Stories in the Rock
In Maine’s remote corners an ancient people still speak through enigmatic engravings.
- By: Michael Burke
I am looking, and seeing, but I don’t know what I’m seeing, so I keep on looking. I am standing on an art canvas, a religious site, and a good place to while away the time. It is a cool day in November, not yet cold, that point in November when we still welcome winter.
I am standing on a rock on the shore of Grand Lake Stream, that short, lovely waterway that is famous among fishermen in the northeast. Once one of the great fishing streams in the country, home of land-locked salmon between Grand Lake upstream and Big Lake down, the stream was also once the pathway for Passamaquoddy who traveled through this area before the dam was built that made Grand Lake.
The rock is covered in scratches, gouges, holes, marks. At first the marks are just weatherings, the kind of thing any rock might have, but then as I look harder — although looking “harder” in this case is self-defeating — as I look more carefully, some of the marks become regular, not the random weatherings of water and ice and other rocks. I see a line, another at an angle to the first, and another at an angle to the second, and it becomes a zigzag, and then I see an eye or something like an eye and then I see more lines and more images and I know I am looking at something purposefully made.
It is a petroglyph, rock art, made by someone several hundred years ago, who was kneeling at this same rock then, slowly etching away. It is an excellent spot to do such work. Even on this sunny, brisk November day one can see why this spot would make sense: there is a long view back upstream and the rock is just above a rapid, a good place to take one’s canoe out to portage.
There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who are fascinated by petroglyphs (made by chiseling stone) and who will never pass up a chance to see one. And the rest. If you’re a rock art person you don’t need excuses for your obsession, which is fortunate, because it is hard to explain the fascination.
I have been directed to this spot by Mark Hedden, perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the state when it comes to Maine’s petroglyphs. Hedden gave me directions for finding the Grand Lake Stream site, one of thirteen known (or at least acknowledged) locations in the state, yet even with directions, it was hard to find the site.
The rock is on the right shore directly above . . . well, I can’t say. One of the interesting tensions in the petroglyph world is between the desire to know about these sites, and the need to keep them protected, hidden, even, from the public. The public can’t be trusted, is the subtext to many discussions about sites; the public will destroy, deface, or even carry away rock art, if not prevented either by statute or, better, by ignorance. So I promised Hedden not to tell where the site is. When I finally found the site I was satisfied, though also clueless, and this was just as Mark Hedden had predicted.
On a grey day in early October Hedden and I are at a window table of the Post Office Café in Mount Vernon, looking over Minnehonk Lake. We are having lunch and talking petroglyphs. Hedden is a small man, giving the impression of great tidiness, compactness. He has a bushy grey beard, thick black eyebrows above his thick eyeglasses, and a full head of graying hair. He often wears a fleece vest and a floppy hat held on with a chin string. He is not quite reserved, but definitely quiet. He is eighty-one years old, a native of the suburbs of New York City, and a graduate of that famous and short-lived college of artists and radicals, the Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
I ask him how he got interested in petroglyphs. In the deliberate way he has, he tells me, “I had a high school teacher who had a lot of old books, histories of early European explorers on American shores. I got frustrated by the fact the story did not go earlier than the 1500s in New England.” After college, in the mid-fifties, he signed on as a shovel-hand with the Smithsonian River Basins Survey at the Missouri River Basin in South Dakota, and then in the Columbia River Gorge in the northwest. This is when he first began encountering Native American petroglyphs, “but it took me twenty years to figure out how to deal with them.”
Hedden told me that “to see” petroglyphs required preparation. In fact, he implied that it was more than a waste of time, that it might approach being an outrage. “I don’t encourage visitation at all,” he says, “at least not without considerable orientation beforehand. It’s not just to protect the site, but to help people understand what they’re seeing.” And indeed, “seeing” is exactly the issue, as one often doesn’t see what one is looking at. You might realize there is something there, but you don’t know what it is, and if you do know what it is, you don’t know what it means, and if you know what it’s supposed to mean, you don’t know what that meant to the creator of it, and even if you know that, you still don’t know what those lines in rock mean in their entire context.
So does that make petroglyphs “art,” an expression of the artist, open to interpretation? After all, “rock art” is one of the ways that petroglyphs and pictographs are referred to. Or are they sacred images? Indeed, the dedication page in one book on New England petroglyphs refers to “artists and keepers of the sacred” that nicely captures the tension between thinking of the images, or “ideographs,” as art, or as religion.
Resolving the question turns out to be complicated. Hedden takes his time composing an answer; in fact, it isn’t until he sends me an email months later that I understand.
“Petroglyphs range in quality from fine, delicate workmanship to coarse or rudimentary. But what’s implied in the ideograph refers to the ‘power’ an individual achieves through making himself ‘worthy’ or receiving ‘power.’ “ ‘Art’ comes with baggage in our society. In Western Europe, around 1200 AD, the sense of the invisible, invincible spirit in the church murals gave way to sensual and secular realism. The psychological import of that realism is a consequence of the introduction and spread of literacy, and with it, a sense of ‘mortalness’ of the individual.”
In other words, more sacred than aesthetic.
Hedden adds, at another lunch at the Post Office Café, when Lake Minnehonk is frozen, dotted by icehouses and people walking their dogs on the frozen surface, that “I hesitate to use the term ‘art’ because the sacred gets buried if you do.”
There are only thirteen known sites in Maine, or at least that’s the official word; I sometimes wonder whether those in charge of petroglyph knowledge in the state have their own list, which you can see only if you know the secret handshake. One assumes there must be others, so far undiscovered. “It is safe to assume there are others,” Hedden agrees, “only we haven’t ever found them. They may get found, probably not in my lifetime,” he says, a bit mournfully.
