Should We Be Repatriating Rock Art?

My cup of  Starbucks Breakfast Blend wasn’t the only thing steaming this morning as I read today’s post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.  It seems that the folks at the Vancouver Museum,  whose job it is to carefully and lovingly preserve its collections for future generations,  are allowing a rare treasure from British Columbia’s Fraser River to crumble and flake into oblivion.  The treasure in question is a massive 5-6 ton boulder once blanketed with petroglyphs. According to the museum,  the art-inscribed boulder once lay in the bed of the Fraser River,  and may have marked an ancient salmon harvesting site.

The petroglyphs are in a dire, near-death state.  In sharp contrast to their striking appearance in a 1930s photograph,  you can barely make them out now.   Partially covered with destructive moss,  the animal figures and other inscriptions are literally disappearing before our eyes–vanishing,  one might add,  as surely as the once bountiful runs of  Fraser River salmon are.  I can’t believe that a museum is allowing this to happen.

But it’s all part and parcel of a much, much larger problem.  Most people,  I’m sorry to say, just don’t value or respect,  much less understand,  ancient rock art. They feel no compunction about prying loose a painted or inscribed boulder from the spot where it was created hundreds or even thousands of years earlier and hauling it off to a museum,  archaeological park or even a private garden.  They think rock art is simply about the art itself–the often mysterious figures painted or inscribed on stone.

But rock art is all about place.    It was created in a specific spot that had great meaning to the ancient artist–a spot, for example,  that looked out on a sacred mountain,  a place where fish were abundant or easy to catch,  or a trail head for a mountain pass or trade route.   For me, there  is nothing more wonderful and exhilarating than coming across a panel of  rock art while I am out hiking with friends.  I love,  of course, to study the inscriptions and photograph them,  and think about what they might mean. But even more than that,  I like to reflect and puzzle over the place itself.   Why did the artists choose that mountain cliff  or this boulder on the beach?  Why there? What made it an important place? What was the artist honoring?

By contrast,  nothing makes me sadder than to see a slab of rock art sitting in a museum foyer or archaeological park.  It looks like an orphan to me,  cut off and isolated from everything that once gave it meaning.  It honors no place any longer,  its meaning has been lost,  its beauty and wonder sadly diminished.

I wonder if it isn’t time to start repatriating rock art in museum collections.  Giving it back to First Nations who may still have stories about where it once stood or belonged. Certainly the First Nations would value it more and take better care of it than that Fraser River boulder at the Vancouver Museum.

Today’s photo shows Buffalo Eddy 2 Petroglyphs at Nez Perce National Historic Park.  Photo courtesy of Nez Perce National Historic Park.


  1. Nice post Heather (and thanks for the link).

    It is quite insightful I think to say that rock art “honours” the place it is in. Well, there are many different meanings behind rock art I am sure, and archaeologists struggle to interpret it, I know of no archaeologist who doesn’t think that rock art is deeply imbued with a sense of significant place.

    Therefore, to yank it from that place is to diminish both the rock art as “object”, and to diminish the landscape itself.

    Archaeology is often, paradoxically, destructive: we dig through sites, which is an act of creative destruction. Knowing this, we dig carefully! But there is nothing that can be learned about rock art in the lab that can’t be learned in the field. I accept that there might on occasion be a public interpretive good served by the display of petroglyphs. But the Vancouver Museum case you point to does not fit the criterion of public education, nor is the boulder being carefully preserved , nor respectfully treated. It’s being treated as a nuisance!

    It reminds me of when there was a petroglyph boulder that had been stolen from Kitkiata (Old Hartley Bay) and cemented into the fireplace of the bar in the old Crest Motel on Victoria’s inner harbour. That one was eventually returned — I really don’t see how the Vancouver Museum is doing any better than that slightly scruffy old drinking hole was. Which is a pretty low bar for a major cultural institution.

    OK I am getting mad again so better stop!

  2. Quentin, I definitely agree with what you are saying here and I particularly like the thought that hauling away a piece of rock art actually diminishes the landscape, too. I think that’s very true. The people who made the petroglyphs or pictographs lived in the natural world as if it really mattered. (Which of course it does, but most of us have lost that capacity today.) The rock art tells us something about their important places. If we could just leave it alone and pay attention to it, we might be able to learn something about the lands we live in today.

    1. Mike Steele

      Hi, Heather — I’m duplicating this message already left on Quentin M.’s blog because I’m never sure if the info. has been read: I actually have a picture of the Petroglyph Rock in situ.

      One of my hats is that of Stanley Park historian. I corresponded with Mary McDowell (nee Cross) who is the daughter of the chap who dug it out and was in charge of the effort to bring it to Vancouver.

      Mary provided me with several original photographs and a transcript of her father’s description of the effort. One of the images is of the boulder BEFORE it was removed; part of the surrounding area can be seen in the background. – Mike (

      1. Hi Mike:

        Sorry for the slow reply. I’ve just gotten back from a two-week trip to the Arctic. Have you posted the photos of the boulder and the transcript online anywhere? I’d sure love to see them!


  3. Dan Hilborn

    While it has been several years since my last visit the Museum of Vancouver, I have often lamented the poor and deteriorating condition of this petroglyph.

    I wonder if the Xá:ytem longhouse in Mission would be a suitable home for this rare piece of B.C.’s heritage.

  4. […] } As regular readers will know,  I  recently fumed here over the poor conservation of a petroglyph-covered  boulder at the Vancouver Museum,  after reading a troubling post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.   I questioned the wisdom […]

Comments are closed.