Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Glenwood Erratic petroglyph vandalism: some red flags

The Glenwood Erratic
From The Pincher Creek Voice (C. Davis Photo)

News of unusual vandalism of a petroglyph site (the Glenwood Erratic) in southern Alberta has been making the rounds.  It is not the fact of vandalism that is unusual (unfortunately vandalism of Native American sites is not unusual), but the nature of the vandalism. The vandals reportedly used a power-washer, powerful acid, and a rock drill to destroy the petroglyphs, as well as supporting materiel—a truck, portable generator, and a 16 ft ladder.  That’s not casual vandalism.  It was reported in The Indian Country Today Media Network--“Aboriginal Petroglyphs Destroyed By Vandals Armed With Acid and a Drill.” The Indian Country article is based on a report to the Pincher Creek Voice by one Stan Knowlton, who identified the vandalism ("Local history drilled out and washed away? Update"). This article gives some insight into what might be going on here.  The photos are particularly informative. 

One interesting development is the RCMP, the Alberta Archaeological Survey, the Royal Alberta Museum, and the Writing on Stone archaeological department (the what?! The Writing on Stone Provincial Park  archaeological department) found no evidence that there were petroglyphs at the site or that any vandalism had taken place. 

I can’t reach any solid conclusions about what went on at the Glenwood Erratic, not off a couple of newspaper articles, but there are certainly some red flags in the articles that indicate something odd is going on.
Red Flag 1: An unknown form of writing
Knowlton pointed out in his report that this is just the latest in a string of vandalized pictogram and petroglyph sites in Alberta and thinks someone is out to destroy evidence that could prove the Blackfoot First Nations had a written language before European migration.
“I suspect the link to this destruction is to nullify my long held claim that the Blackfoot had a written language before missionaries arrived, which could force archeologists to rewrite history,” Knowlton wrote in his report.
The writings on the erratic—a rock that differs in size and shape from the rock surrounding it, having been transported from its place of origin by glacial action—were highlighted and preserved using red ochre.
“Blackfoot/Cree Blackfoot is the older version of syllabic writing,” he told the Pincher Creek Voice. “This glacial erratic was dropped here about 10,000 years ago. It’s hard to date the writings. It would have been possible to carbon date the oils in the red ochre.” (ICTM)
 The idea the Blackfoot had a written language, a syllabic one to boot, is a big claim.  Full-blown writing systems are usually associated with militarized states, which is unsurprising since writing probably developed out of record keeping and taxation. 

Even more surprising is Knowlton’s claim that he can read this hitherto unknown language
As the lichen crust was so thick it was hard to get a good image of the entire rock surface. Several places were covered in a thick layer of sahm (Red Ocher) and the syllabic characters were partially exposed. The best I could make out was NA WE NI T_ __ __ __ O ^. The whole surface was a face and the syllabic characters were in or near the eyes. [Knowlton 2012]
Since whatever Knowlton claimed he saw is no longer there, and since he made no record of it when he did see it, not so much as a cellphone photo, we can't say much.  Previous claims of precontact writing systems in North America have not panned out.  Probably the most notorious one is Barry Fell and his identification of something called “Punic Ogham” all over North America, pretty much anywhere he found parallel scratches.

Knowlton’s claim that red ochre survived for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years on a very exposed erratic on the prairie also needs to be examined carefully.  It seems unlikely. 

Red Flag 2: The Evidence
Obviously there is no evidence for writing (since it has been destroyed) but the evidence for the vandalism itself, at least as given in the photos, is not convincing.  The staining and discolored depression supposedly caused by acid is visually indistinguishable from natural weathering and water staining.
Acid/detergent damage
From The Pincher Creek Voice (C. Davis Photo)
The drilled section looks bad until you realise it is only an 8x4 inch area.  They are not drill holes, but core holes.  They were made by a hollow drill.  This looks like geological sampling, which is what the RCMP investigation concluded. 
Drill damage
From The Pincher Creek Voice (C. Davis Photo)
There is apparently a second drilled area, but since this is the one that is appearing in the media, it is safe to assume it is the more dramatic example.

The amount of work Knowlton is claiming the vandals put in is also eye-raising.  Who hauls out a generator, lights, a drill, 100+ litres of detergent, and powerful acid to destroy petroglyphs?  What the hell is wrong with using a hammer?