Those others that have yet to be found are not really “lost,” Hedden says around a spoonful of soup. “They were found once, someone knew where they were, but now they’re lost to us, and are waiting to be found again. For example, I finally located a site I had seen references to thirty-five years ago and was led to it by a fisherman. He had noticed it while hunting on an island on 1972. For fifty to a hundred years the images had been hidden under the roots of a large spruce tree before a winter storm knocked it over.”
Maine has the best preserved sites in New England, Hedden says, and he has developed a theory about the locations in which most of the sites are found: “They are in areas with special qualities, quite often at jumping off points for hunting,” Hedden says, pushing aside his soup bowl.
“They’re not inside of settlements, but just outside. I think it’s interesting that they aren’t inside of known settlements, as though they are not part of that ordinary life.” Hedden pauses, reflecting.
The Machias Bay site — known as Birch Point — has the oldest petroglyphs yet found in the state, having been etched three thousand years ago. In July a few years ago, Hedden invites met to join a group he is taking out to see the carvings. The night before we are to visit, a group of about forty locals and summer people gathers at the Cobscook Community Learning Center building in Lubec on a soft summer evening to hear Hedden give a talk and to view the video on rock art he wrote the script for, called“Song of the Drum.”Among the images on the video was that of a shaman, or “Medo’win,” whose arms were gesturing in a fashion called, “killing by pointing.”
What a wonderful phrase! Killing by pointing. Hedden explains in an email that “This seems to be a ‘power’ demonstration by Medo’wins who express their ability to bundle and shoot their ‘power’ into the body of another Medo’win with less ‘power.’ The ‘victim’ in public performance, would fall down ‘dead’ until later revived.”
The next morning we’re up early and drive east out of town, past Machiasport to the Point, where we can see many directions at once. It is a brilliant morning, the fog and clouds having mostly burned off, and once we park at the end of the road, we can see across this narrow part of the bay to Holmes Point, where another petroglyph site is located. The group of us, perhaps fifteen, head off through a field of tall grasses to where the field ends and the rocky shore begins.
Long sheets of rock extend from a bluff into the ocean, forming humps, like beached whales. The humps seem unremarkable, but a small group of us has gathered on one, with Hedden at the center. Hedden is explaining something and I am staring, but like usual, not seeing. I look up, though, at the Bay, and the opposite shore, and the pines on the point just to the south of us, and think what a lovely spot to do such work, and suddenly I have an image of a Sunday painter, in Boston Common or on Cape Elizabeth, setting up to examine the landscape, and to capture it, respond to it, on canvas or paper. I wonder if this is part of the impulse of these carvings, to respond to something about the landscape. After all, the carvings always seem to appear in exquisite locations, with superb views.
Later, at the Post Office Café, I ask Hedden about my theory of inspiring landscapes, and it turns out that I’m partially right. “Oh yes,” he says. “These spots are carefully chosen. . . . ” But again he reminds me that they are also “religious sites.” “The carvings are almost certainly done by shamans, who enter into a trance, a preparation for a visionary experience. The Medo’win had to identify with the locale.”This rock at Birch Point has many crisscrossing lines.
Untrained as I am, the lines seem at first unintentional, but then I realize I have to look past those weathered fractures and cracks, to the pitting beneath them, and slowly an image starts to rise. From my position standing beside the rock, it is an upside-down image, of an animal, probably a deer (Hedden is occupied with others, so I can’t ask him). It has a distinct body, distinct legs and head, a distinct antler set, but I can’t tell if it is a moose rack or a deer rack, or something else altogether. The image has been formed by pitting, what is called “dinting,” repeated pounding with something with a sharp end that is harder than the rock being pounded. On another rock I can see, more clearly, straight lines capped with a little ^, and I have to go to the other side and try to figure out which way to read this: is the ^ on top or on the bottom? It turns out it is a figure of a Medo’win and that ^ is its head. On another hump, Hedden shows us a famous carving of a sailing ship, which is shockingly representational among the more symbolic ideographs.The group of us, as we spread out and wander around, discover our own figures, and we quickly begin to form a self-educating class, instructing each other in what we see. I think about the decision to make an image just here, on just this rock. The thought raises more questions: Why this spot, in terms of its location, what you can see from it, where it is placed? And how did they choose which rock to use as a canvas? Softer rock would have been easier to carve on, but wouldn’t have lasted long — but did they know this rock was the best, or was it a lucky guess? Hedden says yes, clearly they knew what they were doing in choosing this type of rock, and this type of location. But it makes me wonder how we can be certain about any aspect of rock art. (Later, Hedden responds to my wondering: “There are no single interpretations that are ‘bulletproof.’ It is always a best fit within what we know of how the Passamaquoddy expressed themselves within their language and stories.”)
I kneel on the rock alongside Grand Lake Stream and continue to search for images. There it is! An arm! I know it is an arm because it is bent, and there seems to be a bow on one end, and the other is attached to a stick figure person. Or at least I think this is what I see.
There is an unmistakable sense of presence when you are in the company of a petroglyph. For me, at least, the magic is in knowing that someone sat or knelt at this exact spot, and intending to make something that would last for a very long time, would outlast the artist/shaman/graffiti-ist. And not just doodles, if Hedden is to be believed, but something that had powerful meaning for him.
At a rock art location you are standing on the footprints of the creator, you are experiencing the entire physical experience that the artist had, from the rock to the air to the water flowing by on lovely Grand Lake Stream on a crisp autumn day. In a way, you participate in the entire experience, in a manner that isn’t possible when you stand in a crowd at the Vatican Museums.
I trace with my eyes the carving. The image is both a mystery and a fact, and that might explain the appeal of petroglyphs.
- By: Michael Burke