Alaska’s Rock Art

8 mins read

America’s National Park Service recently invited Prof. Brian Fagan to visit the Alaskan rock shelters of Tuxedni and Clam Cove. The shelters contain some of North America’s most intriguing rock art. Brian leapt at the chance since few have ever seen these sites. Not only is their exact location protected knowledge but accessing them is a challenging kayaking trial. Brian may be a veteran sailor, but was he prepared for his heady dip into the past? And what exactly did he find? Here Brian Fagan recalls how he met the whale people.

What am I doing here?’ I wondered to myself as we kayaked up the Tuxedni River in southern Alaska. The tides run swiftly here, with a 6m range between high and low water. We paddled upstream against the strengthening ebb, fortunately on a beautiful early autumn day. Far ahead, high mountain peaks stood out like Fallen Jerusalem. We hugged the deeper water against the left bank, where meadow grass merged into forest and hillside. After an hour and a half’s hard paddling, Jeanne pointed to low granite cliffs opposite the white mass of Tuxedni Glacier on the far bank. We closed with the shore, but the fractured rock face of the painted rock shelter was near impossible to see behind trees and undergrowth. Then the red, triangular claw mark shone out in afternoon sun and we knew we had arrived. We clambered out of our kayaks alongside the grassy bank. I disgraced myself by slipping and getting stuck, until the others hauled me on to dry land after a wetting up to my waist in 9-degree water. But the paintings made the soaking worth it.

Anthropologist Frederica de Laguna was the first outsider to hear of the Tuxedni rock shelter from Indian informants. She made her way upstream in an outboard skiff in 1932, accompanied by Jack Fields, a trapper from Missouri.

They were stranded for hours in the shallows.

The 1930s were the days of robust fieldwork and scant regard for conservation. De Laguna readily admitted that she applied gasoline, wood alcohol and kerosene to the rock faces to enhance the paintings. She found that wood alcohol was most effective for intensifying the colour, a treatment that sets modern investigator’s hair on end. After these draconian measures, de Laguna proclaimed the art ‘the work of Eskimo’. Some of the figures seemed to resemble whales, so she associated the art with whalers and shamans, an interpretation that has stood the test of time. She also excavated below the painted surfaces, into a ‘deep deposit of earth and animal bones’ mingled with fallen blocks, the bones including those of seal and porpoise, also bear and smaller terrestrial animals. Unfortunately, de Laguna’s finds are lost, so no one can obtain radiocarbon dates from the bones or charcoal fragments that were part of her collection. But de Laguna herself considered the paintings to be of a considerable antiquity. They were certainly not the work of the local Athapaskan-speaking Dena’ina people. A Dena’ina oral tradition recalls an incident at the mouth of the Tuxedni, Talin Ch’iltant Ht’ana, ‘where we found a whale.’ How much credence one can place on this tradition is questionable, but it may be a clue that the paintings were executed by maritime, whale-hunting people. Their descendants are the Alutiiq of Kodiak Island off the mouth of Cook Inlet.

To Tuxedni

Few people visited Tuxedni over the next four decades. Then, in 1976, the Cook Inlet Region Incorporated selected this shelter and the Clam Cove site, described below, as significant historical places under the Alaska Native Land Claims Act. Four years later, the two locations became part of the newly formed Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Since then, the National Park Service has recorded both shelters with drawings and photographs and has developed a conservation plan for the paintings. In 2001, archaeologist Melissa Baird of the University of Oregon carried out a detailed study of the sites, which provided us with an admirable guide to the paintings.
We scrambled up to the painted rock face. I looked back at the Tuxedni Glacier across the wide river and realized that this was a very remote place. Ancient visitors could only have arrived by kayak, or possibly in larger skin boats. Access by land is arduous and near-impossible. Even helicopters find landing difficult, for they have to use a nearby sandbank, which uncovers at low tide.

The red claw symbol set high on the rock face is immediately noticeable. It is a painting so prominent that it can be seen from a helicopter hovering overhead. Most visitors agree that it depicts a raven, the mythic creators associated by the Alutiiq with the killing of whales. It is almost as though it was meant as an ownership symbol to set the place apart.

Melissa Baird identified 26 images, all painted with red ochre, scattered over an area about 4m long and 3m wide. The placement of groups of images seems random, as if reflecting different visits and generations of artists. I first noticed a painting of a large, open skin boat like an Alutiiq angyap, with at least four crew members. Immediately to the left, a human figure with outstretched arms, legs and a well marked penis, holds a club perhaps used in the hunt. This prominent figure forms the centre of the panel, with a grouping of three images on its left, one of which may depict the oblong body of a whale. Another whale with a significant dorsal fin, perhaps a swimming whale breaching, completes the panel.

All the human figures at Tuxedni receive the same treatment —outstretched arms and legs, sex occasionally indicated, but no facial features. The sense of movement is palpable, some of the figures somewhat reminiscent of the walking humans you encounter on traffic signal pedestrian signs. Movement seems to extend to the whales, which are curved, as if swimming or breaching.

