When people think about archaeology and historical resource management one image that may come to mind is a dusty excavation site with wheelbarrows mounded with soil to be screened for artifacts. Increasingly modern technology is being utilized to augment and improve our understanding of the past by using modern techniques such as photo enhancement programs, digital field recording methods, predictive modeling, LIDAR, and photogrammetry. These new technologies and techniques can improve our understanding of the past and help us share and present findings with our clients and indigenous partners.
Rock art researchers can utilize a photo enhancement program called DStretch to aid in the analysis and identification of rock art. This program can make painted rock art images known as pictographs that can be nearly invisible to the naked eye visible for research and conservation. This color enhancement software application was specifically developed for rock art detection by Jon Harman (Harman 2015) and has led to many new discoveries and revised interpretations of known rock art sites. One example of newly identified rock art can be found within Writing-on-Stone/Asinapi Provincial Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Monitoring programs for the rock art at Writing-on-Stone were an important component of the Writing-on-Stone UNESCO World Heritage site application and this new rock art was identified as part of an ongoing volunteer monitoring program that Golder staff participated in during 2016 (Turney et al. 2021).
Golder staff have been involved with the rock art monitoring programs at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park for several years. The landscape is considered sacred by the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksikáíítsitapi) and the outstanding universal value of this location was acknowledged in 2019 when UNESCO conferred the park with a World Heritage Site designation. Writing-on-Stone has one of the largest concentrations of rock art in western North America. Much of the rock art at Writing-on-Stone dates to the later Pre-contact and early Post-contact periods (1,000 years BP to the mid-1900s), with the oldest art at the sites potentially dating to 3,000 years BP.
By utilizing DStretch, researchers have been able to clearly see new styles of rock art that have not previously been identified within the Writing-on-Stone region. Below in Figure 1 and 2 is a before and after image showing how badly faded ochre paint can be enhanced with this technology. The rock art style in Figures 1 and 2 is a style identified as Vertical Series. Some Plains rock art researchers have asserted that Vertical Series rock art is the closest thing that was developed in Indigenous North America to a written language. As Keyser and Klassen (2001:294) noted, “…the evidence clearly supports the interpretation that VS rock art functioned as a rudimentary ideographic writing system – an unprecedented achievement in Northwestern Plains rock art”. There are currently 17 known positively identified Vertical Series sites located in the northwestern Plains including this site that display the defining characteristics of this rock art tradition (Kaiser and Keyser 2019).
Figure 2 (after): Photograph using DStretch enhancement of Panel 21, Face B, DgOv-2, highlighting Vertical Series rock art.
Utilizing new technologies has improved our understanding of this important rock art site. Writing-on-Stone is well documented and been visited by many researchers in the past, but only recently have we been able to re-analyze and identify these new components associated with the previously recorded rock art panels. Viewing the Figure 1 prior to the application of DStretch most people would be hard pressed to see any ochre paint without the image enhancement. However, once an image has been enhanced (Figure 2) a very different picture can emerge. Using image enhancement programs can help researchers better record and preserve highly faded rock art for future generations. DStretch is currently available as an iPhone and Android app along with a desktop version that can be found at www.dstretch.com. While the phone apps can be a useful screening tool it is recommended that a high quality SLR camera be utilized for the best results.
- Harman, J. (2015) Using DStretch for Rock Art Recording. INORA (International Newsletter on Rock Art 72:24–30.
- Kaiser, David A., and James D. Keyser (2019) Looking North: The Origin of the VS. American Indian Rock Art 45:1–19.
- Keyser, James D., and Michael A. Klassen (2001) Plains Indian Rock Art. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver.
- Michael Turney, Landon Bendiak & Jack W. Brink (2021): New discoveries of Vertical Series and Foothills Abstract rock art at Writing-on-Stone, DgOv-2, southern Alberta, Plains Anthropologist