Appropriation (?) of the Month: Four Rooms and a Stone Bowl

By Emily Benson

The appropriation and commodification of Indigenous artifacts has a long history in British Columbia. 


While we often associate these acts with the colonial era, particularly the mass collection of Indigenous peoples’ material culture for museum collections in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Cole 1985), artifacts continue to be bought and sold today by private collectors in British Columbia, often without the knowledge or consent of descendant communities. 

Private collectors, artifact dealers, and auction-houses frequently sell Indigenous peoples’ ancestral and sacred objects, many of which are likely to have originally been removed from archaeological sites. While it is illegal to disturb archaeological sites and to remove artifacts from sites in British Columbia, it is not illegal to possess, sell, or purchase artifacts. This is a problematic disjuncture in heritage law and policy, since allowing a market for such items may encourage looting of archaeological sites. Regardless of the legality of selling artifacts, their commodification for private gain is considered highly unethical by many people in the province, including by many First Nations and archaeologists. This treatment of artifacts shows little understanding and respect for their ongoing value and relationship to Indigenous peoples today, or regard for descendant communities’ jurisdiction over their cultural heritage and ancestral objects.

Two recent articles in the Victoria Times Colonist have generated discussion about these issues by archaeologists and others. The first, “CBC Comes Digging for Treasures in Victoria”, published on June 26, 2013, describes auditions for a reality TV show produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), set to air in 2014. The show, called Four Rooms, will follow four antiques buyers and their engagement with individuals looking to sell unusual items. A caption promoting the show on CBC’s website reads: “These shrewd negotiators stop at nothing in their quest to purchase valuable, unusual or maybe even macabre items” (CBC 2013). The producers are particularly interested in “items with a Canadian connection” and state that they are “looking for anything and everything, from rare antiques and pop-culture collections to fine works of art and even wild and wacky objects." A troubling element of the article is its accompanying image of an approximately 2000-year-old Coast Salish stone seated human figure bowl, which was brought to the audition by a local resident hoping to sell it on the program.

The article generated discussion by archaeologists, First Nations, museum representatives, and representatives of the provincial Archaeology Branch about the legality and ethics of the potential purchase of the stone bowl. The British Columbia Association of Professional Archaeologists also commented on the potential purchase of the artifact in a letter to the CBC. The matter was also the addressed through two in-depth entries on the blog Northwest Coast Archaeology (Mackie 2013a; 2013b), which resulted in much discussion of ethical concerns regarding the potential sale of the stone bowl between the author and the blog’s followers (see

Additional perspectives are included in the second Times Colonist article, published on July 5th and titled: “CBC unearths controversy as Island First Nations artifact considered for TV”. This article highlights concerns expressed by members of the Qualicum Nation and by representative of both the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM) and the provincial Archaeology Branch, all of whom oppose the sale of the stone figure and its use in the CBC TV show. For example, the RBCM representative noted the scientific value of the artifact and expresses concern about the potential sale of the bowl, stating that, “instead of emphasizing the bowl’s knowledge value, it emphasizes monetary value.” For its part, the provincial Archaeology Branch worried “that offering such items for sale, and attaching a monetary value to them, will promote illegal collection of artifacts and illegal excavations in protected archeological sites.”

As the title of the second article suggests, the emphasis is on the controversial nature of the sale of the bowl, and it includes both a statement from the CBC and the perspective of the person who has possession of the bowl. The CBC’s response to the concerns outlined above seems to sensationalize the controversy that the sale of such artifacts could bring to the show. A CBC representative is quoted as saying that the show’s producers “certainly won’t shy away from anything controversial. In fact, they’ll tackle head-on the reasons why individuals have those objects in their possession, how they got them and why they want to sell them…It’s fair to say we’ll discuss the ethics of dealing in controversial items, and more to the point in no way will Four Rooms glorify any controversial items or encourage selling practices that are deemed to be illegal or immoral” (Victoria Times Colonist, July 5, 2013). Both the newspaper and the CBC seem to consider this a debatable issue in terms of ethics.

