Colleen Slebzak

Anthropological Review

Machias Bay Petroglyphs: An Ethnoarcheological Approach

Machias Bay Petroglyphs: A Ethnoarcheological Approach


Prehistoric Art: Rock Art
The Petroglyphs of Machias Bay, Maine

    Petroglyphs are rock-artistic expressions found in many geographic locations around the world. The Machias Bay petroglyphs found in the easternmost part of the United States, in Maine however, are unlike any in the world, making this a truly unique archeological site.
The Artistic Tradition of Machias Bay Rock-Art
The rock-art tradition of Machias Bay spans back 3,000 years B.P., up until the 1700s with European contact, as asserted in Passamaquoddys to regain Machias Bay petroglyphs, by Katherine Cassidy (2006:5). Mark Hedden asserted in Contact Period Petroglyphs in Machias Bay, Maine, “an absolute date is indicated by several meters of freshly exposed bedrock on higher elevations that do not contain any petroglyphs” (Hedden 2002:2). Edward J. Lenik asserted, in Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeastern Woodlands,  “an area of bedrock freshly exposed and free of petroglyphs represent the last 250-300 years, when the Indians were no longer in control of this part of Maine” (Lenik 2002:41). This evidence all points to the end of this artistic tradition as being sometime in the early 18th century.
A total of nine sites have been found in this geographic location (Hedden 2002:2). Archeologist Mark Hedden discovered two sites with rock-art in 1999, has been researching the area for over three decades (1977), and has been petitioning for Passamaquoddy land-rights for descendants of the Algonquin language-speaking family and Passamaquoddy Indian his entire career. I could not find the name of the first person to discover the petroglyphs, as no literature exists on this specific subject in the archeological record. My educated opinion is that European explorers uncovered these petroglyphs upon arrival into the New World sometime in the late 17th to early 18th century.
The Algonquin language-speaking family, later descending to the Passamaquoddy Indians, carved all of the rock art found in Machias Bay. The Algonquin speaking-langauge family and Passamaquoddy Indians were a marine resource-based, hunting and gathering, at first band social organization, then moving toward a highly stratified social organization, always shamanistic, peaceful society (during the time of this artistic tradition). In Archeology: Fifth Edition, by Robert L. Kelly and David Hurst Thomas quoted David Lewis-Williams as to saying “virtually all hunting-and-gathering societies known to anthropology practice a form of religion that involves shamanism… Shamans are individuals…whom claim to be able to access supernatural powers, spirits or deceased individuals and tap into the power and influence that they offer to the world of the living”, supporting my hypothesis that the Passamaquoddy were and are still, a shamanistic-based group (2010:12). This assertion also suggests an iconographic artistic tradition among the Algonquin language-speaking family and Passamaquoddy Indians.
The rock-art was created using similar techniques as most rock-art in the Americas was developed- by repeated blows of a hard stone tool onto the rock’s surface. According to Lenik, the rock-art of Machias Bay was created in the same way, by “repeated blows by of a pointed instrument, doubtless of hard stone, not held as a chisel, but working by a repetition of hammerings or peckings” (Lenik 2002:43).
Rock-Art Traditions and Styles of Machias Bay
Rock-art has been found all over the world. Dating as far back as 30,000 years ago with simple anthropomorphic designs on rocks found in the southwestern Congo (Yoruba) and more modern styles such as the cave-paintings in the Lascaux Cave in Southern France, dating back 17,000 years. The petroglyphs found in Machias Bay however, are unique to this site, as no other site in the world has the depictions that can be found here.
It is hard to say the meaning behind these depictions, or why this area was specifically chosen to represent the Algonquin language-speaking family and Passamaquoddy oral and cultural tradition. Brian Robertson asserted at a meeting of the 2014 Archeological Field School at the University of Maine, this site was not a residential or public zone where people conducted their daily activities. He also said these areas were strictly for shamans, divination, or other ritualistic behaviors to be carried out by the shaman himself (Robertson 2014). I feel as if this may have been a prehistoric temple of sorts, to worship, adorn, or communicate with supernatural powers, spirits, or ancestors of the Algonquin language-speaking family  and Passamaquoddy people. Spatial layout suggests such. The community carried out their daily activities adjacent from the bay where the sacred area is located (where the petroglyphs can be found), much like in many other prehistoric non-western societies around the world. Clear delineation of public space and the sacred place for the shaman are obvious along the landscape, as material remains indicate subsistence and pottery (a stationary representation of daily life in a location) in public areas, and the absence of these material remains in the sacred place where the petroglyphs are located.
It is unclear as to if these carvings were commissioned by the shaman or if created in tribute (without the shaman’s request) by artisans of the community. These questions are difficult to answer, as little information exists in the archeological record of this site’s petroglyphs and their intended purpose. The best archeologists could do is to string together similar oral histories and material remains of the Algonquin language-speaking family, Wabanaki (as they are also a descendants of the Algonquian in this geographic location, and directly related to the Passamaquoddy), and the Passamaquoddy Indians to get a better understanding of the petroglyphs in Machias Bay.
