An amateur historian's obsession with a mysterious rock sitting in the middle of the Alberta prairie has veered into a strange direction.
The Glenwood Erratic, a piece of prehistoric glacial debris about 30 feet high and 250 feet long, was for decades little more than an obstacle for Hutterite farmers to work around and a minor rock-climbing challenge.
But the erratic, located about 100 kilometres southwest of Lethbridge, became the object of a police investigation last month after local historian Stan Knowlton claimed hitherto undiscovered aboriginal pictographs and writings on them had been vandalized.
Knowlton claimed someone had drilled holes into the rock and defaced the ancient markings with a pressure washer and chemicals.
The allegations were taken seriously because Knowlton is a member of the Blackfoot Piikani First Nation and the head of the interpretive centre at the famed Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But just a few days after Knowlton publicized his allegations, the Mounties ended their investigation with a surprising conclusion.
"There was never any markings on that site," Insp. Joe McGeough told the Lethbridge Herald. "It was famous as a geological centerpiece, but it never had any of the writings that were reported in the original reports."
But Knowlton, an occasional lecturer at the University of Lethbridge, doubled down, claiming the investigation was biased, the vandalism was real and it was a hate crime.
"The Glenwood Erratic is only one of 10 sites in this area that has been targeted by vandalism, to outright destruction involving explosives because of the writings they contained," Knowlton wrote in an email to the Herald.
Knowlton believes a 25-foot red face was painted on the surface of the erratic and that it also had examples of Blackfoot syllabic writing that date from before aboriginal contact with Europeans. The markings were previously hidden by lichen that was now receding, he said. But before he document his discovery, someone destroyed it, he said.
In a letter to the Pincher Creek Voice after the RCMP wrapped up their investigation, Knowlton defended his hate-crime claim, arguing the alleged vandalism was an attempt to wipe out evidence of the Blackfoot Sudana tradition "to which I belong."
"The Sudan believers say that Sinaksin [writing] was part of a sacred bundle that was given to the people from the six stars (Pleiades constellation)," Knowlton wrote.
The National Post reported Monday that a retired scientist with Natural Resources Canada had an explanation for so-called damage. His team had drilled rock core samples in the erratic — in 1995.
"There's no doubt about it," Lionel Jackson told the Post. "Our technique, we only take samples from the upper two centimetres of the rock and those rocks are about as hard a rock type as any rock that exists in the world."
Jackson said he would never dream of defacing any aboriginal markings.
"Anything that shows any kind of archaeological or cultural value or whatever, we have the highest respect for the preservation of those things," he said. "There would never have been anything done to disturb them."
As evidence, Jackson provided the Post with a copy of his field journal, including a photo of the top of the erratic before drilling began. The lichen-covered rock shows no sign of a red face, the Post said.
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Jackson's evidence didn't faze Knowlton.
"You ask, but I've got no explanation for that," he told the Post. "You've got water, ash and dust."
Just because an observer couldn't see anything doesn't mean there's nothing there, he said.
"You have to be trained."
Knowlton's claim about the erratic has been disavowed by other Piikani members. Jerry Potts, a pipe maker and thunder medicine pipe keeper for the First Nation, told the Post there's no evidence the Blackfoot had syllabic writing before European missionaries introduced it in the 19th century.
But Knowlton said he believes the missionaries actually appropriated the writing technique from the Sudana tradition.
He also claimed he's been targeted by unknown forces and been followed by men in dark suits driving cars with American plates. The reason, he suggested, was that there are stone tablets located on Blackfoot land that record contact with French explorers before the arrival of the English.
"If any or all of these French and Blackfoot objects could be linked, this would render the Canadian Constitution null and void to the lands in question, and open up a claim to the resources by the U.S., France/Quebec or the Blackfoot people under international law," he wrote in an email to the Post.
Knowlton's bizarre claims have not endangered his job at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, said a spokesman for the Alberta Ministry of Culture.
"He's employed in the department and works as an interpreter at that job and that has nothing to do with a hobby area of research he's involved with on his own time," John Tuckwell told the Post. "The two are entirely unrelated fields."
The Hutterites, meanwhile, have posted no-tresspassing signs to close off access to the erratic to the parade of curious visitors and media trampling their newly sown winter wheat.
"No more visiting, this thing is finished," Joe Tschetter, the manager of the Riverside colony told the Post. "There's been so much fuss."