Seated human figure bowls were created by Coast Salish peoples at least 2,500 years ago. They vary in design, but generally incorporate bowls and anthropomorphic figures. They have been found in ancestral Coast Salish sites on southeast Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and along the Fraser and Thompson rivers in British Columbia, and also in Washington State (Duff 1956; Hannah 1996). Archaeologists believe that the figures were likely important ceremonial objects (Hannah 1996) and that they continue to have spiritual importance to Indigenous people today (Nicholas and Bannister 2004: 335). According to the July 5th Victoria Times Colonist article, this particular bowl was found on a property in Qualicum in 1988. The author relates that,“Qualicum First Nation officials said they are horrified a culturally significant item like the bowl would be part of such a program. They said the bowl should be offered to them or given to the museum for safekeeping.”

This is not the first time that the sale of seated human figure bowls has drawn criticism or conflict in British Columbia. The sale and attempted exportation of a stone bowl from Saanich by a private collector drew attention and concern in 1993 (Bell et al. 2008) as did a bowl from Saltspring Island in 2005 (Rowley 2007; Welsh 2007). According to Bell et al. (2008), 68 stone seated-figure bowls have been found in British Columbia and Washington state to date, and, as of 2008, only two of these were in the possession of First Nations, while the rest were held in institutions and in private collections (Bell et al. 2008). It is not clear at this point whether the bowl from Qualicum will be sold through the CBC program.

The fate of the stone bowl and the associated media coverage raises a number of important questions. For example, how does the private ownership and commodification of an artifact removed from a cultural heritage site become legitimated? From these articles, the ownership of the bowl appears uncontested by the newspaper, CBC, and by the owner, herself. While the museum representative and Archaeology Branch would prefer that the artifact not be sold, the owner’s right to determine what happens to the bowl is not contested by these parties. However, the bowl was collected and has been retained by an individual without the permission of the descendant community. At the time that the stone bowl was found (c.1988), it was illegal to remove artifacts from archaeological sites and the private collection and sale of such artifacts was also generally considered unethical by Indigenous peoples, archaeologists, and others. Has the possession of this approximately 2000-year-old artifact by an individual somehow become legitimate simply with the passing of 25 years? This is certainly the impression that the members of the public would have after reading the articles about this stone bowl and the television show. A “finders keepers” attitude is reflected throughout the pieces, from the description of the television producers as “hunting for treasure”, to the person who has the bowl suggesting it is hers to “share” with Canadians.

The examples presented above speak not just to the issue of commodification of artifacts but also to appropriation and the problematic representations of Indigenous peoples’ cultural heritage. For example, in the first newspaper article, there is no explicit recognition that the bowl may have significance to local Indigenous people; the bowl is primarily represented as a mysterious artifact. Nicholas and Wylie (2002: 199) offer a clear characterization of appropriation that fits well here, defining it as “the use and retention of something without permission.” They add that appropriation involves the “intentional decontextualization” and recontextualization of something in a way that is considered improper to a person or society for whom it has significance (ibid.). They further assert that whether a case of appropriation is harmful is always dependent on history and context. However, they describe many examples of harmful appropriation, and include the “forcible alienation” of cultural heritage and improper or coercive sale of cultural objects (ibid.: 200-201).

One of the ways in which Indigenous ancestral objects are appropriated is through their removal from their original cultural and geographical contexts, and their re-conceptualization and marketing as artifacts or antiquities unconnected to living peoples. In this case, although the newspaper published the concerns of the Qualicum Nation, their rights regarding the bowl are represented as something that simply adds to the animated “controversy” for the show’s producers, rather than as a reality. As Nicholas and Wylie (2012: 201) argue, in appropriating objects “the age of items, uncertainty about their attribution to living cultural traditions, or their affiliation with specific descendant communities are used to establish the claim that valued elements of traditions”, are  essentially, “available for the taking to anyone enterprising enough to make use of them.” This speaks to the broader issue of how the representation of cultural heritage sites and objects as “archaeological” remains can have the effect of conceptually distancing them from descendant communities and disregarding their history and ongoing presence in an area (e.g., Roy 2007).

What does this issue tell us about the responsibilities of archaeologists and others engaged in heritage management in British Columbia? The RBCM representative argued that a good alternative to selling the bowl would be to place it in the museum. Representatives of the provincial Archaeology Branch stated that the only avenue through which the Branch could protect the bowl from sale would be to designate it as a provincial heritage object; however, the Branch can only do so with consent of the owner (Victoria Times Colonist, July 5, 2013). Heritage law and management in British Columbia are grounded in a history of seeing Indigenous material culture as a provincial, national, and scientific resource. Contemporary heritage law and policy has its origins in the desire of archaeologists and government officials to prevent archaeological remains from being removed from the province and country, a desire that, historically at least, was rooted in a view that archaeological remains were a resource of the province and for the discipline of archaeology (Apland 1993). This is not to say that this was the only perspective held by archaeologists in the past, or held today.

