Signs of Respect

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 of removing such boulders and slabs from the  places where they were created and installing them in  museums.  I then suggested that the Vancouver Museum repatriate the damaged boulder in question.

Since then,  Northwest Coast has posted more on this disturbing state of affairs, and recently  I received a great email on these issues from George Nicholas, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University and the director of Intellectual Property issues in Cultural Heritage. George is kindly guest-blogging on this today. -HP

I think the notion that rock art is about more than the images is something that has been largely ignored, certainly by the public, but also by many archaeologists and anthropologists. People often tend to focus on the details of the images, rather than on the context of the rock art. But one doesn’t work without the other.

In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger notes that before photography, before the age of reproductive technology, one could only see a particular image (such as the Last Supper fresco) in the church in which it was painted. The same obviously holds true for Lascaux and all other rock art.

Taken out of their geographic context, the images are divorced not only from the place itself (which may be imbued with meaning of its own), but also from the emotional landscape and viewscape. I’m sure you’ve been to petroglyph sites where there’s sort of a mystical feel to the place. I find that at the Three Sister’s Rockshelter in British Columbia’s Marble Canyon. The silence of the moss-filled forest that surrounds the blue-grey rock face adds an important dimension to the rock art.

And of course, we approach rock art from the perspective of the western world. Our worldview is based on a set of dichotomies: the distinctions between the natural and supernatural realms; between people and nature; between past, present, and future; between genders, and all the rest. Such distinctions may be absent, however, in many indigenous societies; they may live in a world in which ancestral spirits are part of this existence (owing to lack of separation between past and present; between natural and supernatural realms).

So all of this, then, begs several questions. What does rock “art” really represent?  How are we supposed to view it? What should we do with it, from a heritage preservation perspective? Indeed, is rock art something that should be preserved?

Most western archaeologists would say yes to the latter question.  But in Australia, contemporary Aboriginal persons sometimes paint over ancient images as a way of continually replenishing the world; it is the act of painting that is important (like the creation of Navajo sand paintings used in healing ceremonies, and later destroyed, much to the consternation of western observers).

The Zuni people have a similar tradition.  They carve wooden figurines of their war gods, the Ayahu:ta, and place them in outdoor shrines. After a period of time, the figurines are replaced with new ones. Zuni tribal member and archaeologist Edmund Ladd notes in his writings that “When a new image of the Ahayu:ta is installed in a shrine, the ‘old’ one is removed to ‘the pile,’ which is where all the previous gods have been lain. This act of removal specifically does NOT have the same connotations as ‘throwing away’ or ‘discarding.’ The image of the god that has been replaced must remain at the site to which it was removed and be allowed to disintegrate there.” So, from a Zuni perspective, proper stewardship is letting the ahayu:ta decay.

Rock art raises many fundamental issues,  as well as conflicting claims that certain items of heritage belong to a specific group or are part of the heritage of human kind. In recent decades, archaeologists have been very much part of this debate.

My own position is that I see merit in both positions, but also that the tension between the two positions is important because it forces us (as archaeologists, as heritage managers, as member of descendant communities, etc) to think about the nature of heritage in new ways.

-George Nicholas

Above:  The rock art of Bohuslan, Sweden.  Photo by Julius Agrippa.  Below:  Contemporary Aboriginal artist Mundara Koorang. Photo by Novyaradnum.


  1. Marc Bower

    There are ways to preserve and protect this history, culture, and spiritualism without displacement. For example, the Petroglyphs Provincial Park in Ontario ( has enclosed (to protect from the weather) a great concentration of petroglyphs believed to have been carved by the Algonkians. The site is still used by natives for ceremonies.

    Interestingly enough, the most important part of the site, spiritually, is the rock itself and not the carvings. There are deep crevices in the rock that are believed to lead to the spirit world. Obviously, then, removal of the stone itself to protect the carvings thereon would totally remove it from context and be of no use in preserving the most important aspects of the site (as you point out in the blog).

    Sometimes the carvings are just coincidental and not the reason a site is important.

  2. APM

    George Nicholas ends his guest blog discussing ownership of heritage. The concept of ownership of heritage is a thorny one indeed. The legislation in BC protects sites like these on behalf of all British Columbians as important parts of what is the overwhelming majority of BC’s heritage. However, First Nations very often say it is *their* heritage, that they should be managing it, that it is not BC’s heritage and not a provincial responsibility. There are some good reasons for this approach, though often the assertion of ownership is often primarily to do with (or at least expressed in a context of) political objectives to stop or control development.

