dSpace: Adams on Gabriola Petroglyphs

Gabriola Petroglyph Design Elements. Source: Adams 2003.

One recent M.A. thesis I was really looking forward to reading is by Amanda Adams entitled Visions cast on stone : a stylistic analysis of the petroglyphs of Gabriola Island, B.C., from UBC Anthropology 2003, and available for free download here.

I was particularly interested to read the instructions she received on proper deportment when visiting the rock art:

Sites were visited in a manner and with a personal code of conduct adhering to Snuneymuxw wishes. Petroglyph sites were not visited at either dawn or dusk. A respectful demeanor was expected as was an “open heart and mind” (Bill Seward, Snuneymuxw elder, personal communication 2002). I was asked to give my full attention to the petroglyphs and their sacredness, not allowing daily distractions to interfere with my concentration on the ancient imagery. These expectations were met to the best of my ability. (18-19)

While many archaeologists are under the impression that there is little to no ethnographic information about petroglyphs, I have long felt that more likely such knowledge is private or highly privileged and not readily shareable.  In this self-serving sense, it was gratifying to see that Adams was able to record some such information:

Snuneymuxw Elder, Bill Seward, asserts that many petroglyphs were made by shamans, hunters and vision seekers (personal communication 2002) while Elder Ellen White maintains that the carvings were places where people both sought and gained power. She explained that “men would be stripped – even in cold weather and laid on top of each petroglyph – learning the spirit world, connecting to the area.” She also noted that the pitted ‘dots’ surrounding several of the carvings were “points of access”, places where one could dip their fingers into pools of “energy” and reservoirs of strength (Archaeology Forum group tour 2002).  (p 13)

Another welcome aspect of Adams’ thesis is her direct comparison to portable art.  While she largely limits herself to the closest sites, such as False Narrows, she at least tries to situate the rock art in relation to the culture-historical sequence in the Gulf of Georgia.  The conventional wisdom on the rock art has always been that it was from the Marpole period, which is when everything exciting allegedly happened in the Gulf, and it is not surprising that Adams reinforces this.  I do question, however, the strength of the association she draws – a lot of Marpole art is really nothing like these petroglyphs.  I also am uncertain about her  audacious suggestion that all of the Gabriola art may have been made in a single generation, or at least a very short period of time, by a single person or a small group of specialists.  For one thing, I would bet we know of less than 10% of the actual rock art on that island.  For another, stylistic cross-dating with this much specificity brings us closer to connoisseurship than to archaeology, and while it can be done and is legitimate, it requires very intense close, even “thick”, description to be compelling.

She also pegs Marpole as being from 2400 to 1000 (14C)  years ago.  I would very much like to see on what basis Marpole can be so defined.  Classic Marpole, as defined by the Beach Grove and Garrison sub-phases, stretches from perhaps 2100 to 1500 years ago — almost one thousand years less.  And, being almost on Vancouver Island where Marpole is regionally expressed less clearly, the Gabriola case must be made even tighter.

I suppose I have a generic objection to the notion that Marpole is a cultural flourescence that then gets expanded to include all the “complex” behaviour seen in the local archaeological record.  Burial cairns, for example, once seen as Marpole type-fossils, are likely both older and more recent than Marpole itself.  We will never understand Marpole if we just use it as a flexible container into which we pour evidence for “complex” behaviour.

Now, all that is a bit unfair to Adams’ thesis, which does not mainly seek to refine our understanding of Marpole.  Yet, as I have mentioned before, M.A. theses are a real backbone of the discipline of archaeology in British Columbia.  About a decade ago or a little more, UBC Anthropology instituted a 50 page limit on their theses, which made me quite apprehensive about whether the UBC MA thesis would continue to be a contribution to knowledge vs. an extended term paper.  I don’t want to pick on Adams’ thesis in this regard, but I suspect she badly needed at least another 50 pages to make her arguments more compelling.  I note she makes extensive use of the substantial 1990 M.A. thesis by Margaret Holm on pre-contact aboriginal art styles – indeed that former M.A. is a necessary precondition, a building-block, for this one. Holm herself relies heavily on Doris Lundy’s excellent 1974 rock art thesis.  Will Adams’  play a similar role in the future?  Time will tell.

