Spirits in the Stones

The summer of 2004 has seen interesting discoveries in Canada and India that highlight a new branch of archæological research – archæoacoustics. Old rocker PAUL DEVEREUX explains how we may now be able to hear the soundtrack of the Stone Age.

October 2004
Fortean Times

Photo: Voices in the wall: Aboriginal rock-shelter art in the Kimberley region of Australia. The curvature of the rock wall tends to produce focused echoes from specific parts of the panel, so that the figures of gods or spirits appear to have their own ‘voices’. Image: Paul Devereux

In the early summer of 2004, a research expedition consisting of two colleagues and me visited Canada to find out if the mysterious engraved and painted glyphs and signs of prehistoric American Indian rock art could, in a fashion, speak to us. 1 We wanted – literally – to listen rather than to look. As perverse as this seems, it was in keeping with a newly recognised aspect of archæology called “archæoacoustics”. Archæologists have finally realised that ancient people had ears, and have discovered that various kinds of acoustic effects – from eerie echoes to resonant frequencies that can affect the brain – seem to have been an intentionally planned component of a number of prehistoric sites worldwide, from ruined temples to rock art locations. 2, 3 Prehistory is at last gaining its own soundtrack.

Rock Medicine

Our expedition’s interest was directed at two of Canada’s most important prehistoric rock art sites, both of them in Ontario: hundreds of engravings on a rock outcrop in Petroglyphs Provincial Park, and a profusion of ancient Algonkian rock paintings daubed in red ochre on a mighty cliff-face protruding out of Mazinaw Lake in Bon Echo Provincial Park. Canadian rock art interested us because of a traditional Algonkian Indian belief that manitous – spirits – lived inside rocks and cliff-faces, and that shamans in trance could enter the rock surfaces and meet with them in order to exchange tobacco offerings for supernatural power, usually referred to as “rock medicine”. (If the shaman failed to carry out this operation correctly, though, it was said he could become trapped in the cliff or rock he had spiritually entered and never return to his body outside. In our terms, he would die or go mad.) We wanted to test the hypothesis that such rock art marked venerated, magical places where the spirits could be heard; perhaps places where echoes were unusually strong. Had the Indians, like the ancient Greeks, believed echoes to be the sound of spirits calling, mimicking human-made noises to do so? Although there had been no previous linking of either of these Ontario rock-art sites with special acoustic properties, we had come to find out for sure.

The Teaching Rocks

Two hours driving time east of Toronto lies the Kawartha Lakes region, a wild, scenic area popular with visitors for camping, canoeing and hiking. At its heart lies the town of Peterborough, which lists as one of its visitor attractions Petroglyphs Provincial Park, 40 km (25 miles) to the north-east. This park gives the region a unique heritage claim, for the petroglyphs form the largest concentration of ancient rock-face engravings in Ontario – some say in the whole of Canada.

I didn’t quite know what to expect as we made our way along a woodland trail to what the local Indians call Kinomagewapkong, The Teaching Rocks, the outcrop containing the prehistoric carvings. There appeared to be no hint in the generally available literature that sound was in any way associated with the place, so our visit was something of a long shot.

The first surprise was encountering a large-windowed building amid the trees; it had been constructed in 1985 to house and protect the carvings. Inside the building, a gallery allows visitors to walk around the edge of the great sloping mass of marble containing the mysterious glyphs. Their presence was known locally from at least the 1920s, and probably much earlier, but didn’t become apparent to outsiders until 1954, when a group of prospectors chanced across them. An initial assessment of the site yielded a count of 92 engravings, but a much more thorough study in 1967 showed that there were fully 10 times that number, though many are incredibly faint and easily missed by the untrained eye.

Photo: Everett Davis, one of the prospectors who discovered Petroglyph Rock. Image: Ontario Parks, Petroglyphs rovincial Park

The engravings are reckoned to be between 600 and 1,100 years old. There are depictions of human figures with sunbursts around their heads, birds, canoes, snakes, turtles, and humanoid beings with long ears, together with a welter of abstract signs.

What were they all about? The long-eared figure is thought to represent Nanabush, or Nanabozho, a trickster-type spirit who sometimes took the form of a hare, and present-day Indian (First Nation) people ascribe specific symbolic meanings to many of the other markings. But the truth is that no one knows for sure; after all, the people who made them are long gone.

What is clear is that this huge, flattish slab of white crystalline marble (metamorphosed limestone) was once the focus of intense spiritual interest, and the aim of our little expedition was to find out why this had been so. After all, there were other marble outcrops around, so what was special about this one? Lisa Roach, assistant superintendent of the site, told us that as the slab slopes in a south-easterly direction; one suggestion was that it might face sunrise at a time of year which was important to the ancient people.

Photo: Petroglyph Rock with some of the carvings and part of the deep fissure from which voice-like sounds occasionally eminate. Image: Ontario Parks, Petroglyphs rovincial Park

Such an explanation seemed inadequate – at least to us – to explain the site’s unique profusion of rock art. Lisa then pointed out a distinctive fissure that cuts across the rock surface. It is 5 metres (16ft) deep in places, she informed us, and at certain times of year the sound of underground water can be heard issuing from its depths. We had an acoustic connection at last! After further discussion, Lisa told us that the roaring noise sounded exactly like the babble of human voices. Perhaps this was why the marble outcrop was so venerated: the voices of the manitous issued from it. Perhaps it had even been used as an oracle site.

The noise made by the water is apparently well known to locals, and is even alluded to in the little printout sheet given to the site’s visitors, but, like the petroglyphs themselves, it had never been thought particularly worthy of mention to outsiders.

This unexpected discovery drove home to me the adage that until one asks the right question the correct answer cannot be forthcoming. There is no doubt that questions regarding sound – and how it might extend information about archæological sites and their uses – have for too long remained unasked.

