M.A. Theses: Doris Marion Lundy, 1975

The Rock Art of the Northwest Coast

This thesis examines Indian petroglyphs and pictographs (carvings and paintings on rock surfaces) of the Northwest Coast culture area. Although over six hundred archaeological sites of this type have been recorded along the coast, they have never been studied beyond the descriptive level. The primary objectives of this thesis are to collect and organize the existing raw data and to determine their basic characteristics. These data come from publications and articles that describe or briefly mention rock art sites and from a large collection of unpublished information from several museums, including the Museum of Man in Ottawa and the British Columbia Provincial Museum in Victoria. This information is further supplemented by contributions from individuals and by original field research.

The study area follows the Northwest Coast from Yakutat Bay in the Gulf of Alaska south to the Dalles of the Columbia River. This area is, for convenience, divided into the eight traditional linguistic regions; Tlingit, Haida, Tsimpsian, Bella Coola, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Coast Salish and Chinook. Sites are listed for each linguistic region by major coastal features and are identified as to type, that is, whether carved or painted or a combination. Each site is given a number and a note on location. Following this site list, a study of designs examines the individual designs which make up each site and lists them according to whether they are zoomorphic, anthropomorphic or geometric.

The distribution of these designs indicates that some are unique to the coast while others appear to have been "borrowed" from neighbouring cultural areas such as the Interior Plateau. Still others appear to be a part of an even greater distribution involving the Asian and North American continents.

An examination of details of manufacture of paintings and carvings reveals information regarding the type and location of preferred rock surfaces as well as details of tools, pigments and binders used.

There are several distinct styles of rock art to be found on the coast including three of a conventionalized nature, one that is abstract and two which appear to have originated in the Interior Plateau. One of these, the conventionalized Basic Northwest Coast Style is the most frequently encountered and may be considerably older than the others. Functionally, these carvings and paintings were of a commemorative nature, recording events such as important ceremonies, wars or natural disasters, or the presence of wealthy, or influential persons, usually chiefs. They also recorded ownership of inherited or acquired rights and privileges such a economically viable territories.

Finally, the problem of dating this form of primitive art is examined and those dating methods which could be applied to the Northwest Coast are briefly described. Some of these are theoretical and most have not as yet been tried on coastal rock art. Most dating information comes from ethnographic identification and those sites for which dates are known are relatively recent, being no older than two or three hundred years. However, the majority of the sites are as yet undated and there is considerable evidence to suggest that the making of rock carvings and paintings is an old coastal tradition. The results of each of the topics noted above are summarized and the written portion of the thesis is supplemented by line drawings, several tables and a map. It is hoped that this thesis will serve as a framework for other studies into this form of primitive art of the Northwest Coast.