The future of the Cochno Stone has been very much under discussion recently, due to sterling efforts by Glasgow University archaeologist Kenny Brophy to engage the local community with the process of deciding exactly what should be done with the stone. The main options are:
- Uncover it and leave nature to take its course,
- Leave it buried,
- Make a replica using the LIDAR and photogrammetric data gathered last year by Scottish Ten and Factum Arte, then either cover the stone with the replica or place it nearby,
- Uncover it and enclose it in a building for protection.
In June, I had the opportunity to see how the last option might work in practice when I was speaking at the Canadian Society of Dowsers’ convention in Peterborough, Ontario. Located about 50km north of the town is the largest expanse of rock art in North America, the Peterborough Petroglyphs. The chance to make a comparison with the Cochno Stone was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I visited the Petroglyphs Provincial Park together with my Canadian colleague Susan Collins to see what preservation measures had been used there.
The Petroglyphs Provincial Park, located approximately 50km north-east of Peterborough, Ontario, is managed by an Advisory Committee of the Curved Lake First Nation. The rock panel was previously protected under natural coverings of moss, leaves and pine needles before being ‘discovered’ by mining prospector Everett Davis in 1954. The rock is a very soft white limestone with several deep fissures in it, some of which reach down almost 10m. Many of the carvings closely relate to the fissures, and wind noise and water running in the depths of the fissures creates sounds that the First Nations people interpret as the voices of spirits (Manitou). The petroglyphs are regarded as sacred teaching rocks and visitors are prohibited from walking on the rock or even taking photographs of them. Ceremonies and vision quests have been conducted on the rocks by the First Nations Elders from time to time since the 1990s, during which times the building is closed to the public.
The carvings were made with granite hammer stones and are thought to date from between 600 and 1400 AD, although as carvings are notoriously difficult to date this is disputed by some researchers who claim that they may be many thousands of years old (the dating evidence is based on some pieces of pottery that were found in the crevices). Fresh carvings reveal the crystalline white surface of the limestone, but darken over time. The rock is very soft and easily carved, described as “like coarse crystals of salt”. Many of the carvings were filled in with dark wax crayon by archaeologists in the 1960s and 70s to create greater contrast and make the images more apparent (an interesting resonance with Ludovic Mann’s graphic ‘enhancements’ of the Cochno Stone here). Increased interest in the site led to more visitors and soon the rock surface began to show signs of wear and tear, together with the inevitable addition of modern graffiti – something else it has in common with the Cochno Stone.
The Petroglyphs were initially protected by a surrounding wooden viewing platform and barbed wire fence in the 1960s, but perceived deterioration from atmospheric changes led to construction of a permanent covering building in 1984 to prevent further degradation of the soft limestone surface, discourage further graffiti and to stop further discolouration from algae growth (rocks outside the building are covered in dark grey or black algae). This problem seems to have accelerated from the 1970s onwards.
The visitor centre building is of mainly timber construction sitting comfortably in the forest landscape and contains some general displays and information panels about First Nations lifestyles and beliefs, including some images of the petroglyphs; a lecture theatre showing a 20-minute educational video about the teaching rocks (you can access that here), toilet facilities and a somewhat rudimentary gift shop, but not much else. It comes across as a slightly sterile experience. A particularly noticeable omission is the lack of any printed or photographic product relating to the actual petroglyphs other than some display panels in the exhibition and a 3-fold black and white photocopied leaflet given out on arrival that contains speculative interpretations of some petroglyphs. The video about the teaching rocks is narrated by Elders in a storytelling style and is very good; the rest of the displays are attractive but fairly superficial in nature and don’t say much about the actual site, being more focused on present-day First Nations cultural beliefs, which arguably are substantially different from those of the original carvers.
The petroglyph rocks are located in a separate building, a short walk through the trees from the visitor centre. The building is of metal and glass construction and is completely unsympathetic to both the area and the rock itself, although allegedly the First Nations peoples were consulted before and during the build. The shape seems designed to enclose the minimum area possible around the rocks. It makes no attempt to blend in with the local environment and is devoid of architectural interest, favouring functionality over form, in stark contrast to the visitor centre. The walls are largely glass, around 10m high, and the roof is corrugated metal with access catwalks and air conditioning ducts suspended underneath.
There is a balcony inside surrounding the rock to enable visitors to completely circumnavigate the carvings, with a circular viewing platform at the south-east corner. The balcony is perhaps 3m above the rock surface at this point, and follows the slope of the rock upwards to the north, where it is about 0.5m above the rock at the highest point. A flatter area at the apex of the site has a slab of rock that serves as an altar stone, with a water bowl and offerings of the four First Nations sacred herbs tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and cedar. This did not appear to have been maintained recently and the water looked stagnant.
Unfortunately, photography of the petroglyphs is strictly forbidden to “protect their spiritual sanctity”, so I have respected that and will not include any pictures of the actual rock in this post. There are several images available elsewhere if you wish to search for them – this blog post by “Ramblin’ Boy” about the petroglyphs has several images and is recommended.
This image is from a casting inside the visitor centre showing one of the intriguing ‘boat’ carvings. The unusual nature of these “big boats” has led some researchers to claim that the petroglyphs were actually carved by European explorers, and indeed there are some similarities to Scandinavian rock art.
The viewing platform has a compass painted on the floor to indicate the four directions and some pillars of the building have been part-painted in the appropriate direction colours of red, yellow, white and black, yet they are not precisely aligned with any of the compass points. We saw one coloured ribbon on a tree outside the enclosure, but again the direction was only approximate.
