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Pictograph colours - how the marks were made and why they last so long

This week, Back Roads Bill looks at how area rock paintings were probably created

Our heritage is preserved in many ways. Through artifacts housed in museums and historical plaques marking sites important enough to preserve, both produce a lasting record of past contributions. Indigenous rock art or pictographs are the road signs of the nastawgan – the waterways and trails, their travel network.

Pictographs are found throughout Northern Ontario at more than 80 sites.

Some are featured in other stories within the website. In fact, there are few countries in the world that do not have evidence of rock paintings, an anthropological record of early aboriginal inhabitants. The “paint” is made of ochre and there are two significant sources within northeastern Ontario. These were early aboriginal mines.

The art of pictograph painting is thought to date back more than one thousand years in Ontario. Not until the late Selwyn Dewdney embarked on a lifetime study of rock art did we realize the importance extent and meaning of these drawings. Dewdney recorded close to 300 pictograph sites from Saskatchewan to Quebec and the northern states bordering Canada. It became a passion for the artist/teacher and it brought him to sketch and record the sites in the late 1950s and ’60s. Find his book, with Kenneth Kidd, ‘Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes.’

Marking of the Rock

Dr. Jonathan Pitt is a “knowledge keeper or land-as-teacher” through his indigenous background. Cultural transmission is part of his research and the courses he teaches at Nipissing University.

“Red ochre has been used by Indigenous peoples around the globe for thousands of years in pictographs and for ceremonial purposes," said Dr. Pitt. “It is perhaps for this reason that the first Europeans to Newfoundland called the native peoples ‘red Indians ’out of unfamiliarity with the First Nations they met. People regardless of ethnic heritage have been fixated on the afterlife and most religious or spiritual beliefs are influenced by the physical environment in which a people live. Whether it be a church, mosque or a sacred ceremonial site our rituals are central to our daily lives. “

Pictographs or what some call the “marking of the rock” or “rock art” were created for a number of reasons, such as navigation, boundaries, hunting, warnings and often could come from vision and dream (visioning) ceremonies (e.g. at sacred sites such as Dreamer’s Rock on Manitoulin Rock), to represent that vision or dream of the artist from the Creator.

“After the vision or dream, habitually these ceremonies had a spiritual advisor (e.g. medicine man/Shaman) or Elder who would assist the dreamer to interpret their dream before using ochre to create a pictograph. There is also some oral history (e.g. storytelling) to suggest that pictographs were used ceremonially to ensure good hunting or health,” he said.

Pitt said some Elders say that pictographs become one with the rock or grandfather. Mukai (Ojibwe for bear) grease or fat (or sturgeon oil) is used by some Anishinaabe for drums and also was used with ochre when ground to a fine powder for painting pictographs which then underwent a chemical process to unite with the rock.

"The rock itself or site selection was also important as the composition of the rock, it is understood also played a role. As we know rocks are different, some are smooth, some are rough, some are warm to the touch and some have energy,” Pitt added.

Ochre was undoubtedly traded widely as the two known locations (in this area) of ochre on the water highway are Porte de l’Enfer (Hell’s Gate) near Pimisi Lake between Lake Talon and Mattawa. The other, an island (Which European’s referred to as Devil’s Warehouse Island) on Lake Superior or Gitchigumi (popularized in Gordon Lightfoot’s song the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald) meaning great water which has an ancient Ojibway red ochre mine.

Pitt reflects, “I had a conversation about this as I was sitting in one of the traditional summer grounds of the Anishinaabeg on the water highway last night, with a very Spiritual Anishinaabe and a pipe carrier. I was thinking about this and on these ochre sites as they were two major sources of red ochre used and traded for thousands and thousands of years prior to the advent of Europeans.

"Indigenous water pathways or water highways played an important role not only in regular travel and passage but also in the seasonal interchange movement for Anishinaabeg peoples from the smaller winter family units to larger seasonal summer grounds.

"The interchange and trading that was in existence were widespread from present day Florida to the Great Lakes Region, ochre was one of the items traded widely. If you can imagine for a moment, what Turtle Island looked like prior to Europeans and colonization, a rich Spiritual landscape, a rich cultural landscape in existence for tens of thousands of years as western archaeology has confirmed for the mainstream.0

"Preceding Christianity on Turtle Island was Spirituality and ceremony as a huge part of the daily fabric of the Original peoples’ lives. In a modern sense finding your way through ceremony still takes place today, but also in a very literal sense, people moved, shared in ceremony such as visioning, traded ochre and used it in pictographs as Spirituality, art, and connection with All Our Relations. Kinship with the environment was paramount we are all interconnected with Mother Earth."

What is Ochre?

The name hematite is from the Greek word “haimatitis” which means “blood-red.” That name stems from the colour of the mineral when it has been crushed to a fine powder. Primitive peoples discovered that hematite could be crushed and mixed with a liquid for use as a paint or cosmetic.

Hematite is also one of the most abundant minerals on Earth's surface and in the shallow crust. It is an iron oxide with a chemical composition of Fe2O3. It is a common rock-forming mineral found in sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks at locations throughout the world. Hematite is the most important ore of iron.

Iron was one of the commonest minerals for prospectors to look for. It rusted and was easy to find. It also often has close associations with gold, so it was like getting two for one.

Several oxides of manganese, for example, manganese dioxide, are abundant in nature and owing to their colour, these oxides have been used as pigments since the Stone Age.

Lesley Hymers is a geologist with Mining Matters she helped explain the composition of the 'paint'. 

“Even though hematite has a highly variable appearance, it always produces a reddish streak. Students in introductory geology courses are usually surprised to see a silver-coloured mineral (manganese) produce a reddish streak.

"They quickly learn that the reddish streak is the most important clue for identifying hematite.”

“Pure hematite has a composition of about 70 per cent iron and 30 per cent oxygen by weight. Like most natural materials, it is rarely found with that pure composition.

"This is particularly true of the sedimentary deposits where hematite forms by inorganic or biological precipitation in a body of water. Many of the sedimentary iron deposits contain both hematite and magnetite as well as other iron minerals."

Earlier indigenous peoples looked for the red streaks as an indicator of an orchre source. And its purity varies.

We know the aboriginals pulverized the rock with hammer stones and heated it to a more concentrated form. Then using bear or deer fat, fish oil or bird’s eggs they created a binder.

The orchre has a natural affinity (chemical bonding) with minerals in the mostly vertical or near-vertical granite rock faces.

See the Sources

Ochre became a prized trading commodity throughout the extensive Amerindian trading network that existed long before the arrival of the colonists. Two important locations emerged as a more concentrated or accessible source. Archaeologists have indicated these early mines may date back three thousand years. See the map of the two sources of ochre. Both have settlers’ labels on maps. Upon visitation of both, you will see the openings look remarkably the same.

The Devil’s Warehouse on Lake Superior is a short canoe ride, offshore to the island, via the Gargantua Rd. access off of Highway 17 within Lake Superior Provincial Park (a great camping location), south of Wawa. Gargantua Harbour (Nanabozhung) is within the traditional lands of Batchewana First Nation.

Porte d’ Enfer is located on the Mattawa River, downstream, just east of Parreseux Falls on the north side of the Mattawa River. It is within the traditional territory of the Madadjiwan ( Mattawa-North Bay Algonquins).

Go and see the “red.” Be respectful. Learn and understand.


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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