These three petroglyphs-a copper (ceremonial shield), bird and cross design-are found on bedrock on Kosciusko Island near Prince of Wales Island's west coast.
This spiral petroglyph is on Petroglyph Beach State Park in Wrangell. In the background is the mouth of the Stikine River, historically one of Southeast Alaska's most prolific salmon streams.
Story last updated at 11/4/2009 - 12:22 pm
Scattered across the beaches of Southeast Alaska, and indeed along the entire Northwest Pacific coast from Kodiak to the Columbia River, are intensely staring eyes, totemic animals and geometric patterns carved into boulders and bedrock. These mysterious petroglyphs, carvings in stone, raise questions that have perplexed archeologists and casual observers for well over a century. Most of those questions remain unanswered and may ultimately be unanswerable. Perhaps because of these mysteries, petroglyphs arouse fascination in anyone fortunate enough to see them, particularly if they are still embedded in their original location.
Questions about petroglyphs-their age, purpose, makers and method of carving-lead to explanations that are often intertwined. For example, their age and those who carved them may be linked. Most petroglyphs are found on beaches in a narrow band at the mid-tide mark. Were they created when the sea level was lower? It does not seem logical for a carver to wait out tides each day to work on his design, so they probably were carved when sea levels were lower than today. Twelve thousand years ago our region was nearly ice free. Sea levels rose as ice melted. However, the land had been depressed under the weight of thousands of feet of ice and it, too, began to rise as that melting weight was eased. Sea levels rose from about 300 feet below present to nearly 30 feet above before settling at our present sea level. So, the earliest petroglyphs may be many thousands of years old, carved at a time of lower sea levels.
Just how many years might that have been? Record of inhabitation in Ground Hog Bay in Glacier Bay dates some 10,000 years ago. Excavation at Hidden Falls on Baranof Island found artifacts dating some 9,500 years ago and a human jawbone from On Your Knees cave on Prince of Wales Island dates from about 10,000 years ago. There is evidence that some areas of Southeast Alaska were never ice-covered during the last glaciation so early maritime people, probably originating in Asia, may have arrived much earlier than the above dates and they might well have been the first petroglyph artists. Our petroglyphs, especially those with mask like faces, do bear some similarity to those of the Amur River region of eastern Siberia. Much remains to be learned about these early migrants to North America and their relation to present-day Native peoples of the coast.
George T. Emmons came to Alaska as a member of the U.S. Navy in 1882 and developed during his lifetime an intense interest in Tlingit culture. Questioning elders at the end of the 19th century about the origin of the petroglyphs, he states that even the oldest have no knowledge of their origin and "some even deny that they are the product of their ancestors". The simplest petroglyphs, "Y"s or circles with three circles grouped to form a face, are speculated to be the oldest.
Nevertheless, while the age of most petroglyphs cannot be determined, a few are clearly the result of historical events of the 19th century. On Vancouver Island's west coast is a rock carving of a paddlewheeler, thought to be the Beaver, which first appeared on the west coast in 1836. Another at Cape Alva, Wash., is of a sailing ship. The anthropologist Franz Boas records the carving of a petroglyph to commemorate the eating of a slave at Fort Rupert before 1882, with Hudson's Bay Company officials as witnesses.
In between the updatable ancient glyphs and the historical are many others. Some strongly resemble the familiar clan crest symbols found on Northwest Coast totems and ceremonial items. For example, at Wrangell's Petroglyph Beach State Park are two different killer whale carvings. Many petroglyphs are found at the mouths of salmon creeks and the clan crests may be territorial markers indicating ownership of the resource.
Salmon, in fact, may be the key to understanding the purpose of many of the petroglyphs. As with most aboriginal peoples, the people of the Northwest Coast were highly dependent on natural resources and salmon was their most important food. It was abundant but what explained its return each year? Along with the anxiety of dependence came the desire to control that return, when possible, as well as the necessity to propitiate the salmon who sacrificed its life for their nourishment because, as a shaman once said to anthropologist Knud Rasmussen, "We fear the souls...of the animals we have killed...the greatest peril in life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls." The wide-eyed gaze of so many petroglyphs is a testament to the supernatural power of the spirit world, of which the salmon was an important figure.
Edward Keithahn, first curator of the Alaska Territorial Museum, wrote that petroglyphs were mainly located near the mouths of salmon streams and were placed where the tides could wash them each day sending messages to the underwater world of the salmon. He also noted that most petroglyphs face the sea either to be seen by passing canoes or by creatures of the sea themselves. Some, perhaps most, petroglyphs were probably carved by shamen. Besides evoking spirits some carvings retell local legends and myths while others illustrate special events or recall dream figures. Emmons recounts one such story, the myth of creation, told to him by a Sitka elder in 1888. Five connected figures carved on a boulder narrate how the spirit Yehlh, pictured in the guise of Raven, came and wrestled from supernatural beings the gifts of light, fresh water, fire, the winds and the use of natural objects.
Petroglyphs are generally found on hard rock such as granite or basalt, a testimony to the persistence needed to create them. A hammer stone was used to peck a rough outline of holes that were then smoothed to an even, incised line. Some petroglyphs with pecked holes still visible seem to have never been completed.
Petroglyphs are found all over Southeast Alaska although the locations of most are kept quiet for fear of vandalism or theft. Petroglyph Beach in Wrangell has the region's largest public collection with forty or more. These are all in their original locations. At the beach also are reproductions in stone so that visitors can make rubbings from them rather than further wearing down the originals. Other smaller boulders have been removed to the public library and museum. In the Juneau area, there are petroglyphs at Berners Bay, on Douglas Island and other locations, as well as one held at the Alaska State Museum. Keithahn wrote in 1940 that every salmon stream on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island hosted one of the carvings. Many petroglyphs, however, certainly lie undiscovered. It takes alert and ready eyes to find them since erosion has worn some to almost imaginary forms. Direct sunlight will flatten them but slanting evening rays or the luster of a dim wet afternoon will sometimes cause a pair of keenly piercing eyes to leap into view. Should you discover such a one, treat it with the respect due a cultural icon whose meaning is ageless and whose age is fathomless.
Bonnie Demerjian has written two books on Southeast Alaska: "Roll On! Discovering the Wild Stikine River" and "Anan: Stream of Living Water." She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.