I understand where the impetus at UBC to shrink the requirements for their M.A. program came from, and there have been some good theses produced under the new rules. Longer doesn’t equal better of course, but it is much harder and requires more supervision to write something short and good than to write something  long and good.  I don’t believe students or the discipline are particularly well served by an artificial page limit.

In the end, while I remain unconvinced by Adams’ arguments, I do welcome her call for more focused, local study of the rock art of British Columbia.  Regular readers will know I object to the crass treatment of rock art, whether that be in Vancouver or on Gabriola Island itself, and certainly one thing we can take away from this thesis is a heightened sense of the past and continuing spiritual values of these important elements of the national heritage.

I would have welcomed a complete catalogue of original renderings of the petroglyphs of Gabriola Island.


Holm, Margaret 1990 Prehistoric Northwest Coast Art: A Stylistic Analysis of the Archaeological Record. Unpublished MA thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Lundy, Doris 1974 The Rock Art of the Northwest Coast. Unpublished Master’s thesis. Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby.

32 responses to “dSpace: Adams on Gabriola Petroglyphs

  1. Pingback: Adams on Gabriola Petroglyphs

  2. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this! This thesis is going to be extremely valuable for the project I’m doing right now. I’m doing some experiments on the processes of petroglyph creation and have come across some interesting theories.

    By doing this I intend to learn what I can about both the process and the experience of pecking an image into rock, and how the creation and direct interaction with the landscape and features upon it may have enforced a people’s relationship to the geography upon which they existed.


  3. I read over her thesis, I will say it is very well written (up to wasting some of the 50 pages on needless repetition near the end), something rare indeed. Q, she seems to be following Matson on almost everything to do with culture history and interpetation. He was her thesis advisor, after all! We directly dated a classic Marpole harpoon (one of the many at the site), and received other dates from the Foundry site at Nanaimo that were, if I recall rightly, all about AD900 – not too far of the mark for the terminal number Adams uses (I just tried to get into the BC Archaeology on-line library to check the date, but was told I have the wrong password grrrrrrr).

    However, just how many of the art objects have solid dates? When you start to get into the nitty-gritty of solid associations of diagnostic artifacts or art objects with reliable radiocarbon dates, there seems to always be questions about just how accurate the provenience was, the date was from the same level but two or three sloping strata away, etc. etc. etc. When I was introduced to NWC archaeology, any assemblage with lots of stone beads – and especially burials – was automatically ascribed to “Marpole”, since one of Marpole’s reliable diagnosics was the display of lots of stone beads. Almost all the known Marpole sites had them! Talk about a classic circular arguement! Although there may have been some doubts, it wasn’t until the Pender Island ‘lavish’ burials dating to early Locarno or even Charles period, followed by the even older Tsawassen burial with 60,000 stone and shell beads, that the trait was dropped from the diagnostic repertoire. I have a strong feeling that the curvilinear ‘sea wolf’ that Adams so forcefully argues to be a short-lived phenomenon may turn out not to be at all as more artwork gets directly dated by accelerator. Are all the panels where these are carved free of any overlapping images? There are a lot of potential ‘canvas’ surfaces available on the Gulf Islands and Adams argues that most are in locations selected to be remote and isolated. It seems like this fact alone will tend to produce few overlaps.

    I wonder if a detailed analysis of spatial locations might reveal new insights? I think it was Beth Hill wrote the paper on bedrock bowls; they are almost invariably in the intertidal. A detailed analysis of the landscape attributes of all the petroglyphs in a locale would be another great thesis.

    BOth she and you, Q, make reference to the likely large numbers of undiscovered petroglyphs that are likely in the region. I stopped off at Petroglyph Park to show some staff what they looked like a couple of years ago, and found new panels where people had worn the moss of the bedrock in areas where you were still allowed to walk off the trail. Diana Cooper spent a weekend or two going up to fully record them with some Snanaimux volunteers. I also discovered a previosly unknown bedrock bowl at Port Alberni in the tidal part of the river; and one of the Millennia staff, might have been Darcy, found another on a beach on one of the southern Gulf Islands). Thats just in my experience, so cumulatively there must be loads more we have never seen.

