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Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 14

– Page 14 –


Water-associated Sacred Sites

Two sites, both in eastern Ontario, are presented as examples roughly comparable to the bog sites of northwestern Europe because they involve votive offerings and because they are focussed on sacred water places. But the cosmology of the old world and new world societies were different: the water does not involve organic terrain (cliffs, rather) and there is no hint of the cult and sacrifice of the Mysterious Bog People exhibition.

Situated on a cliff on the Ottawa River, Migizi Kiishkaabikaan, also called Rocher des Oiseau, or Oiseau Rock (Figure 14), is a sacred Anishanabe pictograph site. It is “one of the most interesting yet found in Quebec” (Tassé and Dewdney 1977). The Algonquin today describe it as a beautiful, powerful, place where the earth’s energy is exposed and where the pictographs represent their ancient traditional understanding of the spiritual and physical landscape. When Chevalier de Troyes (1686) ascended the Ottawa River in the 17th century he observed that his guides placed offerings of tobacco into crevices at Migizi Kiishkaabikaan and dropped arrows 150 m from the top of the cliff into the deep river below. There are eight sets of pictograph paintings at Oiseau Rock, distributed along 157 m of cliff exposure and between 3 and 9 m above the river. They are now difficult to see (Figure 15), partly because the granite bedrock face is pink coloured; partly because the images seem partially covered and obscured by red ochre pigment run-off; and partly because they are obscured and overlaid by modern graffiti (Figure 16). A mythologist and historian have recently explained the paintings as a “cosmogonic vision” portraying the origin of the universe. Since, they see no fertility symbols in the paintings or other indications of a horticultural or incipient agricultural economy, they propose that the paintings are at least 3,000 years old and that the message the paintings convey is more ancient still (Desjardin and Gosselin 1999).

Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon
Figure 14: Migizi Kiishkaabikaan, or Bird Rock,
a pictograph site and sacred site.

Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization
Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon
Figure 15: The pictographs are now difficult to see.
Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization
Figure 16: The pictographs are now partly obscured by modern graffiti.
Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization

Historical documents and the stories of Iroquoian and Anishinabe people of the eastern Canadian woodlands describe a spirit called Missipeshieu or Mishebeshu – like a serpent, a dragon, or a panther – who controlled the waterways and lived in deep water at the foot of rock cliffs (Wright 1999: 683). ‘Grandfather Long-tail’, as he is sometimes called, is portrayed at many pictograph sites throughout the eastern woodlands of Canada. Perhaps ‘Grandfather Long-tail’, or something like him is linked to the Red Horse Portage site in Charleston Lake Provincial Park, near Kingston, Ontario, where the remains of 46 pottery vessels – some of them almost whole – were discovered on two underwater ledges 9 and 18 m below the surface (Wright 1980). These vessels represent a span of about 2,000 years, between early Point Peninsula to 16th century St. Lawrence Iroquois, and were clearly deposited intentionally. “While it certainly cannot be proven, a possible explanation of the unusual findings… is that it represented a sacred site visited over a long and continuous period by individuals seeking favours from a Grandfather Long-tail. The pottery vessels represent supplicatory offerings… That similar sites have not been located is undoubtedly due to their location well out of range of normal archaeological survey areas” (Wright 1999: 683).


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