The Equinox Petroglyph Project:      

by Mark Hedden

The Artists The Works Shows
About Us

      I was asked by Stephanie Francis and Ann Gommers to write an introduction to the catalogue of the work of the Equinox Petroglyph Project contributors. The Project was inspired by the unique and special nature of petroglyphs that have been found in the upper reaches of Machias Bay.  The art in a variety of media is, appropriately, the work of women and children.  Appropriately, I say, because, in my work as an archaeologist, I have frequently come across comments by Native Americans that the women not only bear and raise the children, they nurture them with the values of their society.  

    Like other Native American groups, the Passamaquoddy/ Maleseet traditions stress connections to people, place and to self.  Connectiveness is also expressed in the words and works of the artists who have contributed to this project.  Pecked lines meander over the surface of rock with petroglyphs at Birch Point and connect the visual imagery of animate beings to the rock's entrances, places where  spirits, seen during trances, may enter.  The ties of relationship to the animate world include the directly personal and, more broadly, ties to common ancestors from the corners of the inhabited world.

    The Passamaquoddy/ Maleseet territory, at the time of contact with Europeans (c. 1600 ADE), extended along Maine's shoreline from the mouth of the Kennebec River to the St. John's River watershed in New Brunswick, Canada. Machias Bay sits in the middle of that extensive territory. The bay was known for abundant natural resources capable of feeding moose, deer, large sea mammals, a variety of birds as well as the people, the scattered bands of Passamaquoddy/Maleseet people who gathered annually to hunt in the fall. There, on the shores of Machias Bay,  they feasted, made trades, played gambling games and had opportunities to find mates. There, if we read the marks rightly, the visionary Medo’wins  performed and, we believe, left signs on the ledges we call petroglyphs. The pecked images may celebrate a successful vision, a cure, a crisis met.

    Wayne Newell, Passamaquoddy linguist, translates maluhsa-h:kan, a Passamaquoddy name for an area where petroglyphs are found, as (a place of) “chopped “ (pecked) “rocks on a shoreline”. I use the word petroglyph, invented in the nineteenth century, which combines Latin for "rock" and Greek for "mark" when talking about Passamaquoddy "pecked rocks on a shoreline".  The term rock art, a term now in  common use, can be misleading, since European conventions tend to distinguish "art" as a product of individual genius.  The original tribal makers of "art" credited influences and investment by spiritual entities as their guides for the work at hand.     

    Through the work of David Lewis-Williams4 and many other researchers over the past three decades, visionary experiences have been shown to be crucial to understanding the forms of prehistoric petroglyphs throughout the world. David Lewis-Williams, through studies of South African rock art  and cosmology, was able to demonstrate that certain abstract forms painted at special places on outcrops of rock were very similar to neural images any of us would and could experience through visions.  These neural forms and abstractions are reported in the modern scientific literature4

    In South Africa, these images were associated with nineteenth century ethnographic accounts about visionary shamans among the San and related bushmen of South Africa.  Lewis-Williams argues persuasively a close connection between visionary shamanism and the petroglyphs of our hunting and gathering ancestors. In Australia, the first hunting and gathering bands of homo sapiens are believed to have arrived as early as  60,000 years ago, bringing with them sophisticated stories and cosmological concepts that were mapped into the landscape features of their territories and continued to the living present.

     The practices and influences of the visionary flourished in a world shaped and made explicit by oral traditions.  Over the past five thousand years, the integrity of societies handed down through oral traditions has been increasingly challenged by the emergence of civilizations based on control through the written word. The same effect is experienced by each of us in our individual lives.We take for granted the tenets of literate civilizations within which we have grown up. Native Americans and other traditional societies remind us of other perspectives and connections rooted in sensual perceptions.

    Implicit in Native American oral traditions and languages is the concept that all live beings express energy, power. All inert things contain potential energy, power. This appears in the active/passive modes of the Passamaquoddy language (Wayne Newell Personal Communication 1998). These modes are the grammatical equivalents of gender distinctions in the Indo-European family of languages, such as Spanish or English. Native Americans distinguish between what is now active and or now inactive with the sense that these appearances may be reversed, any time.  Passamaquoddy, and other Native American languages, relate changes or transformations between transient energy and temporarily constant matter in expressions that are accurate to modern scientific thought1.

   In tribal cultures, personal power is obtained through training, fasting, light deprivation, staying alone in special places and other preparations until visions appear. Visions show the way.  The Passamaquoddy call a visionary who has obtained power and serves the people as a Medo’win (which translates as “hollow, like a drum”. The term "hollow" implies that the visionary has made him or herself "empty", receptive to spiritual powers).  In times of crisis, public or personal, the visionary was consulted.

    Native Americans made the marks on rock ledges in Machias Bay and at a few other locations in Maine. We infer, from a variety of Native American sources, that the visionary Medo'win made the marks on stone. This is consistent with what we know of the nature of petroglyphs elsewhere in the inhabited world4
The ledges chosen for Machias Bay petroglyphs were those visited by birds and washed by river or tidal waters3. These marks were pecked into the ledges with hammerstones of harder rock.

     The rocks were houses where spirits resided. The Medo'win  could enter. Birds were the messengers to spirits above. Diving mammals carried pleas for help to the deeps. Small creatures, like the chameleons, squirreled into the crevices of rock.     
    The marks may show the Medo’win in a trance, standing, his body hollow,  curved like an hour-glass, pinched at the midsection and opening outward above and below, -  his body, in dream, forms a passage to the heavens and the deeps.
    The marks may show a Medo’win  in a public performance, his arms out and bent upward at the elbows, offering unseen gifts, or bent downward towards the source of his power, or with body and head shaped like a raptorial bird, flying high, like an eagle.

    Many of the marks are unique.  Many can be traced back thousands of years in the rock markings of other countries, other times.  All are rooted in the sense of the sacred, the unknowable mysteries of creation,  the ever shifting forms of natural energies.
                    Mark Hedden   May 5th, 2008

Citations, Comments and Recommended Readings
1)    Abrams, David
1996    The Spell of the Sensuous:Perception: Perc eption and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage Books
One of the better definitions I have seen of how writing has influenced perception.
2)    Hedden, Mark H. Hedden
2002    Contact Period Petroglyphs in Machias Bay, Maine. Archaeology of Eastern North America   30:1-20
An interpretation of a petroglyph portraying an early 17th century ship with shaman's signs as a comment on contact with Europeans prostylizing religion.
3)    2004   Passamaquoddy Shamanism and Rock Art in Machias Bay, Maine. IN:Rock Art of Eastern North America. Edited by Carol Diaz Granados and Jame R. Duncan  Ch.19, pp319-343. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa
Most complete and up-to-date summary of Machias Bay Petroglyphs over a three thousand year period.
4)     Lewis-Williams, J.David
2002    A Cosmos on Stone, Interpreting Religion and Society through Rock Art. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek
A compilation of essays by Lewis-Williams that chronicle the development of his theories over a thirty year period.
5)    Rajnovich, Grace R.
1988    Reading Rock Art, Interpreting the Indian Rock Art of the Canadian Shield. National Heritage/Natural History, Inc. Toronto
A compilation of sources, interpretations and examples of rock art in Algonkian territories around the Great Lakes & Canada.
6)    Whitehead, Ruth Holmes
1988    Stories from the Six Worlds, Micmac Legends. Nimbus Publishing,Ltd. Halifax          
Her introductory essay is a classic in understanding the stories from a Native American perspective.