    I am quite concerned about the deterioration in so many of these panels – it sounds like they are far less evident than even 40 or 50 years ago – thank god that the Barrows, Hills, Lundies, Leens, etc did make a record when they did!

    I’ve always wanted to read (and have a copy) of Holmes’ thesis on mobile art – I’ve never been able to lay hands on one. If anyone has a copy, can I borrow it??


    • Hi Morley, that’s a lot of great information and comments. Thanks.

      Damn students who listen to their thesis advisors — don’t they know they are supposed to rebel? I didn’t know about the direct date on the Marpole harpoon, that is interesting. The slippery temporal boundaries of Marpole over time (and regionally?) show the utility of the “Culture Type” as defined by Mitchell — it is not explicitly a temporal unit of analysis but a morphological one. Hence it is more useful than “Marpole phase” which is a temporal container. And by keeping it “usefully ambiguous” then it keeps it archaeologically real as something we don’t really understand, rather than getting turned into a time period when the Marpole People Did Things Just So.

      Deteroriation is a real problem. I suspect part of it is the ones which had even a thn layer of moss were protected from freeze-thaw cycles which, even once or twice a winter can start to spall off or weaken the patina of the sandstone.

      I think a detailed spatial analysis would be great — the setting of each, the proximity of designs to one another, etc, and I have to say that’s the kind of thing I was expecting in Adam’s thesis. But that says more about me than her, I suspect.

      I don’t have a copy of Holm’s thesis but UBC is digitizing their entire back catalogue so I am expecting it to turn up on UBC dSpace any day.


  4. Last summer a number of bedrock bowls were found in the intertidal zone of the Willows Beach site, no one had noticed before, least ways no archaeologist had.


    • Yeah, I’m just finding out about these bowls now and they seem really really interesting — apparently in the lower intertidal zone even. Unusual and one of the sorts of features that, probably, once a few are found and talked about then people’s eyes get tuned into looking for them and next thing they are everywhere….


  5. Yes, when is Marpole exactly?….. what is Marpole exactly?

    Lepofsky et al. (2005:270) state:

    “Although many archaeologists use the date of 2400 radiocarbon years B.P. for the break between Marpole and the preceding Locarno Beach phase (e.g., Matson and Coupland 1995), a recent analysis suggests that the break may be closer to 2200 radiocarbon years B.P. (Clark 2000, figure 7.2), or 2400 cal B.P. (Figure2a,2d). Researchers place the termination date of Marpole between 1500 and 1000 radiocarbon years B.P. (e.g., Burley 1980; Matson and Coupland 1995; Mitchell 1971; Thom 1995). The difficulty in assigning a distinct end-date is largely due to the fact that many of the artifactual trends observed in Marpole (e.g., the reduction of chipped stone and the concomitant increase in bone tools) continue without a break into the subsequent phase (Matson and Coupland 1995:5)”

    Lepofsky, Dana, Ken Lertzman, Douglas J. Hallett and Rolf W. Mathewes
    2005 Climate Change and Culture Change on the Southern Coast of British Columbia 2400–1200 B.P.: An Hypothesis. American Antiquity 70(2):267-293.


    • Frasercentrism!!

      Well, apart from that, therein is the problem — how to date something which may be a continuum of subtle changes – a transitional period of 500 years or something? What meaning does such a period have, anyway? Is Marpole just a big stylistic expression, and not an adaptive or a political one? We need to over-throw the rigid tyranny of the culture-historical grid. Duncan was onto this with a seriation approach to individual artifact types vs. “Culture Types” (never meant to be temporal units of analysis by definition anyway) and “phases” — organizational conveniences which might drive categorical thinking.


  6. Morley, did you get a date for those incised stones you had in such abundance on Denman Island? They are a form of portable art, though perhaps not transported very far the “studio”.