    However, I think this strategy could backfire. In Europe, initial discussions between developers and arechaeologists are not about the value of doing the work – they understood that it is an important part of their heritage and do not question the need for the work. Opening discussions are primarily about the expense and the time it will take.

    In BC it is common for developers to start the discussion about dealing with conflicts between their project and a site with complaints about why should they be doing this anyway, it is First Nation’s concern and should be their responsibility to pay for it and so on. They lack any sense of ownership of this chunk of provincial/Canadian/world heritage, and with it, any real interest in the archaeologicy.

    If the non-indigenous community is constantly told that archaeological sites are not their business then in the long term many people will believe that they have no stake in it and general interest in BC’s archaeological sites will be even more marginal. Politicians will inevitably respond with even less resources to look after them, with even less effective legislation for protection, and so on. I don’t think this is where First Nations wish to end up.

    The idea of delegating responsibility to First Nations to handle archaeological management is one possibility. Except, most First Nations in BC are very small and have limited to no capacity to do this kind of work, and may not for decades. And this is just one of many issues that they will face if assuming such responsibilities.

    I don’t have an answer for this conundrum but do think the messaging needs to be more carefully considered and managed than is currently the case.

  3. Interesting points, George Nicholas. Even here on the NW Coast there is feeling in some communities that monumental poles should be allowed to rot away in place at village sites and not conserved — it is the right to carve a suite of crests and figures that matters more than a specific material instance of such a right. I believe that in the case of the Haisla repatriation of a pole from Stockholm, the intent at one time was to repatriate the pole to the Kitlope to be re-erected and allowed to rot in situ. Whether such sentiment was universal in Haisla communities or not I don’t know and certainly it would be controversial outside of it, for what that’s worth.

    But APM raises a good point: most settler communities do not consider Aboriginal heritage to be “Canadian heritage” (except cynically at the Olympics and on postage stamps). Even heritage professionals are very careful, too careful maybe, not to “appropriate” aboriginal culture and therefore may not advocate for it as strongly as they could, figuring that’s a personal and professional minefield they can just as easily keep out of. Dialogue and communication could go a long way here but that’s easy to say: how do we systemically create a shared field of communication? Piecemeal through one-on-one relationships? Will that bear results? Legislatively? Will that create communication? Or should it just be left to aboriginal communities to take control of their own heritage, and the within their own capacities, and let the chips will fall where they may?

    It’s a thorny problem and it is good you point out so clearly the different values that may be ascribed to something even so self-evidently protection-worthy as rock art. I think Tim Ingold has some very good comments on the western narratives which privilege products of creation over processes of creation which I see exemplified in the cases you cite.

  4. APM

    Things in BC would have been very different were we not connected to North America! I mean this by way of comparison with New Zealand where the settler community and the Maori have more integration of culture. For instance, a lot of Maori words and some practices are common place among all New Zealanders and the definite impression is that New Zealanders value Maori culture and archaeology as an important and essential part of what makes New Zealand’s identiy.

    The remnants of such values are still evident in BC if you look closely enough. There are, for instance, still a number of Chinook jargon words in common usage in western Canadian English. When reading documents from the early 1900’s it is clear that quite a lot of the settlers spoke Chinook, had an understanding of First Nations cultural practices, and so on.

    Now, there was a lot of racism and things like the anti-potlatch laws at that time. But, perhaps if we had been an island off the coast a few hundred miles, we could have ended up a lot closer to New Zealand in terms of how we value and “own” indigenous cultures and archaeology. And maybe it is not too late yet.

  5. I vaguely remember a very pithy statement which I think is from the Nicholas and Andrews “At a Crossroads” book, a quote from an aboriginal person to the effect that “For white people, heritage is just a little house on the prairie”. And its true to the extent that if you follow the money, then there are a large number of direct fundings and indirect subsidies of historical structures: houses, buildings, airplanes, trains, etc. The network of small museums around the province are overwhelmingly concerned with history of settler society — I’ve been scraping their websites for archaeological material and there is next to none. These subsidies and institutions large and small add up to a pretty big industry of publicly-funded history.

    Which is great and all — but strikingly compares to the comparatively few opportunities for public funding or subsisdy of archaeology, say. archaeology is considered a nuisance or a burden which must be paid for by developers, who are themselves overseen by an underfunded and understaffed (and under-mandated?) Provincial Archaeology Branch. Meanwhile, subsidies and direct funding pour into the historic urban fabric in a way an archaeologist can only dream of. Rectifying this imbalance, thereby allowing for more exciting and engaging archaeological stories to be developed in collaboration with First Nations, could be part of the solution.

    1. Readers interested in learning the latest on the the petroglyph boulder at the Vancouver Museum, should check today’s post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology:

Comments are closed.