The only prehistoric rock drawings in Michigan, located in the Upper Peninsula between Manistique and Escanaba, are fading into oblivion from neglect and vandalization. Can they be saved?
As long ago as the Early Woodland period (2400- 1400 bp—before present), one or more native people landed on a rocky beach on the northern shore of what is now the Lake Michigan coastline of the Upper Peninsula. On the 400-million-year-old, white limestone cliffs and in some of the 166 rock shelters and shallow caves formed as lake levels rose and fell over the millennia, indigenous people used durable stains made from mineral pigments and animal fats to paint figures of men and animals in red, orange and blue.

Burnt Bluff, on the Garden Peninsula, lies along this coastline and is home to the only prehistoric rock painting site known to have ever existed in the state. The Garden Peninsula is a narrow finger of land extending south into Lake Michigan between Manistique and Escanaba. The cliffs here stretch along one-half mile of the western shore of the peninsula, overlooking Big Bay de Noc. Over the past 50 years, human activity has damaged the most extraordinary Burnt Bluff image of all—that known as “Spider Man.” The other paintings have simply fallen off or faded away. While arguably inevitable, the loss of these messages from prehistory is incalculable.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Lange operated a tourist business at the site, charging admission to see the paintings, which were on their property. The Langes eventually attempted to sell the property to a private investor, but the buyer defaulted and it reverted to bank ownership and then to Fayette Historic State Park, which has administered it with benign neglect by simply closing the site to the public.

In the 1980s, I was awarded a research grant from the University of Michigan Rackham School of Graduate Studies to photograph Michigan’s prehistoric rock art as part of my Master of Fine Arts program.

Parking my car at the end of a dead-end road, I walked the quarter-mile back to the Burnt Bluff cliff edge and through the remnants of the Lange’s tourist business: an overgrown picnic area and a crumbling stone patio fronting a building with locked doors and curtained windows.

From the top of the bluff, stairs descended 140 feet through a series of landings to the beach. A spectacular view of the lake and the sound of the wind in the birches created a feeling that this is a sacred place, a feeling that intensified as I explored the ledges and caves below. In keeping with their sense of oneness with the natural world, prehistoric Native Americans often ascribed magical qualities to dramatic locations like this.

Cave drawings in Northern Michigan.

Photo by Doug Hagley

Cave drawings in Northern Michigan.

Photo by Doug Hagley

Related Read: Take a step back in time! For more historical features and articles, visit our Northern Michigan History page.

The wooden stairs, constructed by Mr. Lange, were spongy and moss-covered. About two-thirds of the way down, a trail led off to the south. Sheltered by cedars and birches, this path follows a narrow ledge—the remnant of an ancient beach when the lake level was much higher than it is today. Along this ledge are the Burnt Bluff caves, formed by the action of freezing and thawing, causing the sedimentary limestone rock to fracture and crumble in geometric chunks. The caves, perhaps better-called rock shelters, are shallow and open, the mouths being wider than the depth in most cases.

Spider Cave is the largest and most significant in the area, some 20 feet across and a little less deep. The roof, though still supported by two 12-foot pillars, was collapsing bit by bit. The floor was littered with jagged chunks of limestone. One of the pillars had some faint red stains on it— paintings so badly weathered that they seem imaginary. Local teenagers were also in evidence— cigarette butts and beer cans on the floor of the cave and graduation dates spray-painted on the walls. A spray-painted stick figure of a moose obscures another of the badly faded red stains.

Just outside the southern wall of the cave, on the right face of a sheltered, triangular niche, is the painting for which the cave is named. The Spider Man is the most famous and enigmatic of the images at this site because of its peculiar symbolism. A rusty brown, humanoid figure is connected by what appears to be an umbilical cord to a spider-like creature below him. The cord forms an arc over the figure’s head, though the top portion of the painting is partially obliterated by the precipitation of minerals out of the limestone rock face.

Cave drawings in Northern Michigan.

Photo by Doug Hagley

Many interpretations have been offered for this painting, though all are purely speculative. Living native elders tell their own stories. Some anthropologists suggest that it depicts a shaman, or medicine man, in a sweat lodge. (The sweat lodge was a sort of sauna in which holy men sought visions through fasting and sweating.) In this interpretation, the arch represents the lodge, and the spider-like form the fire, with the spider’s legs representing logs extending radially from the center. A primary objection to this idea is the jointed aspect of the “legs,” which belies their signification as “logs.” In the bulbous portion of the spider’s body is the rock that when heated in the fire was carried into the lodge and doused with water, creating the steam that purified the shaman and carried his prayers to the gods. This painting may be one of the few examples that attempt to indicate perspective: the objects appearing below the figure are in the foreground.

The “spider” is like no spider we know, with 16 legs gathered at one end of the oval body. That the humanoid figure is attached by an umbilical cord to this creature is extraordinary. What is the relationship between the spider and the presumed human? The painting is clearly a dream, a nightmare or a vision. There is nothing like it anywhere else in North America, or anywhere in the world for that matter. As with all prehistoric rock art, we can never know what it means.

In the mid-1960s, a team of archaeologists led by Dr. James Fitting from the University of Michigan conducted excavations and a survey of the Burnt Bluff area. In Spider Cave there was no evidence of pottery or tools, the usual signs of habitation. It is unlikely that anyone ever lived there.

However, more than 100 broken arrowheads and spear tips were found in Spider Cave. The journal of an 18th-century explorer suggests a reason: witnesses described a cliff in northern Minnesota with rock paintings and numerous clefts into which Indians were seen to shoot arrows as they passed by in their canoes. Presumably, this held some magical or ritual significance: firing into the cave may have been considered an offering for good luck in hunting.

