Rock 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.
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.
For reasons 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.
The 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.
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.
We don’t 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.
Popular Petroglyph sites in British Columbia
Nanaimo, Vancouver Island
Petroglyph Provincial Park in Nanaimo provides the most concentrated and easily accessible collection of carvings in BC. Visitors can make their own petroglyph rubbings here, or at the Nanaimo Museum, where further information is provided on other petroglyphs in the area.
Port Alberni, Vancouver Island
One of the finest panels of petroglyphs to be seen in British Columbia is located on Sproat Lake, at the east end of Sproat Lake Provincial Park. Located west of Port Alberni, the park combines a visit to the petroglyphs with great recreation provided on Sproat Lake.
Sooke, Vancouver Island
East Sooke Regional Park in 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.
Quadra Island, Discovery Islands
Petroglyphs abound along the beaches of Quadra Island, around Cape Mudge Lighthouse and at the Nuyumbalees Cultural Center (formerly Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center) in Cape Mudge Village. “Cup and Ring” carvings on Quadra Island are identical to those found throughout Britain and Ireland, particularly in Northeastern England, and are estimated to date from the same era – over 5,000 years ago. The petroglyphs in the grounds of the museum were relocated from Cape Mudge beaches for their protection.
Gabriola Island, Gulf Islands
Known as Petroglyph Island, nearly 100 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 right).
Thorsen Creek, Bella Coola
Hundreds of petroglyphs have fallen from a cliff-face and lie scattered among tree roots deep in the forest west of Bella Coola. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl suggested that the Easter Islanders originated here because the incised rock symbols on the canyon face so greatly resemble the Polynesian stone carvings on Easter Island.
For more information about petroglyphs and pictographs contact the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.