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Mysteries carved in stone


Barb Grinder, Windspeaker Contributor, VIKING, Alta.







Modern stone carvers, using sophisticated hand or electronic tools, spend long hours carving pieces of stone into sculpture or markers. So imagine the time and effort it must have taken for the early Aboriginal people of the prairies to carve stone, using only another piece of stone.

Such stone carvings, called petroglyphs by archaeologists, are dotted here and there across the prairie - isolated testimonials to the spirit and endurance of the early Plains Indians. Many of the stones seem ageless, and are thought to have been carved thousands of years ago. Others are part of the more recent history of the Cree and Blackfoot, or other groups who roamed the prairie 200 to 250 years ago.

The age of these ancient carved stones is only part of their mystery. Some are undoubtedly sacred sites, and tributes to the Great Spirits. Others have been found near known burial sites, and may be tributes to ancient leaders. Others may simply have been directional markers. Though little is known about these artifacts, they are powerful remnants of our Aboriginal history.

Many of these ancient carved stones have recognizable images carved into them. The St. Victor stone, west of Weyburn, Sask., has a human face carved into the surface.

One excellent example of these petroglyphs lies about an hour's drive east of Edmonton. Known as the Ribstones, these two rocks resemble the bones of a buffalo and are thought to have been carved as hunting totems or tributes to the animals that were such an important part of the lives of the Aboriginal people of the time.

The Ribstones lie at the top of a hill, in the rolling country between Viking and Wainwright. The stones themselves are quartzite, a hard material that originally came from the ancient Canadian Shield. Today, geologists know these rocks as glacial erratics, stones transported many thousands of miles to their current resting place by the great continental glaciers that once covered the land.

The Aboriginal people who carved the stones also recognized they were different from the ordinary rocks that were part of the prairie landscape. All petroglyphs are carved on these glacial erratics, and all are located atop the highest hill in the region.

Long, parallel grooves have been incised down both sides of the smaller rock, and a long groove has been cut down the centre, to resemble the rib cage of the buffalo. The larger rock looks more like a buffalo ribcage lying on its side. Deep, round pits have also been carved across the surface of these stones. These pits may represent the curly hair on the buffalo's hide. They may also be an imitation of the pitted surface of a huge meteorite, which fell to earth in the long ago past.

Called the Ironstone Meteorite, because it's made up dense, dark material, rich in iron, this rock from outer space was considered a sacred object and a monument to the buffalo by the early people of the prairie.

At least seven other ribstone sites have been identified in Alberta, and more than twice that in Saskatchewan. The Ribstones near Viking are the easiest find.

To reach them, take Highway 14. If you're traveling east, you'll see a large highway sign describing the Ribstones on the south side of the road, about seven miles east of the town of Viking. About 165 ft east of the sign, a country road will take you south about a mile to a T-junction.

Turn left and almost immediately right, then follow the markers to the Ribstones. The Ribstones are located on what is now private land, though they have been protected as a part of our heritage by the provincial government. Many Native people still leave small offerings at the stones, so please be respectful when you're there.

If traveling west, you may want to travel to the large descriptive sign on Highway 14 anyway and then turn back. The small markers are easy to miss.