In addition to Spider Cave, the University of Michigan team discovered several other sites of interest at Burnt Bluff. A smaller cave, 300 feet from the nearest pictograph and probably not associated with it, contained 247 bone fragments and teeth representing at least six individuals, including two infants that had been buried together on a birch bark mat resting on conifer poles.

Charcoal from the cave containing human remains was dated at about 375 AD, though there is no way to correlate this date with the age of Spider Man and the other paintings. Comparisons of the Burnt Bluff paintings with rock art sites in northern Minnesota and Canada suggest some stylistic affinities, and would seem to place the Burnt Bluff images in what is referred to as the Middle Woodland period (300 BC to 800 AD).

It is worthwhile noting that the ancestors of contemporary Native People of the Great Lakes region, according to their own legends and the archaeological evidence, migrated from the Atlantic Coast (today’s Maine and New Brunswick) around 900 AD, in other words, a century after the era in which these paintings are believed to have been created. This migration and timeline are traced in “The Mishomis Book” by Edward Benton-Banai, (University of Minnesota Press, Second Edition, 2010). The author, an Anishinaabe Ojibwe who died last year, was a founder of the American Indian Movement and grand chief of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge in Wisconsin.

After photographing Spider Man, I descended to the beach. The last part of the stairway had washed away, replaced with a rickety ladder. About a quarter-mile north of the stairs was/is a series of paintings at eye level on the cliff face. Most were only faded patches of red; they would be hard to find if it weren’t for the black arrows that Mr. Lange painted on the cliff next to them. However, two were distinguishable: one referred to as “Big Man” and another that archaeologists called “Urinating Man.”

Big Man, totally exposed to the elements, was extremely faint. It was the largest of the paintings on the beach-side panel, approximately two feet high. Its distinguishing features were upraised forearms, terminating inaccurately depicted hands, including thumbs, and a phallus jutting out from the side of the figure. The hands in most prehistoric rock art are normally depicted in a more minimalist manner. The open arms suggested a beckoning or welcoming gesture. This painting was done in the iron-based pigment, red ochre, which is the basis of all of the art at Burnt Bluff.

To the right of Big Man, the Urinating Man figure, depicted in deep red tones, appears to be dancing or falling, and it was clearer than any other image at the site. Dr. Susan Martin, retired Michigan Tech archaeologist, told me at the time that it looked as though it had been “enhanced” with nonfading red marker, probably by the Langes for easier viewing. The arms up thrown, the figure was drawn bending backward. A red arc began at the center of the body and extended downward in a curve to the right, suggesting, some feel, that the figure was urinating.

I can’t speak for every man of every culture, but I’ve never peed while falling over backward, and it seems a highly unlikely scenario. Not surprisingly, this interpretation is unique to Burnt Bluff (or rather to the observer who proposed it), probably because it is so implausible. A more likely interpretation is that the figure is falling back, wounded, and the red line is blood. Or the arc is being used to indicate the direction of movement, though that style is unknown for artists of that period. Today’s archaeologists favor the “falling figure” interpretation. The truth is that all rock art interpretations are nothing more than Rorschach tests for the viewer. No matter what your heritage, there is absolutely no way for a person of today to see into the mind of the ancient artist who created this image. That is the intrinsic frustration posed by prehistoric art.

That was 36 years ago.

Cave drawings in Northern Michigan.

Photo by Doug Hagley

In 2015, The Wisconsin Archaeologist published a paper by Alex Ruuska (NMU) and Ruth Ann Armitage (EMU) stating that all of the paintings at Burnt Bluff had either faded, peeled off the surface of the cliff (a process referred to as “spalling”) or been obliterated by a combination of natural processes and human activity, mostly the latter.

The human activity includes spray-painted graffiti and water damage caused by visitors wetting the images to intensify their color. Applying water to the pictographs promotes the growth of lichen and moss, but far worse, it causes minerals from the cliff to dissolve and be deposited over the images. The 2015 report claimed only two of the 16 legs of the spider creature were still visible.

It should be noted that the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, now responsible for maintaining the site under the auspices of Fayette Historic State Park, disputes the findings of the 2015 report. A spokesperson for the state told me she had visited the site, and while it is still deteriorating, she says the claims of The Wisconsin Archaeologist authors are greatly exaggerated.

Whether the report is accurate or not, there is an increasing sense of urgency surrounding the rock art. The local tribes, who feel ownership of the paintings, have been exploring preservation alternatives with the state, and there are very few.

There are only two plausible, though marginally effective, approaches to solving the problem of human damage: exclusion and education. The state has been practicing exclusion at Burnt Bluff simply by closing the site to the public, and because the paintings are physically difficult to access anyway, this action has produced a modicum of protection. However, anyone bent on vandalism can get there: short of a 24- hour custodian, it’s impossible to keep people out.

As it seems likely that the vandalism at Burnt Bluff, in particular, is caused either by the careless partying of local youth or inadvertently by photographers wetting the paintings, a program in the local schools emphasizing the importance of the Burnt Bluff site could be helpful. When residents have a sense of ownership and pride in their special place, they are theoretically less likely to destroy it. Signs warning photographers of the danger of their activities might be helpful, but would also draw attention to the site.

These are not answers, but may delay the inevitable. The state, the tribes and conservationists are largely impotent. In time, the paintings at Burnt Bluff will disappear one way or another, and all that will remain are photographs taken over the years.

Doug Hagley holds a B.S. and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan. As part of a Michigan History Division archaeological team he excavated the Carp River Forge in Negaunee (now the Michigan Iron Industry Museum) and the Father Marquette Mission in St. Ignace, currently the Museum of Ojibwa Culture and Mission Park.

Photo(s) by Doug Hagley