EMU professor, student go to extremes for Michigan rock art study

by Ward Mullens, Published March 09, 2010

YPSILANTI - Eastern Michigan University Chemistry Professor Ruth Ann Armitage recently traded in her Nicaraguan spelunking helmet for a trash bag with arm holes in it.

The 55-gallon trash bag was a good way to keep dry while hiking a rocky beach in cold, rainy weather on the shoreline of Big Bay de Noc on Lake Michigan in northern Michigan.

“The rock paintings there are the only ones in the state of Michigan.  They’re thought to be connected to the Ojibwe,” said Armitage, who took a student and went in search of the paintings.

Christina Phillips, a graduate student from Standish, accompanied Armitage and her husband on the trip.

“I wanted to do field research and get hands-on experience,” said Phillips, who admits that she thought field work in forensic science would be just a little bit more glamorous.

“We had to walk two miles just to get to the site, and then we had to climb over huge rocks,” Phillips said.

While a lot of northerners are familiar with the Painted Rocks on Lake Superior, Armitage said that the rock art her team is looking for is very different.

The Painted Rocks National Shoreline is a 15-mile sandstone outcropping that, in places, has been carved in various and distinct shapes by the forces of nature.

The paintings Armitage is looking for were created by people.

The art was in a shallow cave that was excavated in the 1960s and turned into a tourist spot by the farmer who owned the land. The tourist attraction of the “Indian paintings” never got widespread recognition, although area residents often visited the site, so it was bought by the state.

It was returned to natural conditions by the state and has been left alone, ravaged by the elements of wind and water.
Armitage said erosion has crumbled parts of the sheer limestone cliff face, and the paintings are slowly disappearing into a pile of rubble.

“It’s a unique site and it is fading away into nothing,” she said.

While Armitage and Phillips did not find anything suitable for dating on their first expedition, their quest could be renewed in the spring.  They want to understand the composition of the paints and perhaps find a way to preserve them.

Armitage said that Dr. Alex Carroll-Ruuska, a colleague at Northern Michigan University who initiated the project, has heard from Ojibwe elders that the pictures are fading away because the spirit of the place is leaving.

“Rock art sites are about people and that they did something there,” said Armitage. “When people are not involved, the site dies.”

Ward Mullens

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