Art that rocks

Juneau's petroglyphs are epistles from eras past

Posted: Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Ancient peoples all over the world created messages in the durable medium of rock.

They used two methods: painting and pecking.

Paintings - daubed on with pigments made by mixing grease or salmon eggs with charcoal, clay or other minerals - are called pictographs.

Carvings - ground, pecked or hammered into rock with tools of harder rock - are called petroglyphs. Some petroglyphs may be 1,000 years old or older.

The Tlingit Indians of Southeast Alaska left examples of both art forms behind. Perhaps the best-known group of petroglyphs in Southeast is near the ferry terminal in Wrangell. There are about 40 petroglyphs, carved into boulders, most of which are covered with water at high tide.

Some of the original Wrangell petroglyphs were stolen or vandalized. Custodians were concerned that other petroglyphs might be damaged by people making rubbings, so replicas were created about two years ago. The replicas line a staircase leading down to the beach and rubbings can be made.

Pictographs are often found in rock overhangs or caves sheltered from the weather. Petroglyphs are located near water and exposed to weather.

Ethnographer George Thornton Emmons, who was stationed with the U.S. Navy in Alaska during the 1880s and 1890s, was one of the first scientists to write about the Panhandle's petroglyphs.

He described them in his book, "The Tlingit Indians," as "often in secluded bays away from the open channels ... on ledges overlooking the water, others are on beach boulders." Emmons interpreted that they marked the Tlingit's summer fishing village sites.

Ethnologist and archaeologist Frederica de Laguna expanded and annotated Emmons' book in 1991. Tlingits said petroglyphs were more than "No Trespassing" signs, she said. They were "made to commemorate victories in war, transfer of wealth or territory in settlement of a feud, important potlatches and shamanistic exploits." And, on occasion, they were created simply "to pass idle hours."

Juneau's petroglyphs are less well-known than those at Wrangell, but there are at least three of them. The largest, measuring perhaps 10 by 15 feet, seems to be the most documented. It was known to Westerners in the 1880s, and surveyed by the U.S. Forest Service in 1942 and 1972, said Forest Service archeologist Myra Gilliam. It's on private property off Fritz Cove Road. The carving is on a cliff face.

Juneau resident Rose Miller, a Tlingit elder, says that Fritz Cove was the Wooshkeetaan winter village site. She saw these carvings as a child, but since the Wooshkeetaan is not her clan it would "not be proper" for her to speak about them.

Gilliam echoes Miller's sentiment: "We do have several other petroglyphs in the Juneau area, but I hesitate to give out the locations because of cultural sensitivity."

Nevertheless, petroglyphs are undeniable attractions: "I think it's neat to know where they are," said James King of Trail Mix. "There is one out the road somewhere on a beach. You have to be looking for it or you walk right over the top of it."

A 1993 Forest Service leaflet on Southeast's rock art claims that "the Northwest Coast Indians created some of the most outstanding rock art in the world," and that "much of the rock art on the Tongass (National Forest) has yet to be discovered."

Petroglyphs are usually located on beaches or at the mouths of salmon streams. When he was hunting years ago, King said, "tromping around on the back side of Admiralty (Island)," he noticed ancient carvings at the mouths of several streams.

Emmons wrote of petroglyphs in many places: Wrangell Island, south of Salisbury Sound in the Sitka area, two miles south of Wrangell, just south of the mouth of the Stikine and "across from Killisnoo, on Admiralty Island." During a 1950 field trip, de Laguna could not locate the latter. But other petroglyphs on Admiralty are at Angoon, Hood Bay, Chaik Bay and Whitewater Bay.

Edward Keithahn, director of the Alaska Historical Library and Museum in the 1940s, reported in a 1940 article in American Antiquity that "at the mouth of all major salmon streams on the West Coast of Prince of Wales Island petroglyphs abound." Similar abstract symbols have been found along the coast of Siberia.

Petroglyphs may be simple 'Y' shapes, circles, pairs of circles representing eyes, faces, birds such as ravens and sandhill cranes or complicated drawings of family crests such as killer whales. A rock is usually marked with only one or two carvings, although the Fritz Cove Road site has dozens.

Perhaps the most-complicated known petroglyph is a site to which Emmons was guided in 1888 by a Kiks'adi man, in Katlian Bay eight miles north of Sitka. Emmons believed the petroglyph was at the site of the summer fishing village of Katlean, the chief who led the attack that destroyed the first Russian fort at Old Sitka in 1802. A single carved boulder bore five connected figures: Raven carrying fire in his bill, the Box of Daylight, the Earth (represented as a spiral), the North Wind and Petrel (guardian of fresh water), in the form of a wolf. Emmons' informant interpreted this as the Tlingit creation story.

Such an ambitious carving might be considered rare. Not so, says Marie Olsen, a Juneau elder and member of the Wooshkeetaan Clan.

"If you see the Raven or the rays of the sun or the disk of a moon, you know that that is the creation story," Olsen says.

One theory about petroglyphs is that shamans created them in order to insure good salmon harvests. A symbol connected with salmon is the spiral - often interpreted as a "whirlpool."

This symbol makes the most sense if you associate it, as Keithahn did, with the Tlingit legend of Moldy End or Shinquoklah. Moldy End was the nickname of a young boy who spurned a moldy bit of salmon given to him by his mother to eat when their cupboard was otherwise bare. Because he wasted dried fish, the boy was kidnapped by the Salmon People and taken under the sea for some tutoring in good manners. He learned proper behavior toward renewable resources and was later returned to his people.

It is possible, Keithahn says, that the spiral or concentric-circle marking "might refer to the whirlpool in which Shinquoklah's body spun four times and disappeared, and where his drum still may be heard when there is to be a large run of salmon."

A Haida informant told Keithahn that certain other symbols were carved to cause rain. What fool would pray for more rain in a rainforest? Keithahn has a plausible explanation, noting that "salmon often school-up in salt water and wait for a heavy rain before ascending the streams to spawn."

Keithahn gives some tips for sighting petroglyphs, noting that they "always face the sea." Thus, if you walk along a beach looking toward the high-tide line, you will probably not see them.

Since they are meant to be "read from the water," look for them by walking at the water's edge looking toward the high-tide line.

"Examine the larger boulders carefully," he directs. "And don't give up too soon. I found petroglyphs on a man's property that he had lived on for 20 years and on the very beach where he said he had walked a thousand times. But he had never seen one until I pointed them out to him."

Mary Pat Wyatt, head curator of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, cautions observers to look at petroglyphs they find - but neither move nor molest.

"Just because you find it doesn't mean that it's yours," Wyatt said. "By removing things you are destroying history and making them trash."

Part 2 of this article will appear in the Neighbors section Friday.

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