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carvings and paintings are found throughout the inhabited world. In British Columbia
alone, over 500 examples of this type of archaeological site have been recorded,
more than in any other province in Canada.
Petroglyph on Gabriola
Photo: M. Guille
The rock carvings, or petroglyphs,
were made by the aboriginal people of the region by pecking and abrading selected
rock surfaces with stone tools.
The paintings, or pictographs,
were applied to rock with brushes, sticks or fingers. Pigments were usually made
from powdered minerals (ochres); haematite and limonite.
A binder of
animal fat or fish eggs may have been added to make them adhere to the rock surface.
The bonding ability and composition of the pigment is such that it easily outlasts
the commercial paints of today. Over 90 per cent of all rock paintings are red.
Locations for rock art carvings and paintings were carefully chosen. They
were places of power or mystery; places where the forces of nature were believed
to be especially strong. They are marked by unusual natural features such as waterfalls,
rock formations or caves. Nearly all sites are near water and may also be near
old village sites or along trails or ancient trade routes.
not fully understood, a great many petroglyphs were carved on intertidal beach
boulders submerged by the sea, or hidden below flooding rivers, appearing only
when the tide is out or when the river water levels drop. Pictographs are almost
always found safe and dry above the high-water mark of rivers, lakes or inlets.
They were usually made on smooth, light-coloured rock surfaces where the red pigment
could be easily seen.
Petroglyphs and pictographs are the records of
a people with no written language and are rare links with the past native cultures
of the province. They record coming of age ceremonies, performed by youths, and
were burial markers or guardians for the dead. They commemorate potlatches and
semi-secret events occurring during the winter ceremonials. Some, like the intertidal
carvings of the coast, may have 'called' the fish into the rivers to be caught.
Others marked the boundaries of hunting and fishing territories. Certain sites
may have been part of secretive shamanistic rituals. A few were records of disaster:
floods, landslides, storms, and wars. Many appear to have been the personal records
of individuals' experiences. Although in a few cases there are ethnographic explanations
of why a particular carving or painting was made, the majority are still unexplained.
age of very few petroglyphs and pictographs is known - and they are among the
most recent. The stories of old people or the subject matter of some of the designs,
for example historic sailing ships or horsemen, are often the only clues to age.
likeness to a helmeted Viking Photo: M. Guille
Of the 300 or so sites on the BC coast, fewer than 30 can be dated and
most of these are approximate estimates at best. A few designs were made as late
as the 1920's, but no one knows how old the older ones are.
even know which are the older ones. The practice of making petroglyphs and pictographs
is probably as old as man in BC. The first of the Indian people arrived in the
province shortly after the ice of the last glacial age had begun to retreat some
14,000 years ago.
The earliest archaeological remains in BC, known at
present, are between 9,000 - 12,000 years old.
It is, however, extremely
unlikely that any existing petroglyphs or pictographs are that ancient since the
natural forces of erosion: washing tides, abrading sand and gravel, wind, sun,
rain, frost and vegetative growth, would have obliterated any early designs long
ago. Field researchers often find vestiges of carvings and faint traces of paints
too weathered to be recorded. The carbon 14 technique and other useful dating
tools of the archaeologist can only rarely be applied to rock art sites. Estimates
of the probable age of existing BC rock art range up to a maximum of 3,000 years.
Researchers are attempting to record and understand rock art before the relentless
forces of erosion succeed in destroying the sites completely. Only when we understand
how these carvings and paintings were made can we begin to make recommendations
for their preservation. Given time, techniques can be developed to cope with natural
erosion. Human damage poses a far greater threat to rock art sites. Unlike natural
erosion it is unusually swift and violent. Many sites have already been lost to
construction and vandalism. A site that has survived several hundred years to
natural erosion can be severely damaged or totally destroyed in a few seconds
by souvenir hunters chipping away at fragile surfaces, by thoughtless individuals
who scratch, chalk or paint over the designs, or by the construction bulldozer.
All rock art sites in BC are protected by law. However, none can be considered
as protected unless everyone recognizes them as vulnerable and respects them as
a unique part of the cultural heritage of British Columbia.
Distribution of Petroglyphs on and around Vancouver Island
Provincial Park in Nanaimo provides
the most concentrated and easily accessible collection of carvings. The Nanaimo
Museum can provide further information on other petroglyphs in the area.
Quadra Island: Cape Mudge on Quadra
Island yields two displays of petroglyphs - at the Cape Mudge Lighthouse and at
the Nuyumbalees Cultural Center (formerly Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center)
in Cape Mudge Village. The petroglyphs in the grounds of the museum were relocated
from Cape Mudge beaches for their protection.
used for rubbings at the Gabriola Museum
Island: Petroglyphs are dotted all over Gabriola Island, accessible by a short
ferry ride from Nanaimo. The Gabriola Museum, located a short walk from the ferry
dock, displays concrete replicas of a selection of the island's stone carvings,
allowing visitors to take rubbings of these mythical creatures (see photo on the
Lake Provincial Park west of Port Alberni
combines a visit to the petroglyphs with great recreation provided by Sproat Lake.
Sooke Regional Park in Sooke yields
magnificent Coast Salish petroglyphs at Alldridge point, designated as a provincial
heritage site in 1927. Here you'll see petroglyphs carved in a style particular
to the Strait of Juan de Fuca region.
and Heritage Tour Operators on Vancouver Island, Gulf & Discovery Islands
For more information
about petroglyphs and pictographs contact the Royal
British Columbia Museum in Victoria.