The building was designed with roof insulation and air conditioning plant designed to provide a continuous airflow and maintain a temperature difference of 3-5 degrees with the outside air to reduce condensation. The large windows are also meant to provide natural solar heating of the rock surface to prevent moisture build-up; however it is questionable as to the effectiveness of either system.
Inside, the first impression is that of entering a museum space. There is a sombre atmosphere broken only by the quiet hum of the air conditioning, but you feel obliged to speak in hushed tones as though in a library or church. So although there is some sense of sacredness about the space, the building immediately severs any sense of connection to the outside world. There is no awareness of external sounds or natural airflow, although the cooler temperature inside and lack of bugs was certainly welcome.
The natural slope of the rock together with the surrounding balcony enables moderately easy viewing of the majority of petroglyphs, although perhaps not as close up as one would desire. Some figures are very worn and faint, making them difficult to discern. Use of some low side cross-lighting would have helped here. In fact, installation of any sort of sympathetic lighting scheme would enhance the site immensely.
We noticed some areas of the rock with large water stains, and other areas with light algae blooms. A large area in the south-east corner had what appeared to be heavy scratch marks. Some pale ladder-like discolouration also extended across a large area of the carvings.
When questioned about the water stains and the ‘ladder’ marks, the attendant explained that these were due to condensation dripping from the corrugated metal roof and catwalks. Although the building air conditioning is intended to prevent this, we were told that to save costs it is not kept running during the winter months when the park is closed. This also accounts for the algal blooms on areas of the rock.
The scratch marks and other surface damage date from the construction of the building when the area was roughly excavated using mechanical diggers to expose the rock.
The attendant also informed us that the ‘spirits’ seem to have left the area, as water has not been heard running under the rocks for more than a decade. This may be as a result of the building construction, climate change, or some other undetermined cause. Here, a dowsing survey would have been useful to map out the underground water flows in the area.
The initial planning consultation specified the need to “create a facility which not only does not intrude on the site and its meaning but adequately conveys the appropriate feelings to those who chose to visit the area. The integrity of the carvings and of the people who created them should be of uppermost consideration”.
Clearly the present building does not fulfil that function. It is intrusive on the landscape, has been constructed using few (if any) archaeological protocols to prevent damage to the rocks, it isolates the site from its surroundings and fails to honour the teaching rocks as a living tradition, or First Nations ideas regarding spirituality and the natural settings of sacred sites. A connection with the environment (e.g. water, rock, wind, air) is an essential component of ceremonies for the First Nations peoples, and they are denied that connection. The building prevents any astronomical observations from the site so it is nigh-impossible to evaluate any possible correlations between the stars and the petroglyphs that have been suggested by some researchers – in particular Andis Kaulins, who also argues convincingly that the “big boats” with apparent masts and side rudders are depictions of Scandinavian Bronze Age skin curraghs. However, this is not a politically-correct opinion to voice in Canada as it suggests that the indigenous First Nations people were influenced by European culture earlier than is generally thought.
The building also prevents observations of solar and lunar light and shadow play on the rock surface that may also yield important connections with the external environment. Effectively, it has turned the site into a static museum. Arguably, the building is not even managing to preserve the petroglyphs effectively and is actually responsible for recent damage to the rock surface through having the air conditioning closed down during winter months. In general, the conservation management strategy seems poorly implemented.
Considerations for the Cochno Project
There are several similarities between the Kinomaage-Waapkong petroglyphs and the Cochno Stone, with the main difference being that the ‘teaching rocks’ are still a living tradition amongst the First Nations peoples, whereas the Cochno Stone is now mainly of archaeological and historical interest. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned from the way that the Petroglyphs have apparently been treated with a lack of archaeological understanding and respect.
In terms of protecting the Cochno Stone, a sympathetically-constructed timber-framed building over the stone initially seems to offer the best solution to long-term preservation, protection and visitor access control. A number of educational opportunities could be included, for example interactive displays, specialist lighting to enhance the carvings or highlight specific ones, perhaps in conjunction with a custom interactive smartphone application. One could even imagine projection options overlaying graphics of Ludovic Mann’s painted grid and other possible alignments on the stone. With sufficient funding, a separate interpretation and education centre could be constructed nearby, perhaps in the car park area, to provide necessary background information for visitors to the site.
However, I’m going to argue against covering the site with a structure of any kind, for the same reasons as cited above for the Petroglyphs – it would not only cut off the site from the surrounding environment and prevent natural observations of astronomical alignments and light and shadow play on the stone, it also sterilises the visitor experience and removes any sense of connection with the site and spirit of place. Arguably such an experience is little different to viewing a replica of the stone in a museum elsewhere. Rock art panels are best seen in context with the landscape around them, as is the case with other Scottish rock art sites, and the Cochno Stone should be no exception.
I am therefore firmly in favour of the proposal to create a full-size composite replica of the stone and position it as closely as possible above the original, as has been done on other sites (e.g. the “King’s footprint” and boar carving on Dunadd), whilst leaving the original stone buried. With current smartphone technology, it should be possible to produce an interactive Augmented Reality app specifically tied to the Cochno site that could provide overlaid graphics highlighting specific carvings, show Mann’s grid, show the paths of the sun and moon at various times of year (both now and at time of Neolithic site use) and suchlike. GPS markers and route walks to the other rock art sites in the area could also be included in such an app. With sufficient funding, a smaller replica could also be housed elsewhere with better interpretative displays and audio-visual enhancements. This is also likely to be the most cost-effective solution and does not compromise the site for future researchers.
 Burton and Hogenkamp 1971, cited from: http://openarchive.icomos.org/233/1/80-W9Fu-143.pdf