various elk, deer, and pronghorn also occur as isolated figures or in the rare hunting scenes.

There are also tool grooves and geometric abstracts. Tool grooves are long, narrow, and deep grooves common at most of the petroglyph sites at Writing-On-Stone. Most are randomly oriented and scattered haphazardly across the sandstone faces. This suggests they were created from sharpening the bone engraving tools used in carving the rock (Brink 1979). Other grooves, conversely, are short, vertical, of equal length, evenly spaced, and arranged in neat series. These features combined have led to the conclusion that they "probably represent tally marks, although the subjects being counted are unknown" (Keyser 1977a:162). As for geometric abstracts, because these were carved with great care, scholars assume they had symbolic meaning to their makers (Keyser 1997b:4748).

THE ART AND ITS CREATORS PREVIOUS INTERPRETATIONS

James D. Keyser (1977a: 166ff; 1977b), in his extensive analysis of Writing-On-Stone, distinguished two functional rock art types "on the basis of subject matter, variation in composition of site panels, and stylistic differences.

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