    • Did you know they got over 800 of those tablets at Tse-whit-zen? I thought the 75 or so from the site-that-shall-not-be-named at my lab was a lot, but then they didn’t move nearly as much dirt back in the day at that site as at Tse-whit-zen, either.


      • No, I had not noticed that – did they date them? Morley’s Denman site was more than the ones in your lab I think, but don’t recall off the top of my head. Morley?


      • My recollection was not that many at Denman — a signficant concentration to be sure, but not 75.

        Yeah, I am not sure what the publication status of Tse-whit-zen is, or what it will be. Hopefully a big professional report on the lines of the Sequim Hwy one, which was really well done. I got the 800 from a quote in a news article so I guess better be cautious, but the scale of that site (>300 human remains) is immense.

        There is a picture of one of them here:

        Stylistically, that one (the only one I’ve seen) is very similar to the ones in my lab but none of those ones are made on similar waterworn pebbles — all are on subangular siltstone.

        OK from Seattle Times, for what its worth. I got the 800 number from somewhere.

        Discoveries at the site have also brought excitement, and sparked a cultural revival. Tribal members for the first time are seeing physical evidence of the lives of the people who lived on the site, from whom they are directly descended.

        Some never knew their people lived in longhouses, or wore the red paint in spirit dances, or passed on sacred rituals with etched stones that tell the story of the ceremonies.
        More than 200 of the stones have been found so far, incised with teachings of the tribe’s sacred ceremonies. Whether turning a baby from a breached position, confronting the death of a spouse or parent or being initiated into the longhouse, the tribe had teachings to consult, etched into the stones.

        “The etched stones, we heard legends about them, but no one had ever seen them,” Carmen Charles said. “What better way to open our eyes for my generation. We are getting things back. But it shouldn’t have happened this way.

        This link gives the 800 figure– an audio interview withKlallam chair Frances Charlie.

        OK one more edit: this two year old newspaper story suggests a 1 million dollar National Science Foundation grant application was to be made to finish analysis. Sounds like it became an orphan collection after the controversy broke and the construction project was cancelled. Meanwhile the 900 boxes of artifacts are at the Burke.

        I really should do a series on Tse-whit-zen.

        ANYWAY: if these incised stones are Marpole, they aren’t like the petroglyphs. If they aren’t Marpole, then Marpole isn’t like Marpole, if you know what I mean.


  7. *Chris toddles away with pink plastic shovel, thumb in mouth*


  8. Looked up the Denman ones since Morley must be out windsurfing or something. N=32. Not dated though.


  9. No wind, no windsurfing. Cleaning gutters up a tall wobbly ladder is my substitute adrenaline fix.

    Was 32 the combined number for Denman? I still can’t get on-line. We divided them into sandstone and siltstone ones, and I believe they were the most common artifact type at the site, if you split up points and other biface types. THere was a whole lot of them (again, once we started looking after finding two obvious ones we found two faintly incised ones in the backdirt rockpiles).

    They most certainly are dated! They were firmly in the lower component – Locarno and about 2900 I think (I’d thought a bit older Charles based on the point style but contracting stemmed points cover both periods; Marpole too, although they tend to be wider and shorter then.
    At the time I wrote the report there were few other dated tablets. The Denman ones were very simple. By contrast, the even larger sample from the Ship Point site, across Baynes Sound from Denman on the VI side have complex patterns remeniscent of anthropomorphs wearing woven clothing – but headless. THere are also a couple of zoomorphic designs from there, including a frog one. The RBCM has them, Don Mitchell had obtained most from a private collector I recall. They really need a write-up. Don told me he thought the Ship Point ones were Marpole based on the other artifacts coming out of the site.


    • This is completely off-topic, but Morley, I’m curious to see if you know my dad.

      He’s a windsurfer from Penticton who is most often found at Nitinat, the Gorge, and in the winter, La Ventana. His name is Bob Stathers, and his best friend’s name is Steve Fletcher. Sound famliar?

      I tip my hat to you, sir!