Many people working in the realm of heritage are sensitive to these issues and understand the significance of heritage objects and sites to descendant communities. This is evident in the case of the stone bowl, for example, in  the entries on the Northwest Coast Archaeology blog regarding this topic; the author (an anthropology professor at the University of Victoria), emphasizes that the stone bowl is an item of “immense cultural significance” and recognizes that the object is the patrimony of local Indigenous nations (Mackie 2013a; 2013b). Many members of the public are also aware of these concerns. This is also evident in this case; for example, at least one letter was written to the Victoria Times Colonist by an individual who was concerned about the potential sale of the stone bowl on Four Rooms. However, these matters are still, to a considerable extent, framed through colonial ideas regarding property and possession, and by laws which primarily protect Indigenous peoples’ ancestral objects as a part of a collective, provincial and national heritage. For example,  the provincial Archaeology Branch is only able to protect the artifact if it is designated a provincial heritage object, and only with the consent of the person who possesses it. This idea - that the stone bowl is a part of the heritage of all British Columbians- is a sentiment echoed by the museum representative in his suggestion that the item could be donated to the museum. He also points out that there are laws that prohibit the sale of artifacts outside of Canada, which suggests that, according to federal law, the artifacts are the patrimony of Canada. While things are improving, there is still a long way to go.

The example of the seated human figure bowl and media discussions around it, reflect a broader set of questions and issues related to historical and contemporary relations between Indigenous peoples and settlers in Canada. This case reflects the importance of challenging both public and anthropological conceptions regarding the treatment of Indigenous peoples’ cultural heritage.  Explicitly recognizing the relationship of descendant communities to their ancestral /sacred sites and objects, and their rights regarding their cultural heritage, are fundamental to doing so. Key to shifting these perspectives are recognizing the significance of cultural heritage sites and objects to living peoples, and their rights to make decisions regarding their heritage.




References Cited

Apland, Brian. 1993. The Roles of the Provincial Government in British Columbia Archaeology. BC Studies, 99:7-24.

Cole, Douglas. 1985. Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver.

Duff, Wilson. 1956. Prehistoric Stone Sculpture of the Fraser River and Gulf of Georgia. Anthropology in British Columbia, 5: 15-151, British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria.

Hannah, John. 1996. Seated human figure bowls : an investigation of a prehistoric stone carving tradition from the Northwest Coast. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University.

Mackie, Quentin. 2013a. Seated Human Figure Bowl Going up for Sale? Northwest Coast Archaeology, June 27. Accessed October 22, 2013.

Mackie, Quentin. 2013b. More on Stone Bowls and Reality Shows. Northwest Coast Archaeology, July 6. Accessed October 22, 2013.

Nicholas, George and Kelly Bannister. 2004. Copyrighting the Past? Emerging Intellectual Property Rights Issues in Archaeology. Current Anthropology, 45(3):327-350.

Nicholas, George and Alison Wylie. 2012.  “Do Not Do Unto Others...”: Cultural Misrecognition and the Harms of Appropriation in an Open Source World.” In Appropriating the Past: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice, edited by R. Coningham and G. Scarre, Cambridge University Press.

Rowley, Sue. 2007. The Bowl That Makes You Sing. The Midden, 39(1): 13-18.

Roy, Susan. 2007. “Who Were These Mysterious People?” c??sna:m, the Marpole Midden, and the Dispossession of Aboriginal Lands in British Columbia. BC Studies 152:67-95.

Welsh, Don. 2007. The Stevens Seated Figure Bowl, Then Fulford Harbour Bowl, Now the Semiahmoo Bowl. The Midden, 39(1): 8-10.

Victoria Times Colonist. 2013. CBC Comes Digging for Treasures in Victoria. 26 June. Victoria. 

Victoria Times Colonist. 2013. CBC Unearths Controversy as Island First Nations Artifact Considered for TV.  5 July. Victoria.

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, highlight just how complex the categories of appropriation and cultural borrowing are. 


land claims and artifacts

As most of BC is not under treaty ongoing land claims cases, many of which are in abeyance, rely on artifacts and the location of finds to prove that particular aboriginal communities did indeed occupy certain lands. Does this mean that a object like the stone bowel is material evidence in an ongoing trial? Peter Christensen.