State Archeologist Coming to Gills Rock to Assess Rock Art

It was announced at the monthly meeting of the Door County Parks & Airport Committee on July 12 that State Archeologist John Broihahn plans a fact-finding visit to Gills Rock next month in connection with an Indian rock painting on a bluff on the northern end of the peninsula.

The rock painting recently came to the attention of the committee through an email from the Gills Rock Petragraph Preservation Organization Board, made up of Rick Johnson, James Rice, Chris Voight and Matt Velguth. The committee made recommendations to the county regarding the historic rock art and publicity of it at Door Bluff Headlands Park.

The group wrote that “publicizing the existence of the petragraphs without securing them in any way and without even attempting to educate the public about how to respectfully view them has resulted in inadvertent vandalism and quite possibly the theft of several of these paintings.”

They also claim the poster at the information kiosk has erroneous information about the origin and date of the artwork. The poster “is an insult in that it gives credit for the ‘discovery’ of the petragraphs in 1991 when in fact Gills Rock fishing families always knew of the existence dating back to the late 1800s and kept them safe by not exploiting them.”

The National Register of Historic Places lists the site as “Bohjanen’s Door Bluff Pictographs,” named for Doug Bohjanen, a Michigan man who “discovered” the paintings in 1991.

The group also asked the county to help fund a 100-foot dock to be installed parallel to the rock face in order for archeologists and preservationists “to shore-up the precariously undermined painted rock panels.” The platform would be left in place to allow the public to view the petragraphs without being able to get at them.

They also ask that the site be secured with motion-activated night vision cameras, and they remind that it is a felony in Wisconsin to meddle with a historic site.

County Parks Director Erik Aleson said his staff would work with the Wisconsin Historical Society to come up with new signage by the fall. Aleson said there is nothing in the budget for dock funding or cameras at this time, and meetings between various parties would need to be held on that subject.

He proposed a meeting of representatives from the parks department, Department of Natural Resources personnel, Wisconsin Historical Society and members of the petragraph organization to come up with a management plan for the site.

Gills Rock Petragraph Preservation Organization Board member Matt Velguth said up until last fall, the site was thought to be a five-foot panel.

“When I found it last fall I recognized it as Ojibwe and I started photographing the site, and realized it’s not five feet long, it’s almost 400-feet long,” he said. “It tells this story of this battle that was the oral tradition that the Potawatomi told about Death’s Door, the origin of the name of Death’s Door, that it was from the dead of this battle. It’s a big piece of history.”

Velguth published a book this year called The Gills Rock Petragraphs:  Archives of Stone.

“I have not seen the site myself, so I’m hoping to get out there and look at the situation and the best thing we can do to preserve that site,” Broihahn said. “Rock art sites are always a challenge. It’s not like you can just pick them up and carry them inside a building. So I’m going to talk to them, see what they’ve found, see what they think. I hope to get out there to look at it from the land and the water. It’s one thing when people describe a situation, and it’s another to see it for yourself.”

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