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Prehistoric Art

Saskatchewan’s inventory of the archaeological sites and artifacts that survive today is enriched by a wide variety of art, although the particular climatic and soil conditions of Saskatchewan are inimical to preservation of items other than the most durable. The art remaining is mostly composed of stone. Both parietal or rock art (rock paintings and carvings on immovable stone surfaces) and portable art objects have been found. Unfortunately, virtually all of the examples of artistic expression are without authorial or precise temporal context; they exist as surface artifact finds or enigmatic open-air carvings or paintings on rock walls or boulders. Some of the rock art can generally be assigned meanings or purpose, and can be approximately dated by comparing the Saskatchewan examples with those observed elsewhere. The 70-plus rock painting sites in the Canadian Shield in the north of the province are likely the work of the direct ancestors of today’s Wood Cree residents, made by shamans or other individuals to assist in curing or divining practice, and may conceivably be as old as 2,000 years.

The St. Victor Petroglyphs south of St. Victor, and about a dozen or so petroglyph boulder sites probably date to 300 to 800 years before present, and may be the work of carvers with roots in the Eastern Woodlands, east of the Plains. Many such carvings were made with a pecking and grinding technique; however, a series of sites in the Souris River valley contain figures made by drilling small holes in the soft sandstone. Several of the boulder petroglyphs feature a human-like head and face as the sole figure. The original context of the best known of these, the Weyburn Petroglyph (now in the Royal Saskatchewan Museum), and its similarity to shell mask figures from burial mounds in Manitoba and various midwestern states suggest that they served as mortuary art.

Figures of Bison, composite water creatures, turtles, human hands, grizzly bear paws, humans, four-pointed stars, crescents and geometrics appear incised on about a dozen red pipestone “tablets,” which probably came into the province as valued trade items from the horticultural villages of the Dakotas. Future mineralogical analysis would be needed to determine if most or many are catlinite, quarried in southwestern Minnesota. They appear to date to just before the inception of the historic period, 300 to 500 years ago. Other stone portable and semi-portable art creations include a small number of hard stone tablets or discs bearing turtles, human hands and a few other motifs, as well as several small boulders bearing representations of the human foot. Many of these motifs also appear in the petroglyph sites of the south and in the pipestone tablets—but what these correlations and motifs mean, if anything, is uncertain. Some connection or influence from the Mississippi iconographic traditions of the Late Prehistoric seems likely.

Some of the figurative boulder monuments or boulder configurations in the grasslands of the south have what we today might (perhaps mistakenly) classify as art. These include representations of humans, a bison, a salamander, probably a number of snakes, and definitely a much larger number of turtles than the half-dozen or so recorded to date. Out of all this we see that turtles are among the most prominent art symbols, appearing in various media; historic northern Plains Indian groups regarded the turtle as a symbol of longevity or fertility, and it was used by the Mandan and Hidatsa of North Dakota in bison-hunting ceremonies. All the art forms discussed to this point are two-dimensional. However, two of the three petroglyph boulders near Herschel—especially the largest—are carved partially in the round. Both may be categorized as ribstones, esoteric representations of bison which were used to encourage hunting success.

Additionally, portable sculpted items made of various stone materials including limestone, granite, other hard stones (and even a bison of natural asphalt), have been found by collectors. These items are finely crafted, and at least some of them were probably kept in medicine bundles to be periodically used ceremonially. Some atlatl weights (if indeed they are that) represent animals such as weasels or otters. These examples do not exhaust the topic of the art of the prehistoric peoples of Saskatchewan. Most of the pottery vessels made by generations of Saskatchewan artisans is decorated in one manner or another, ranging from simple finger pinches to incisions, and even drawings (on some burial pots). Various utilitarian items such as a rib handle with a fish incised for holding stone scrapers, and a functional pestle with added features that identify it as a penis attest to the fact that humans here a long time ago, as elsewhere, followed the universal impulse to exercise their creative and even playful imaginations.

Tim Jones

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