Pictures in the water

Heartened by our finding at the petroglyphs outcrop, we set off for Bon Echo Provincial Park, 75km (47miles) to the east. We knew the site contained the largest single concentration of ancestral Algonkian rock paintings or “pictograms” in Canada – but its suggestive name also drew us there.

There are around 200 paintings, daubed in red ochre, on Mazinaw Rock, a cliff-face over 1km (0.6 mile) long rising up to 100metres (330 ft) out of Mazinaw Lake, one of Ontario’s deepest. The name “Mazinaw” derives from the Algonkian word mu-zi-nu-hi-gun, meaning, variously, writing, picture, painting, book, and often interpreted by extension as meaning “pictures in the water” at the Bon Echo and other smaller but similar sites.

Photo: Northern section of Mazinaw Rock, Bon Echo Park. Image: Paul Devereux

The only markings on Mazinaw Rock that most casual visitors know about are lines of Walt Whitman poetry that Flora MacDonald Denison had carved in foot-high (30cm) letters in the 1920s. But the more ancient “writing on the wall” consists of the mainly abstract images painted up to 1,000 years ago by ancestral Algonkian peoples. The paintings can only be accessed by boat, and it is an awesome experience floating dangerously close to the jagged rock face seeking panels of faded ochre markings, all of them just above the waterline.

Bon Echo park is a sizeable chunk of wilderness containing other cliffs and bodies of water, but we found that our hunch had proven correct: the “echo” name relates specifically to the Mazinaw Rock cliff-face. It is locally renowned for the exceptional echoes it produces; demonstrations of the phenomenon are even given during tourist boat cruises on the lake. Exceptional echoes and an exceptional concentration of pictograms – we felt their coincidence was unlikely to be due to mere chance.

Photo: Algonkian red ochre painting at Mazinaw Rock. The motifs have not been deciphered. Image: Paul Devereux

We worked our way along the cliff-face, photographing the many markings; some of them were still fairly strong, others weathered to near invisibility. Although most of the paintings are abstract glyphs, there are a few representational images, including boats containing bird-headed humanoid figures (usually interpreted by rock-art experts as being spirit canoes); a strange, almost camel-like animal plus a few other more recognisable ones; and a couple of depictions of our long-eared friend. (Big ears? We couldn’t help but idly wonder if that was a reference to the acoustics associated with powerful manitou places, the spots where the spirits spoke.) As we proceeded, we made periodic digital recordings of echoes; how these related to specific pictogram panels will be covered in a more detailed academic paper elsewhere at a later date, but it became apparent to us that the areas of the loudest, fastest-returning echoes coincided with the greatest concentrations of pictograms.

In addition to the echoes, other phenomena may also have marked out this place as being supernaturally powerful. For instance, one earlier archæological researcher paddling alongside the Mazinaw Rock admitted to being “more than a little startled” to see water nearby begin an inexplicable whirling motion, accelerating “till it lifted suddenly into a miniature waterspout”. We also experienced the water around us occasionally behaving in an inexplicably erratic manner, just as if restless spirits were agitating it.

Rock music

Unknown to us, while we were listening to rock art in Canada, another case of acoustic archæology was being discussed in the mainstream academic literature. It involves the rediscovery of inscribed, naturally musical boulders in the Sanganakallu-Kupgal area of the Southern Deccan, India, by the Cambridge–Karnatak universities’ “Bellary District Archæological Project”, directed, coincidentally, by a Canadian archæologist called Nicole Boivin. 4, 5 The use of acoustic effects there seemingly dates back to Stone Age times.

The key rock art sites occur on the prominent landmark of Hiregudda Hill, where hundreds of petroglyphs are to be found along a dolerite cliff. Some of the rock art is fairly recent, but much of it dates back to the Neolithic era. Depictions of cattle – showing long-horned, hump-backed animals of the sort still common in southern India – are the most common, along with those of human beings. Some of the human figures appear to be males engaged in sexual activity, while others seem to be shown dancing. Other images include elephants, tigers, birds, wheeled carts, footprints, and what Boivin calls “religious symbols”. Certain engravings are in such inaccessible places that whoever made them must have been suspended from rock overhangs in order to carry out the work. The rock art was clearly considerably more serious than mere doodling. The whole site had originally been discovered in 1892, but had subsequently become “lost” to researchers. The Bellary Project managed to identify it again with the help of local people.

“Amidst the petroglyphs at this site,” writes Boivin, “there are also round, polished grooves that emit musical ringing tones when struck with granite stones.” The “gong-like” effect was demonstrated to the archæologists by a local informant, who referred to the inscribed boulders as “musical stones”. Similar naturally sonic rocks were also identified at another rock art site in the district.

Due to the masculine nature of some of the rock art imagery at Hiregudda, and the difficulty of its production in some cases, the current interpretation is that the site was seen as a male sacred site, and that shamans came there to communicate with the spirits of the place – the production of the musical tones from the rocks being part of formalised rituals to help in that process.

Face the music

There may be trouble ahead, as the old song puts it, because many important archæological sites in the Bellary district are unprotected. This includes the musical rock sites, which are threatened by both large-scale commercial quarrying and local granite quarriers who target surface boulders. Damage from quarrying has already occurred at some of the district’s archæological sites, so the threat is pressing. The Bellary District Archæological Project hopes to be able to bring this danger to general attention through publicity, and also to try to get local authorities to see the heritage and tourist value of preserving these rare sites in the hope of securing guaranteed protection for at least some of them. If the Project fails in these attempts, then Hiregudda’s ancient ringing rocks will be literally silenced forever. It will be a tragic irony if this should happen just when archæology is beginning to listen.