Red Flag 3: Conspiracy theory
I am not sure what evidence Knowlton has for his writing theory, but one thing we do know is that what evidence exists is being destroyed by a cabal of archaeologists (of course).
 After spending an hour or two at the Glenwood Erratic site, Stan Knowlton took us on a lengthy tour of another site on the Piikani Nation. Following a path that he said was the original pioneer highway for wagons running between Fort Macleod and Pincher Creek, we came to an area that demonstrated the systematic destruction of a culture.  Huge holes left behind are now all that are left of the erratics there and pillars that were deliberately dynamited in the 1920's in an apparent attempt to remove any and all references to the culture that existed there before the europeans came.  Historian George Classen wrote "Stonehenge of the Foothills" about this site. [Davis and Lucas 2012]
 And in Knowlton's own words:
In 1884, George Dawson records petroglyphs located on the bank of the big bend in the river west of Monarch, they are gone now. In the 1960's the Big Rock at Okotoks had petroglyphs and those were drilled out and recently sanitized. Now, Glenwood. George Classen stated in 1993 that these type of arky site were "slated for destruction." We must now find whom and why these Archaeology sites are being targeted or nothing in Alberta is safe. [Knowlton 2012]
Today, September 13, 2012 I found a well-dressed Man from Edmonton washing down Big Rock graffiti.  This man claimed to belongs to a group of four under a supervisor that also does graffiti cleaning as well.  They have their own pressure washer but must get approval from the Head Archaeologist before they can use acid or special detergents.  This interesting gentleman claimed they have a data base of over eight hundred sites across Alberta, including Glenwood. The crew is said to have been visiting sites in Southern Alberta over the last few days.
There are pictographs at Big Rock as well as petroglyphs.  A lot of the pictographs have been destroyed by harsh chemicals and the pictographs have been covered over with epoxy cement.[Knowlton 2012]
"I suspect the 'link' to this destruction is to nullify my long held claim that the Blackfoot HAD a written language before missionaries arrived, which could force archaeologists to rewrite history". [Knowlton 2012]
Knowlton also does not explain how the representatives of the International Archaeological Conspiracy ™ (IAC) found out about the his petroglyphs when he was the one who found them. I suppose he may have reported them, but if he didn’t have photos I doubt anyone at the IAC would have been worried about having their theories overturned.

And let's get real,if these guys are well-dressed as Knowlton claims, then they are probably not archaeologists.  QED. 

When people start using conspiracy theories to explain their lack of evidence you don’t need to listen to anymore. This is true in any field. The bigger and more elaborate the conspiracy, the less likely it is, especially if the conspirators are archaeologists—nobody wants a conspiracy of garrulous boozers.   

Supposed unknown writing systems, maps engraved in rock, monumental architecture, and the like, that are actually natural features are pretty common.  The proponent usually has something he is pointing to, even if it is natural.  The unusual thing about this case is the claim that the evidence had been destroyed, when, apparently, it hadn’t—it was just never there.  I am not sure what is going on there. 

In the end the problem here is not with the archaeologists, it is with Knowlton.  By his account he knew those petroglyphs were there, and he didn’t record them when he was there, not a cellphone photo, not a drawing.  That’s not responsible, especially since he thinks there is a concerted conspiracy to destroy such petroglyphs.  Instead we get a unsupported story of them being destroyed the night before he was going to go out there and record them. 

Vandalism of Native American heritage is common enough that the police are often surprised to find out that there are often laws against...if they bother to check at all.  My first reaction when the articles about the Glenwood Erratic starting showing up in my feeds was that the vandalism happened and that the vandals were unusually determined.  I wondered if there was some personal animosity involved. I didn't pay much attention to the red flags until I heard the RCMP and the relevant archaeologists hadn't found any vandalism.  When I went back and looked again, the problems with the claims (as presented) were obvious.  There's a lesson there.

It's also a shame that it is a dubious case like this that is getting such coverage. But then, what makes it dubious is probably what is getting it the coverage. 

References cited

Davis, Chris, and Toni Lucas
2012  "Local history drilled out and washed away." Pincher Creek Voice, September 17, 2012

ICTM (Indian Country Today Media Network)
2012 "Aboriginal Petroglyphs Destroyed By Vandals Armed With Acid and a Drill" The Indian Country Today Media Network, September 18, 2012.

Knowlton, Stan
2012  "Desecration of the Glenwood Erratic." Pincher Creek Voice, September 17, 2012

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