Archeologists hope to protect Michigan rock art

Cass City, Michigan (AP) May 2011

Archeologists and officials hope to create an enclosure to protect Michigan’s only Native American rock carvings, but scarce funds make the project unlikely anytime soon.

The Sanilac Petroglyphs in the woods outside Cass City bear pictures of archers and other symbols, The Detroit News reported. The 25-by-40-foot sandstone outcropping contains roughly 100 carvings that are 400 to 1,000 years old.

They also are marked by modern people’s names and initials, left by vandals on the fragile, crumbly sandstone.

“There is only one petroglyph (site) in this state and that is the Sanilac Petroglyphs,” said William Lovis, a professor of anthropology at Michigan State University. “It is unique and important, and it needs to be protected.”

A fire in 1881 exposed the outcropping, which until then had been hidden. Private landowners held title to the property until 1966, when the Michigan Archaeological Society purchased a 24-acre parcel that included the rock.

Five years later, the society deeded the land to the state of Michigan, while retaining ownership. The site’s only protection for years was the tall, wooden canopy that covers the entire rock, and a 5-foot-high cyclone fence. Seven years ago, the state erected a 12-foot-tall chain-link fence to keep trespassers out when the site is not being supervised.

But more needs to be done, said George Lauinger, acting supervisor of the Department of Natural Resources’ Bay City State Recreation Area.

“We’ve been striving in recent years to organize a friends group to help with the site, but it’s been difficult,” he said. “This is such an impoverished area of the state, and people are much more concerned right now about making their own ends meet.”

He added, “The ideal would be for someone who has the financial wherewithal to come in and build an enclosed structure, preferably glass, that covers the entire rock.”

The state, the archeological society and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe are involved in the struggle to preserve the site. But money is an issue.

Two DNR departments help fund the site with about $15,000 a year for basic upkeep. But officials estimate erecting a glass enclosure might cost more than $300,000.

That’s money the state park system, which relies largely on user fees for more pressing needs, simply doesn’t have, the newspaper reported.

The recreation passport, a new funding mechanism introduced last fall, could take a few years to “generate enough funding to do what we need to do there,” DNR spokeswoman Mary Dettloff said.

It isn’t clear which tribes made the carvings, but the Saginaw Chippewas have a strong connection to the site. And tribal officials said they want to do whatever is necessary to keep the site protected.

“We understand that this is a place of great historical significance and our ancestors left their marks there,” said Charmaine Benz, an elected council member of the tribe. “We’ve been taught that those (petroglyphs) are sacred teachings for the future.”

Officials with the Chippewas and the Michigan Archaeological Society agree on the need to protect the site, but have been unable to reach an acceptable solution.

The archeological society believes private ownership could get in the way of science.

“The tribe wants the entire park property, including the petroglyphs, gifted to them under their single ownership,” said Don Simons, president of the archaeological society. “And that would mean no other archaeological interpretations whatsoever.”