On a cool fall morning two thousand years ago, a hunting party broke through the dense forests along the north shore of the great expanse of water we now call Lake Ontario and found themselves in a terrifying situation. Out on the water, a multiheaded creature floated towards them. It was not a fish that swam; it was one that walked across the water through some powerful magic.
When the creature neared shore, the hunting party was further stunned to see that it was not one creature, but instead it was a craft carrying several creatures whose hair and skin colours were unknown to them. The creatures came ashore and were noisy and aggressive.
The hunters, confounded and frightened, turned back into the safety of the forest. They raced north to a sacred site where they could communicate with their gods. They carved images of the invaders on an expanse of white rock in explanation, perhaps a warning, to their kinsmen who also searched these woods for food and fuel.
Is it possible that New World aboriginal peoples met a handful of Celtic sailors near Peterborough, Ontario more than two thousand years ago? Had these sailors set out from Old World shores in a sailboat made from leather, stitched with sinew and waterproofed with lard? Did these ancient Celts sail across the ocean by way of Iceland, then Greenland and the shores of Labrador, through Hudson Bay to the Great Lakes in Ontario and Michigan in search of a mineral as precious to them as gold?
Robert Burcher is quite certain this episode of Celtic history did happen. Robert believes that petroglyphs at a site near Peterborough, Ontario are not the sacred images as long believed by scholars, but instead document a visit to their land by Celtic explorers on a quest for copper.
Hundreds, thousands of years ago, an unknown people carefully carved more than 900 images into a white marble rock face. Lost in the deep forest for generations, the carvings were found by prospectors in the mid-1950s and the site became an overnight sensation. Archaeologists believe that the images on the site are sacred symbols of the Iroquois people who lived and hunted in the lands around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The site is known to First Nations people today as “The Rocks that Teach”.
Robert visited the petroglyph site in the early 1990s, unaware of the history or any current interpretations of the carvings. As a professional photographer, he was enchanted by the mystery and the mood of the area and the carvings themselves. As an avid sailor, Robert was particularly taken with what appeared to be an image of a sailing ship among the carvings. Robert knew there was no sailing tradition among the native peoples who had lived for generations around the lakes and in fact they were afraid of the great expanses of water. Why would a people who feared the water carve the image of a sailing ship into the rock with other sacred images?
That question set off a 20-year journey of research and investigation that has led Robert to the conclusion that the images carved into the rock record the story of a day when native people encountered a party of Celtic explorers on their hunting grounds.