Experts concerned over threats to rock art from vandalism, theft
For Wisconsin Public Radio – October 20, 2016
MADISON, Wis. — Whether it’s on the Boundary Waters along a cliffside or on the forest trails inside of a cave, rock art can be found on open rock exposures in Wisconsin. These ancient symbols mark the historic communication and artwork of the Native Peoples of America and many are scattered throughout Wisconsin, most notably in the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin. However, the disappearance of rock art has become a growing problem as people continually vandalize or steal the rock art. Geri Schrab, a watercolor artist, and Robert “Ernie” E Boschardt, the former associate director of the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center, have teamed up to combine their individual talents as artist and scientist in the hopes of saving these sacred rock art sites.
What Is Rock Art?
According to the Arkansas Archeological Survey, “rock art” is any type of image, painting, drawing or carving that is imprinted onto a immovable rock surface. A majority of the rock art found is “petrogylphs,” or carvings, that were fashioned into the wall by ancient tools like bone or antlers. The “pictographs,” or paintings, are made by using pigments from minerals like iron or charcoal mixed with animal fat to create a paste that could be applied to the wall.
Most rock art is contained in the Driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin because there is a higher concentration of sandstone and limestone exposures there. In the most recent glacial period of North America, known as the Wisconsin Glaciation, the northern and eastern parts of the state were covered with glacial sheets which smoothed out the terrain of those regions and left less rock exposures. Though there are still some rock art sites in other areas, as Boschardt reminds us that “where rock is exposed, you will find rock art.”
History, Culture & Meaning
Rock art is inexplicably tied to the cultural history of Wisconsin’s Native Peoples.
“It’s a representation of the past, in order to appreciate and understand our heritage and the Native American communities that lived here and continue to live here,” said Boszchardt.
It is a cultural practice to leave tobacco as an offering at rock art sites to honor the manidoo, or spirits. This act is an expression of respect for the sacred connection that rock art holds to many Native peoples. Schrab said that the sites are considered sacred, believed to be expressions of dreams, connections to the spirit worlds, or possibly even communications to the generations that are forthcoming.
There is still, however, much left to understand about rock art and the meaning of many of the individual symbols we see in the rock art are still unknown.
“I don’t think there’s anything really about rock art that’s self-explanatory … or maybe is obvious as it appears on the surface,” said Schrab.
Boszhardt said that about 80 percent of the symbols we see in rock art that we know of is abstract symbols, but the other 20 percent is recognizable figures like buffalo, deer, and birds.
Vandalism & Theft
Ultimately, time will cause the ancient rock arts to fade away. Natural erosion and chemical weathering will slowly degrade the quality of rock art. But a much bigger threat to the existence of rock art is vandalism and theft.
Both Schrab and Boschardt warn against the threat of rock art vandalism. Graffiti spray painted over pictographs and initials carved alongside the ancient petroglyphs on rocks contribute to the disappearance of rock art.
Schrab said, “I think there’s a lack of awareness of what rock art is. They may not recognize it as an ancient historical expression, and so then they add their own initials.”
Additionally, some people have taken to the business of theft in rock art, selling rock art on antiquities markets for profit. But these historical attempts to steal the rock art led to legislation passed to protect the rock art sites of Wisconsin.
Both Schrab and Boschardt are committed to preserving the rock art sites that they work with. Their most recent effort in the fight to protect rock art is the publication of their newest book “Hidden Thunder: Rock Art of the Upper Midwest,” in which they report their personal experiences at 11 rock art sites in Wisconsin.
In their book, they say their biggest tool to combat the cultural destruction of rock art is education. By teaching the teachers in educational settings, awareness and understanding can be built for these historical Wisconsin artifacts.
“Hopefully, through the education efforts, when someone comes upon a rock art site they won’t harm it, and if they see someone harming it, that they will report it,” said Schrab.
Photo: Joshua Mayer (CC-BY-SA)