The many artists of the petroglyphs in Machias Bay kept to a strict adherence to a specific artistic style during the 3,000 year artistic tradition- a remarkable component of these petroglyphs, as many variations can be seen within other geographic locations. Hedden describes four styles as to which the rock-art in Machias Bay could be classified, and his “work on the seven sites discovered earlier has led to the development of a sequence of styles within a single, uninterrupted tradition which ended after European contact” (Hedden 2002:2). Style I, the oldest of the petroglyphs, depicts “paired anthropomorphic figures. The figures are of equal size with outstretched arms that touch. Only the figure to the left has a head, V-shaped in presentation…the paring can be interpreted as a shaman speaking for the spirit, the headless or speechless figure”, a very likely conclusion (Lenik 2002:45). Hedden estimated this artistic style to have spanned from 3,000 B.P.- 2,200 B.P. (Lenik 2002:45). Style II, “is described by Hedden as a transitional figure in which a single torso displays multiple attributes appearing as inner body lines…to date, examples of this style have only been found on Hog Island”, in Machias Bay (Lenik 2002:45). I feel as if this is a depiction of the liminal state a shaman reaches when entering into the spirit world. Style III Hedden asserted also continues to depict the liminal state of the shaman, but “double or triple legs are almost always present on a single torso, and multiple lines fill the hourglass-shaped bodies…The hourglass-shape resembles many of the petroglyphs found in the Northeast” (Lenik 2002:46). Hedden associated style III with “the early Middle Woodland period (2,200 B.P.- 1,660 B.P.), a time of greater population but with social organization still at the extended family or band level” (Lenik 2002:46). Finally, style IV, around 1,500 B.P., figures on the rocks became much more complex in nature. Hedden asserted there is “…more active anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures… there is indication of sexual imagery…[and] Hedden ties this style to a change in the shamanistic performances of the Passamaquoddy and other coastal groups”, an assertion I agree with (Lenik 2002:48). These four styles represent the core evolution of the petroglyphs at Machias Bay. Although Hedden mentioned three other styles, the variation between the next three were very similar, so I chose to omit them from this report in the interest of time.
Implications of the Petroglyphs at Machias Bay
It has been suggested by Hedden, the rock-art in Machias Bay was in fact made by shamans and “indicate an evolution of the depiction of that experience and, perhaps, an evolution of the performances or public demonstration of the interaction between shaman and spirit” (Lenik 2002:45). This assertion suggests the art was used in ritual, was iconographic in nature, and was a critical component to the shamanistic rituals of the Algonquian and Passamaquoddy Indian. David H. Dye asserted, in Rock-Art of Eastern North America: Capturing Images and Insight, “perhaps the most fascinating aspects of this genre of rock-art investigation is its association with Native American ritual, art, and iconography”, supporting my and Hedden’s assertion (2006:140).
Another idea as to what the rock-art was meant to convey or was intended for, could be a simple depiction of oral origin history of the Algonquian Indians. Many creation stories are passed down orally in Native societies. When rock-art became an artistic tradition for the Algonquian Indians, they may have wanted to preserve their oral histories on a concrete and immortalizing medium- carved in stone.
Finally, the art could have been intended for trespassers or neighboring or foreign groups into that area. It could have served as a warning of the awesome power of the shaman, and his divine will to protect this land and his people (whom lived there for centuries). It also could have been intended for promotional purposes toward neighboring groups- a depiction of the power of the shaman.
Ethnoarcheology: The Fields Associated Challenges and Benefits
Many explanations exist as to why the petroglyphs in Machias Bay, Maine were created: what messages the rock-art aimed to convey, who the artists were, why this specific geographic location was chosen for the art, and what the depictions are actually meant to convey. Unfortunately, we may never know the answers to these questions; however, much information could be gained from the attempt to answer them. Kelly and Thomas asserted, “an archeology of the mind attempts to move beyond the more easily accessible matters of diet and settlement patterns to religion, ritual, and cosmology”, in an attempt to answer the High-Level Theory or “big questions” in archeology (2010:312). Kelly and Thomas also said, “people respond to their world through culture, an integrated set of symbolic meanings that are communicated through material culture… More ancient symbolic systems must be studied in ways that make use of uniformitarian elements of human neurology or perhaps a few symbolic universals…” (2010:312). The more an artistic tradition is researched, the more information as to daily life, patterns in belief systems, the development of informal and formal social sanctions or institutions, political social organization, and the “big questions,” archeologists and anthropologists could reveal about a society. Material remains hold more information that meets the eye, and with oral and written traditions, researchers are beginning to see a much larger picture of a society when conducting fieldwork.


Brian Robertson, Meeting Archeological Field-School 2014. Wednesday, April 16th 2014.

Cassidy, Katharine
2006    Passamaquoddys to regain Machias Bay petroglyphs: [All Edition]. Bangor Daily News, September 06:23. <;

Dye, David H.
2006    Rock-Art of Eastern North America: Capturing Images and Insight. Book Review. Southeastern Archeology 25(1):140-141. <;

Hedden, Mark
2002    Contact Period Petroglyphs in Machias Bay, Maine. Archeology of Eastern North America. Eastern States Archeological Federation. JSTOR 30:1-20. <;

Kelly, Robert L. and David Hurst Thomas
2010    Archeology: Fifth Edition. Wadsworth CENGAGE Learning. Print.

Lenik, Edward J.
2002[1932]  Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeastern Woodlands. Bookprint, trans. S.L., Barcelona. Print.

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This entry was posted on April 20, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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