Petroglyphs provide reminder of ancestral lands

Posted: Sunday, July 16, 2006

Before Berners Bay became a Mecca for wildlife viewing and gold mining, it was a home for many of Juneau's original Native settlers.

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Their villages are gone.

Their graves remain, though some have been vandalized in recent decades.

Yet one object, a large boulder etched with petroglyphs, or rock carvings, still grabs the attention of many Berners Bay visitors.

The rock stands firmly planted in the beach fringe. Though somewhat hidden from view, the rock is one of the most visible testaments to the bay's long-standing use by indigenous people.

Juneau boaters visit the spot - on the eastern shore of the bay - to stare in awe at the petroglyphs.

The numerous carvings on the rock - etched by slaves after a major battle victory according to tribal oral history - signal the ownership of the land by the Auk Kwaan, says tribal leader Rosa Miller.

The carvings are difficult to see clearly in full light.

But when a shadow falls on their bumps and curves, human faces, geometric spirals, and figures resembling supernatural or animal figures jump into view.

Other petroglyphs are etched on rocks nearby.

Petroglyphs are one of most unique sights in the Tongass National Forest. They are also a good reminder that its wilderness, resource extraction and recreational areas today are actually ancestral lands.

Ancient stone carvings are typically found on boulders or rock outcrops on the shore or near the mean high tide line, usually adjacent to salmon streams and Native settlements.

"The (carvings) tend to be geometric, or natural designs off spirals and circles," said Myra Gilliam, an archeologist for the Tongass National Forest Juneau Ranger District.

The carvings draw vandals and tourists alike.

"They are enigmatic. People are drawn to them," Gilliam said.

At one time as obvious as road signs to Panhandle travelers, petroglyphs and pictographs (painting on rock) are now rare and hard to find.

Usually, petroglyphs aren't dateable. Scientists can estimate the age of a rock, but they can't possibly know when it was etched with scientific tools.

The only thing that can help interpret the rock's history or significance is Native oral history, Gilliam said.

"It's pretty difficult for us nowadays to interpret those designs," agreed Steve Henrikson, curator of collections for the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

"They seem abstract to us ... every person looking at them can imagine what is happening in the image," Henrikson said.

Those explanations provided by the Native clan with ancestral claims to the area take priority, he added.

The Tongass National Forest maintains an archive of information about the forest's known petroglyphs. The forest's archeologists, sometimes accompanied by Native elders, visit them on occasion to monitor them and check for vandalism, Gilliam said.

"We map them and photograph them to note change over time," she said.

"I'm sure there are sites out there that we don't know about," Gilliam added.

The Forest Service's records on the petroglyphs are not provided to the public to shield their locations. But Gilliam said people who come across them should feel free to take photographs and enjoy looking at them.

On a bright day, it might hard to spot a petroglyph. "Overcast conditions help," Gilliam said.

It is illegal to remove cultural artifacts from federal or private land. Also, the Forest Service requests that people not touch or make rubbings of petroglyphs, as this may damage the rock.

In some locations in Southeast Alaska, petroglyphs are celebrated in public view.

Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park in Wrangell is a case in point. The beach, with more than 40 petroglyphs, reportedly has the highest concentration of the rock carvings in Southeast Alaska.

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