United States Department of Agriculture
Pictographs In Southeast Alaska
By Martin V. Stanford
There are two
types of rock art in
pecked, chiseled or
ground into boulders,
cobbles or outcrops
of bedrock which are
usually located in the
intertidal areas near
salmon streams, fish
camps or old villages.
1-4) on the other
hand were painted
onto rock walls above
the shorelines of the
ocean, lakes or rivers
and are distributed
over a large area, with
some painted in very
This pattern suggests
that most pictographs
were painted in the
spring, summer, or fall,
during gathering and
trading seasons, rather than near their winter villages, when weather and sea
conditions were at their most challenging.
Figure 1: The pictograph are of a sun sign top, below a canoe
with nine people, a circular face with three eyes and to the right
skeletonized human figure.
Some pictographs may have been painted in these remote locations by
shamans during their quests to obtain spirit helpers (yeik or yek).
Tongass National Forest
Tongass Archaeology Notes
Recent studies show that pictographs are more common than previously thought
(Stanford 2011). As of 2016 one hundred and twenty five pictographs have been
reported in the state of Alaska with one hundred and eleven of these located
in southeast Alaska. Most pictographs were painted on overhanging rock walls
or other rock walls that are protected in some way from rain or snow. Even
so, over time pictographs become faded due to exposure to water in the form
of rain, snow or seeps. However, modern computer graphics software can
enhance images of faded pictographs; the results can be dramatic (Figs. 1-4). A
few pictographs were painted by someone standing in some kind of watercraft such
as a canoe but most pictographs were painted on rock walls that had a rock bench
or ledge located below which allowed access to the wall and a place to stand or sit
to paint. No pictographs, to date, in southeast Alaska were painted facing north. This
may be for ritual reasons or simply because many north facing rock walls tend to
contain more moisture and have more lichens or moss making them difficult to apply
Most pictographs, except for those painted inside caves, were created relatively
recently compared to other sites in Southeast Alaska which can date back to over
10,000 years ago. Four pictograph sites in southeast Alaska have been indirectly
radiocarbon dated from associated wood, charcoal or cedar cordage. Adjusted to
calendar years these range from AD 1486 to modern times or as far back in time as
Christopher Columbus, a time when many camps and villages were present across
the region. Other pictographs were painted with motifs showing ships with sails or
of ships anchors indicating they were likely painted near the time of contact with
18th or 19th century explorers or fur traders.
Figure 2. This pictograph is obscured by lichens. Eight dots appear to orbit a circle dot motif. A canoe
with four people and a horned or antlered animal motif appear to the lower right of the circle. The motif
to the right may be a representation of an 18th or 19th century ship’s anchor.
Tongass Archaeology Notes
Most of the pictographs in southeast Alaska were painted using a red to reddishbrown pigment. Ethnographic research has provided some information on the
composition of red pigments and how they may have been prepared for pictograph
painting. The primary mineral pigment used was deep red hematite (Fe2O3) or iron
oxide. Hematite mixed with clay is called red ochre. A binder was added to hold
the pigment particles together and to hold the paint onto the rock surface. Some
examples of binder ingredients include blood, fish eggs, seed oils, plant resins and
juices. A third ingredient of the paint was a vehicle, or a fluid, that made the paint
liquid and suitable for application. Plant juices, water, animal oils, and urine have all
been used as vehicles.
Pictographs in southeast Alaska were likely painted by Tlingit, Tsimshian, or Haida
people, or possibly even by the Tsetsaut.
Figure 3. The top left figure is thought to be a dragonfly. At center far right and lower left are two very
faint canoe motifs. It is not known what the two sets of parallel lines and the two connected circles might
The reasons why pictographs were painted are varied. Ethnographic research
shows that some pictographs were painted to impress others; to record legends
or important events, such as contact with European explorers, encounters with
animals, to mark clan territories or to indicate portage locations; to record periods
of time; or to mark or warn of burial locations for important people such as
shamans or their paraphernalia.
While many of the pictographs may represent recognizable animals or
things such as whales, fish, ravens, human figures, and ships anchors;
much of the art is more abstract and consists of dots, circles, ovals, squares,
and lines. But what do these pictographs mean? What do you think they
suggest? No one can say absolutely what the painter had in mind while creating
these images. To attach meaning would be to possibly make wrong inferences or
conclusions about the images and about the people who made them.
Tongass Archaeology Notes
Therefore, realize that the interpretations we give some of these paintings is likely
speculation, and what they actually represent, may in fact be very personal and known
only to the person who painted them.
Figure 4. Upper right are two killer whales. To the left is a raven holding a starfish. Below is a difficult to see
canoe motif. At bottom may be a composite animal with a beavers tale.
Rock Art of Southeast Alaska. Stikine River Books. 2015.
Stanford, Martin V.
Shoreline Pictographs of Extreme Southeast Alaska. Alaska
Journal of Anthropology. Alaska Anthropological Association.
Volume 9, Number 1. 2011.
Tangible Visions: Northwest Coast Indian Shamanism and Its
Art. Monacelli Press and Corvus Press, New York. 1996.
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