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Alberta drawings support ancient myth Add to ...

A high-tech photograph of a flute player, barely visible where it was originally painted on a limestone wall in a Rocky Mountain canyon, proves a Hopi Indian legend of a clan who travelled north to a land of ice and rock, a Canadian archeologist says.

The myth, which is outlined in The Book of Hopi, appears to have been depicted 500 to 1,300 years ago in a series of pictographs of humans and animals painted with ochre in Grotto Canyon, about 65 kilometres west of Calgary.

"You have a smoking gun now," said Oregon-based photographer Jim Henderson, who recently visited the canyon just west of Exshaw, Alta., and used polarized light to make the faint image of the flute player almost crystal clear.

Marty Magne, an archeologist with Parks Canada who has been puzzling over the two-metre-high and three-metre-wide panel pictographs for a decade, said the picture of the flute player proves Hopi Indians, who are native to what is now Arizona, visited the area.

The flute player, sometimes known as a Kokapelli, is used only by the Hopi people, and is described in mythology both as fertility symbol and as a traveller. According to the myth, Hopi clans travelled in the four directions of the compass, leaving paintings of the flute player along the way.

The book says one group travelled north to the land of ice and rock, but because the images were previously found only in the U.S. Southwest, it was not clear where their travels took them.

"It's a confirmation of this myth that these folks went north to the land of ice and rock and left a pictograph," Dr. Magne said. " . . . This has got to be it." A report on the latest development in the Grotto Canyon mystery will air tonight on the Discovery Channel program @discovery.ca.

To see the pictographs in person, you trek back in time along an ankle-twisting stone path, under the hum of utility lines and just past the growl of a magnesium-carbonate processing plant.

A short hike along the stony bed of Grotto Creek, past the sun-bleached remains of a coyote-sized backbone and ribcage, and you're spat out between canyon walls -- some rising to heights of 60 metres -- carved smooth from thousands of years of glacier meltwater.

On the left, burnt-orange pictographs are visible on the sheer rockface. Hikers and rock climbers have been warned for years not to tinker with the images. Oil and acids from human hands can damage the ancient ochre, already made faint by time and touch.

Canada's Hopi connection dates back to 1965 when amateur archeologist Thelma Habgood began documenting all the rock art in Alberta. She thought one of the images in Grotto Canyon might be a Kokapelli.

But there was no further investigation until a rainy day in 1992, when Michael Klassen, a young archeologist who had worked with Dr. Magne and had received a grant from the province to survey provincial rock art sites, noticed that water running over the rock made the flute-player image stand out. He too made the Hopi connection.

Last month, the Archeological Society of Alberta commissioned Mr. Henderson to apply his technique to some rock art on two huge boulders in an Okotoks field, just south of Calgary, and also asked him to visit Grotto Canyon.

"It looks like lipstick smears on collars," he recalled.

That is, until he applied his process, which uses powerful strobe lights fixed with polarizers and a polarizing camera filter to pick up almost invisible images on items including rocks, pottery and fabric.

The process, conducted at night to avoid the interference of sunlight, removes reflections from the surface and allows the camera to selectively absorb the pigment.

"Any pigment that human beings put on porous surfaces responds very well to this," Mr. Henderson said.

It's a process he simply calls "very cool," but it could also restore entire chapters in human history that time is steadily erasing.

Still, excited as he is about what Mr. Henderson has recovered in the provincial recreation area, Dr. Magne is also worried about the attention the pictographs will receive.

"It just takes one idiot with a hammer and this would be gone in 10 minutes," he said.

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