  10. Hmmm, I can get onto RAAD but not the library – same logon and password ??!!??!! The c-14 dates never made it onto RAAD.

    Chris – he isn’t a long-haired orchard farmer with a pile of (now grown I guess) kids that windsurf too is he? I do better with photos than with names….. I’d be surprised if I didn’t know him by sight. I used to be at Nitinat a lot, have only had one Gorge trip last year (LOVED it!) and haven’t been to LaVentana, but I know tons of people that live there all winter.


  11. Morley, that will teach me a bit about the accuracy of the OCR translation of reports in the electronic library since my search did not get me to the date, only to discussions of relative dating.

    “A date of 3,500 +/- 100 years before
    present (RIDDL 576) (Libby half life of 5568 years and following the conventions of Stuiver and Polach; delta carbon 13 assumed value of -20) was determined by radiocarbon acceleration method on butchered bone from layer 3, 45-50 cm DBU, in the northwest quadrant of EU 16. This dates the earliest cultural use of DiSe 10. A bracketing date from the upper part of layer 2 of the same unit could not be dated, even using the accelerator technique, because of low levels of collagen.”

    The way I read your analysis suggests that this date is representative of all the cultural materials excavated at this site – that it was a single component site of brief occupation. More dates would be nice of course.


  12. And yes, 32 is the combined total.

    BTW, I can’t find if you say whether the bone you dated was land or sea mammal. Reading the report it seems most likely it was deer, and the assumed delta carbon 13 value of -20 is appropriate as it is within the range for terrestrial animals. All the other species on the bluff top that could be identified would need a delta carbon 13 measurement because it is likely they have a strong marine carbon component (including the dog which probably ate a lot of fish).

    Now, here I am hoping that I won’t have got something wrong in yet another post. Maybe I should go back to my own editing duties which are keeping me in the office on the weekend.


  13. I’m pretty sure that was deer. Hopefully not eating a lot of C4 plants or seaweed or whatever…..

    There was actually two components at the blufftop part of the site. Most of the deposit was buried about 35-50 cm BS – jet black – wait, make that 10YR 2/2 – sediment crammed full of lithics and the incised stone. There was a scatter of shell midden near the surface that included a later style chipped stone and a late triangular ground stone point.

    On the bluff just below the blufftop was a single petroglyph image (harkening back to yesterday’s topic) – no evidence at all when that dated to. It was rather like a seated cat, with a head with rays coming out.

    There was a small rockshelter in the bluff a hundred metres or so away – very deeply stratified hearths inside. Otherwise, there were skiffs of midden on the higher parts of the lower bench, plus very extensive raised beach that looked like shell midden till you saw a long profile and realized there was no FCR or artifacts in it. It had fooled a couple of archaeologists into thinking it was cultural.

    All together, it was one of the ‘coolest’ sites I have ever worked on. The number of artifacts on the ‘blufftop’ was amazing. Also amazing was the black/yellow sudden transition from site to sterile as one moved away from the area where all the artifacsts were. No sign of a wall though. I still think my original assessment that it was a ritual area used to indoctrinate young initiates has merit. The points and preforms spanned a huge range of quality, from expert to novice. Its also the only site I can remember that had a clear cache of stored lithic cores (many with just a single flake taken of the cobble, obviously testing the quality).


  14. So I guess that makes the pebbles one of the largest assemblages of portable art from the Locarno period? I don’t know if Holm looked at them.


  15. Morely,

    on a different non etched stones note but the same Denman report:

    what about the very cool sounding (but undated) ‘northern rockshelter’ where you state:

    “the initial occupation of the northern rockshelter seems to correspond with a period of raised sea levels. Artifacts–some with barnacle scars on broken surfaces–were found mixed with the uppermost beach deposits at an elevation of 7.2 m ASL. …. The rockshelters themselves were carved by wave-action, probably shortly after deglacation, before isostatic rebound resulted in lower sea levels (Clague et al. 1982; Don Howes 1986 personal communication). The occupation must postdate a further drop in sea 1evel, because no evidence of water rolled artifacts was found above the beach deposits. ” (Eldridge 1987:5-15)

    i’d love to hear more about your thoughts on this given Tom James et al & Darcy’ relative sea level curve suggests that sea level went below modern after 13.2KA Cal BP, not to get above modern after that time.

