Art that rocks

Stories told in stone have timeless significance

Posted: Friday, May 02, 2003

This is part two of a two-part article about petroglyphs around Juneau.

Petroglyphs are defined as pictures cut into rock by prehistoric peoples. How old are they?

In its 1993 brochure on the rock art of Southeast Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service suggests that they might be very old: "The oldest rock drawings appear to have been made by a maritime people who migrated here as early as 10,000 years ago."

USFS experts contend that the oldest petroglyphs are simple "O" and "Y" shapes, which gradually developed into representations of animals, fish, birds, human faces or supernatural beings which were "probably created by the ancestors of the modern Indians."

Informed guesses can be made, but rock carvings cannot be dated - with the exception of historic carvings of objects like Russian sailing ships.

Some of the pecked or ground markings are an inch deep while others barely scratch the surface.

The simplest kind of petroglyph is what E. L. Keithahn, director of the Alaska Historical Museum and Library in Juneau from 1941 to 1965, called the "cup sculpture." This is simply a cup-like depression carved seemingly at random on the surface of a boulder, "probably by whirling a stick and at the same time pouring in an abrasive such as sand," he wrote. Many of these can be found on the beach at Hydaburg. Some of these cups were surrounded by ciruclar, pecked rings or concentric rings.

Keithahn believes that these seemingly-random cups were the earliest form of what we would recognize today as faces. He believes that petroglyphs were carved during the summer by Tlingits, "waiting and praying for the salmon run," especially in July, and especially on warm, sunny days. This creates a charming mental picture, but it is only conjecture.

Petroglyphs have been found in many places in Alaska: on Kodiak, at Cape Alitak, in Glacier Bay, at Ground Hog Bay, Hydaburg Creek on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island, Hetta Inlet, near Sitka, elsewhere on Baranof Island, on Etolin Island, at Anan Creek near Wrangell and at Wrangell.

The precise locations of Juneau's petroglyphs are closely guarded by those in the know. Marie Olsen, a member of the Wooshkeetaan clan (eagle moiety), said, "The Forest Service just won't tell where they are because some of them have been vandalized, so I follow suit. Sometimes people try to move them, and that is defacing. They were used as a mark of boundary, 'This property belongs to a group.' And if anybody wants to dry fish or pick berries [there], they have to ask permission."

Susan Marvin, the Forest Service's regional archeologist, said petroglyphs need preserving: "I certainly think they are valuable in the sense of representing the work of aboriginal Alaska Natives here," Marvin said. "They can be adversely affected if the site becomes popular."

Joan Dale of the state Office of History and Archeology in Anchorage noted that the site of a local cliff face with petroglyphs is listed on a brief site report only as "16 kilometers northwest of Juneau," and appears to be on intertidal land. "When these things are on private land, you have to be real circumspect," Dale added.

In a deviation from the typical circles, the cliff carvings near Fritz Cove Road include squares and crosses. Forest Service archeologist Myra Gilliam said this makes the site "distinctive for this area." One of the carvings appears to be a canoe full of paddlers with two circles (sails?) above it.

Another local petroglyph curls on the top of a large boulder on Douglas Island, facing the sea. It consists of a face on the left, and a spiral on the right - both about six inches in diameter. The pair is threatened with extinction by a gradual eroding of the rock surface in thin plates, apparently loosened by decades of winter frost.

A Tlingit legend written in 1909 mentions supernatural ceremonial activity related to a petroglyph face: "After a while, Raven came to an abandoned camp where lay a piece of jade half buried in the ground, in which some design had been pecked. This he dug up. Far out in the bay he saw a large spring salmon jumping about and wanted to get it but didn't know how. Then he stuck his stone into the ground and put eagle down upon the head designed thereon."

Putting the eagle down was an offering, which, the story goes, caused the jade to speak to the salmon, calling it to come near to shore so that it could be caught and consumed.

Some Tlingit informants told ethnologist/archeologist Frederica de Laguna that petroglyphs were made as a record of slaves sacrificed at potlatches. Other sources suggested that petroglyphs were made to address spirits, or by shamans in training - to record their visions.

At some locations, petroglyphs may be submerged at high tide. One writer points out, however, that sea level in most places on the Pacific Coast 8,000 years ago would have been about 15 feet lower than it is at present. So perhaps these carvings were never intended to get wet.

On the other hand, Keithahn concluded that they were meant to be awash: "...considerable evidence has appeared to suggest that these glyphs were always placed in such a way that each tide, in submerging these graven supplications, would dispatch the prayer [to the Salmon Chief] anew, after the manner of prayer wheels, etc."

In his book, Indian Rock Carvings of the Pacific Northwest, Edward Meade said that most carvings are not associated with or near ancient village sites, but somewhat removed. He interprets this to mean that petroglyph sites were religious or ceremonial.

Keithahn concluded that petroglyphs had a religious significance related to the food supply. He said form lines, joints-animated-with-eyes and other characteristics of Northwest decorative art evolved from petroglyphs.

Rosita Worl of Sealaska Heritage Foundation has a dream about Juneau's petroglyphs. She would like to create a petroglyph park at Sealaska Plaza.

"For the most part we want to leave them in situ (at their original sites) if they can be protected, but if they are small we might move them to protect them," Worl said. Sealaska fears that some of the smaller granite beach boulders bearing petroglyphs might be spirited away. And there is plenty of precedent for that. One of Emmons' articles about petroglyphs shows photos of two Alaska petroglyphs which he donated to an Outside museum.

Petroglyphs are protected by the Alaska Historical Preservation Act of 1971 (HCSSB 119, H) from destruction, defacing, moving or excavating.

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