I was asked by Stephanie Francis and Ann
Gommers to write an introduction to the catalogue of the work of the
Equinox Petroglyph Project contributors. The Project was inspired by
the unique and special nature of petroglyphs that have been found in
the upper reaches of Machias Bay. The art in a variety of media
is, appropriately, the work of women and children. Appropriately,
I say, because, in my work as an archaeologist, I have frequently come
across comments by Native Americans that the women not only bear and
raise the children, they nurture them with the values of their
Like other Native American groups, the
Passamaquoddy/ Maleseet traditions stress connections to people, place
and to self. Connectiveness is also expressed in the words and
works of the artists who have contributed to this project. Pecked
lines meander over the surface of rock with petroglyphs at Birch Point
and connect the visual imagery of animate beings to the rock's
entrances, places where spirits, seen during trances, may
enter. The ties of relationship to the animate world include the
directly personal and, more broadly, ties to common ancestors from the
corners of the inhabited world.
The Passamaquoddy/ Maleseet territory, at the time
of contact with Europeans (c. 1600 ADE), extended along Maine's
shoreline from the mouth of the Kennebec River to the St. John's River
watershed in New Brunswick, Canada. Machias Bay sits in the middle of
that extensive territory. The bay was known for abundant natural
resources capable of feeding moose, deer, large sea mammals, a variety
of birds as well as the people, the scattered bands of
Passamaquoddy/Maleseet people who gathered annually to hunt in the
fall. There, on the shores of Machias Bay, they feasted, made
trades, played gambling games and had opportunities to find mates.
There, if we read the marks rightly, the visionary Medo’wins
performed and, we believe, left signs on the ledges we call
petroglyphs. The pecked images may celebrate a successful vision, a
cure, a crisis met.
Wayne Newell, Passamaquoddy linguist, translates maluhsa-h:kan,
a Passamaquoddy name for an area where petroglyphs are found, as (a
place of) “chopped “ (pecked) “rocks on a shoreline”. I use the word petroglyph,
invented in the nineteenth century, which combines Latin for "rock" and
Greek for "mark" when talking about Passamaquoddy "pecked rocks on a
shoreline". The term rock art, a term now in common
use, can be misleading, since European conventions tend to distinguish
"art" as a product of individual genius. The original tribal
makers of "art" credited influences and investment by spiritual
entities as their guides for the work at
Through the work of David Lewis-Williams4
and many other researchers over the past three decades, visionary
experiences have been shown to be crucial to understanding the forms of
prehistoric petroglyphs throughout the world. David Lewis-Williams,
through studies of South African rock art and cosmology, was able
to demonstrate that certain abstract forms painted at special places on
outcrops of rock were very similar to neural images any of us would and
could experience through visions. These neural forms and
abstractions are reported in the modern scientific literature4.
In South Africa, these images were associated with
nineteenth century ethnographic accounts about visionary shamans among
the San and related bushmen of South Africa. Lewis-Williams
argues persuasively a close connection between visionary shamanism and
the petroglyphs of our hunting and gathering ancestors. In Australia,
the first hunting and gathering bands of homo sapiens are
believed to have arrived as early as 60,000 years ago, bringing
with them sophisticated stories and cosmological concepts that were
mapped into the landscape features of their territories and continued
to the living present.
The practices and influences of the visionary
flourished in a world shaped and made explicit by oral
traditions. Over the past five thousand years, the integrity of
societies handed down through oral traditions has been increasingly
challenged by the emergence of civilizations based on control through
the written word. The same effect is experienced by each of us in our
individual lives.We take for granted the tenets of literate
civilizations within which we have grown up. Native Americans and other
traditional societies remind us of other perspectives and connections
rooted in sensual perceptions.
Implicit in Native American oral traditions and
languages is the concept that all live beings express energy, power.
All inert things contain potential energy, power. This appears in the
active/passive modes of the Passamaquoddy language (Wayne Newell
Personal Communication 1998). These modes are the grammatical
equivalents of gender distinctions in the Indo-European family of
languages, such as Spanish or English. Native Americans distinguish
between what is now active and or now inactive with the
sense that these appearances may be reversed, any time.
Passamaquoddy, and other Native American languages, relate changes or
transformations between transient energy and temporarily constant
matter in expressions that are accurate to modern scientific thought1.
In tribal cultures, personal power is obtained through training,
fasting, light deprivation, staying alone in special places and other
preparations until visions appear. Visions show the way. The
Passamaquoddy call a visionary who has obtained power and serves the
people as a Medo’win (which translates as “hollow, like a
drum”. The term "hollow" implies that the visionary has made him or
herself "empty", receptive to spiritual powers). In times
of crisis, public or personal, the visionary was consulted.
Native Americans made the marks on rock ledges in
Machias Bay and at a few other locations in Maine. We infer, from a
variety of Native American sources, that the visionary Medo'win
made the marks on stone. This is consistent with what we know of the
nature of petroglyphs elsewhere in the inhabited world4.
The ledges chosen for Machias Bay petroglyphs were those visited by
birds and washed by river or tidal waters3. These marks were
pecked into the ledges with hammerstones of harder rock.
The rocks were houses where spirits resided.
The Medo'win could enter. Birds were the messengers to
spirits above. Diving mammals carried pleas for help to the deeps.
Small creatures, like the chameleons, squirreled into the crevices of
The marks may show the Medo’win in a trance,
standing, his body hollow, curved like an hour-glass, pinched at
the midsection and opening outward above and below, - his body,
in dream, forms a passage to the heavens and the deeps.
The marks may show a Medo’win in a
public performance, his arms out and bent upward at the elbows,
offering unseen gifts, or bent downward towards the source of his
power, or with body and head shaped like a raptorial bird, flying high,
like an eagle.
Many of the marks are unique. Many can be
traced back thousands of years in the rock markings of other countries,
other times. All are rooted in the sense of the sacred, the
unknowable mysteries of creation, the ever shifting forms of
Hedden May 5th, 2008
Citations, Comments and Recommended Readings
1996 The Spell of the Sensuous:Perception: Perc
eption and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage Books
One of the better definitions I have seen of how writing has influenced
Hedden, Mark H. Hedden
2002 Contact Period Petroglyphs in Machias Bay,
Maine. Archaeology of Eastern North America 30:1-20
An interpretation of a petroglyph portraying an early 17th century ship
with shaman's signs as a comment on contact with Europeans prostylizing
2004 Passamaquoddy Shamanism and Rock Art in Machias Bay,
Maine. IN:Rock Art of Eastern North America. Edited by Carol Diaz
Granados and Jame R. Duncan Ch.19, pp319-343. University of
Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa
Most complete and up-to-date summary of Machias Bay Petroglyphs over a
three thousand year period.
2002 A Cosmos on Stone, Interpreting Religion and
Society through Rock Art. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek
A compilation of essays by Lewis-Williams that chronicle the
development of his theories over a thirty year period.
Rajnovich, Grace R.
1988 Reading Rock Art, Interpreting the Indian Rock
Art of the Canadian Shield. National Heritage/Natural History, Inc.
A compilation of sources, interpretations and examples of rock art in
Algonkian territories around the Great Lakes & Canada.
Whitehead, Ruth Holmes
1988 Stories from the Six Worlds, Micmac Legends.
Her introductory essay is a classic in understanding the stories from a
Native American perspective.