    Are there is any samples left to date? neato place, good lookout for sea mammals too no?


  16. I don’t remember the context of the James/Mathewes curve – is it supposed to apply to both sides of the northern Strait? It clearly doesn’t to the western shore – there are lots of raised beach deposits of relatively recent age here. I’d be surprised if the sea level drop was older than a few hundred years, since so much of these raised beaches make for a nice living sites adjacent to the beach, but archeological deposits are almost all on low ridges, berms etc.

    Should be dating material available from faunal remains in level bags – maybe find the artifacts with the barnacle scars too (they may have been simple flakes that stayed in level bags, or even FCR that was discarded – I don’t think we were aware of the possiblity of dating shell traces then. Some nice land mammal bone or charcoal would be better! )

    For you with access to the file, didn’t we get a radiocarbon date from higher up the profile in one of the hearths?

    This area is probably more sensitive to small changes in sea levels than most, due to the low slope angles of many of the shorelines.


  17. Great thread drift!


  18. Thread drift? More like us pirates threw a line to this topic and hauled it away to our home port.

    From relatively nearby:

    “Bracketing ages on marine-freshwater transitions in isolation basins extending from sea level to 100 m elevation on Lasqueti Island, and data from shallow marine cores and outcrops on eastern Vancouver Island, constrain late Pleistocene and Holocene sea-level change in the central Strait of Georgia. Relative sea level fell from 150 m elevation to about -15 m from 14 000 cal. yr BP to 11 500 cal. yr BP. Basins at higher elevations exhibit abrupt changes in diatom assemblages at the marine-freshwater transition. At lower elevations an intervening brackish phase suggests slower rates of uplift. Relative sea level rose to about +1 m about 9000 cal. yr BP to 8500 cal. yr BP, and then slowly fell to the modern datum.”

    Reconstruction of late Quaternary sea-level change in southwestern British Columbia from sediments in isolation basins
    Authors: Ian Hutchinson; Thomas S. James; John J. Clague; J. Vaughn Barrie; Kim W. Conway. Boreas, Volume 33, Issue 3 September 2004 , pages 183 – 194


  19. if there’s lots of raised beaches, then itd be good to date one! sounds like many have been but are they all a few hundred years old. are there lots at 7m asl or are most lower. sounds like a fun area to work!


  20. Speaking of bedrock bowls (or at least Morley was earlier in this discussion) is there a common understanding of their use? I am reading a book on spinning (The Intentional Spinner by Judith Mackenzie McCuin) which attributes their formation and use to the processing of bast (plant) fibres -specifically nettle – for spinning. Soaking the nettle in warm saltwater to rot the outer covering and then bashing them to release the inner fibres. I’ve never studied bedrock bowls but to those who have – is this your understanding?


  21. I don’t buy that nettle-bashing hypothesis. Most of these bowls are much too small to be used like that – nettles would require a much larger container, or surely just the flat bedrock could be used. I believe the average amount that could be contained in the bedrock bowls was something less than 1/2 litre – I think Hill has the number but I better get some paying work done. Hill argued to shamanistic use, perhaps in a similar way to the use of portable stone bowls. That idea seems to be the simpler explanation.


    • I dunno — is shamanistic use really simpler than some sort of everyday functional use? Could argue this both ways (which is why I get the big bucks). I agree though that low tide, small bowls seems like a counter-intuitive way to get warm saltwater soaking.

      “I hear” one of the UVIC grad students is writing a thesis proposal right now, a smallish component of which will be to look at the DcRt 10 bowls as well as review all the other records of such features regionally. Apparently there is some traditonal use knowledge which might be shareable about these. So we might know a lot more about this pretty soon.


  22. Veteran Rock Art researcher Dan Leen offers his thoughts on the thesis here:



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