Another panel, set at 45 degrees, shows a swimming bird, perhaps a swan, its eye defined by a dark mark on the rock. A killer whale follows the bird, in turn pursued by a figure in a kayak. De Laguna thought the paddler was wearing a hunting helmet with a brim ‘like those worn . . . by the southern Eskimo and the Aleut.’ A short gap, then an anthropomorphic figure cavorts, with the usual outstretched arms and legs, but with a unique element: an unpainted circle in the middle of the torso. Baird speculates that it represents a corpse that has been opened by a shaman in preparation for a whaling ceremony. An angyap-like boat, this time with a large crew, follows the human figure.

The paintings continue under a low overhang close to the ground. The only way I could view the concealed image was to lie on my back, not a comfortable posture when soaking wet from the waist down. But the image was worth the effort. It was a painting of an eyelike symbol, connected to nine evenly spaced lines that lie parallel to a conspicuous line within the eye.

These may represent a tally of whale kills, like another image immediately to the right that may be another tally or simply a whale’s ribs and backbone. By now, the tide was ebbing rapidly. We scrambled for our kayaks and hurtled downstream on the fast-moving surge. Our paddles grazed the bottom. Then we ran aground in the middle of the river. There was no time to lose, so we poled our way into deeper water near the left bank. We had a longer paddle this time, for the mother ship had retreated into deeper water. Even so, we had a close call, running aground a couple of times before the skipper took us into deeper water, skirting mudflats and running at 20 knots in a mere 2m of water.

Secrets of Clam Cove

The next day was another perfect early autumn day, with smooth seas and virtually no wind. We motored rapidly westward along the coast into Chinitna Bay and the Clam Cove rock shelter. This time, the gods smiled upon us. The tide was high, the swell down, so the skipper backed the boat right up to the beach and we jumped off dry shod. We were lucky: Clam Cove is open to the stormy waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the swell prevents landing on many summer days.

Approaching shore, the rock shelter is inconspicuous, nestling as it does behind a low, sloping cliff. A sharp ridge points like an arrow to the peak high above the water, a signpost to the shelter from far offshore. The shelter entrance lies about 9m above the high tide line. The interior is deeper than Tuxedni, which is little more than a rock face – 7m deep and 9m wide. Sand, silt, and gravel brought in by onshore gales form the shelter floor, sealing traces of ancient human activity underground. Tiny charcoal and bone specks from the occupation deposits, excavated in 1968, yielded AMS radiocarbon dates in the 3rd century AD, but these do not, of course date the paintings on the walls above.

The paintings are denser here, many of them close to a crack that separates the south and west walls. On the south wall, a large bird with outstretched wings, perhaps a thunderbird, lies close to groups of human figures, one of them apparently waving rattles and perhaps dancing. The most interesting paintings lie on the west wall, among them a ladder-like sign with what appears to be a crab claw above it, and two human figures attached to the ladder’s top rung with a line.

The right hand figure is more abstract, with an object extending between its legs, perhaps two whale’s tails or a small human. I followed the jumble of images across the wall — mostly unidentifiable figures, except for an isolated profile of a quadruped, with ears and tail clearly shown. Nearby, two human figures and a whale cavort together, the human having the usual outstretched arms and legs, a grouping surrounded by a dashed line. An abstract figure below them wears some form of headdress and appears in profile, legs bent as if it is dancing. Baird thinks this may be a therianthrope, a beastlike human, for it is quite unlike any other human figure from the shelter.

Then the pictographs fade away to faded blobs. Dancing humans, breaching whales and, perhaps, memories of actual events: the images were immediate, yet elusive, their symbolism long vanished into history. All I could do was extrapolate from diverse sources of evidence.

Our boating experiences reinforced the inaccessibility of both shelters, the one up a tidal river, the other on a gale-ridden beach. Clearly these were sacred places, known only to a few. The Danish ethnographer Kaj Birket-Smith recorded how skilled whaler-shamans conducted secret ceremonies in caves. Their rituals involved painting on the walls. A swan at Tuxedni, a possible thunderbird and crab claw at Clam Cove – these were animals long associated with whale hunting in Alutiiq oral traditions. Many Alutiiq whalers were also shamans, ‘people of power’ capable of interceding between the material and supernatural worlds, in a human existence that treated animal prey with respect, as living beings.

A kaleidoscope of paintings has jumbled in my mind ever since. I looked back at the shelter and imagined Clam Cove on a dark summer’s night…A small fire flickers in the gloom, dim figures moving behind the flames. The shaman has donned his ritual regalia and whaling hat. He recites and dances, telling the story of an ancient whale hunt by men in kayaks. As he tells the story, he grabs red paint mixed in a clam shell and paints a breaching whale, then the whaling captain, then other human figures caught up in the magic of the dance, arms and legs outstretched. The crew chant and dance with him for hour after hour as the shaman enters a trance and invokes the power of their prey, living beings like themselves. The ritual lasts until dawn. As the sun rises, the exhausted men collapse onto the ground and sleep. But the shaman sits, calm after his trance, and looks out over the ocean. Behind him, his fresh paintings glisten in the dawn light, alongside those painted by his ancestors. Now the hunt can begin.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 27. Click here to subscribe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.