Ancient rock pictures dot Alaska shores

Aunt Phil's Trunk

Not only does Alaska have a history steeped in fur trading, whale harvesting and gold mining. It also has drawings on rocks usually associated with primitive people in exotic faraway lands.

Petroglyphs, the Greek word for rock carvings, are among many enigmas of science. Because their true meanings are elusive, they remain a mysterious link to a people who inhabited the world a long time ago.

Many of Alaska's petroglyphs, which are in abundance in the Southeastern part of the state, are unique because they are associated with salmon streams, rather than primitive village sites, and they always face the sea. Mouths of salmon streams are filled with inscriptions pecked into hard rock like sandstone, slate and granite, while good rocks for carving remain bare in villages near those streams.

To those familiar with the ancient beliefs and oral traditions of the Tlingit and Haida Indians, the petroglyphs show that salmon is life. These Native Alaskans, whose diet was primarily fish, were not hunters and had no agriculture. If the salmon failed to return, it could mean starvation for the clans.

It made sense, therefore, for them to try to avoid small runs and to do everything possible to try and increase the runs. They may have carved images of intermediaries, including deities, "Raven" and others in special favor with the Salmon People on the rocks in an effort to bring salmon back to their communities.

Legend has it that a Tlingit boy named Shin-quo-klah, or "Mouldy End," was punished by the Salmon People for wasting dried salmon. They took him under the sea but later returned him to his people.

He became a great Shaman. It's said that his image is etched on a rock at Karta Bay, placed near where he died after he accidentally killed his own soul that was inhabited by a supernatural salmon at the time. Copies of the etching were all around the beaches of Hydaburg and Wrangell, where it's believed his influence was being used with the Salmon People to insure adequate runs of salmon.

There are hundreds – if not thousands – of unseen petroglyphs in Southeast Alaska. Some hidden by dense foliage of the rainforests and others out of sight until exposed by super low tides. When revealed, these rock carvings are rich in culture and history, ranging from simple swirls to animals and clan crests.

Petroglyphs also appear in the Kodiak Archipelago, where at least seven sites have carvings that depict human figures, animal forms and geometric designs. Alutiiq ancestors pecked holes into rocks and sometimes cut lines between the holes. In their culture, holes and circles are passages between the spirit and human worlds. Some speculate that perhaps the pecked holes helped the souls of captured fish return to the spirit world so they could be reborn.

There are four large clusters of petroglyphs at Cape Alitak, at the entrance to Alitak Bay on the southside of Kodiak Island. Some Alaskans think that the designs on the rocks at those sites were made to mark territory, to act as permanent signs that linked families with particular subsistence harvesting areas.

The oldest rock drawings appear to have been carved as early as 10,000 years ago, and archaeologists have found similar abstract symbols along the coast of Siberia. There is no way to discern the true intent or motivation of the artists, but the drawings are one of the few sources of ancient art that tie Alaska Natives to their heritage.

Petroglyphs and associated sites are under the protection of federal laws and the State of Alaska antiquities laws.

This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at and

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