Many petroglyphs are so old that the present inhabitants
are unable to interpret them.
AN ANCIENT HISTORY
United States Department of Agriculture
The more recent rock art drawings
are usually realistic representations
of animals, fish, or supernatural beings.
Archaeologists are just beginning to
discover more about the ancient people
who inhabited southern coastal Alaska.
Even the pictures put there to tell a story
are shrouded in mystery.
One of the ways to determine the relative
age of rock art symbols is by association
with other rock art
sites or by comparing designs.
Abstract designs may be older
than representational drawings.
Some symbols are obviously
more recent because of their
association with historic events.
When the Tlingits first saw a Russian sailing ship,
they told in pictures of its arrival as
if it were the return of the Raven,
the mythical creator.
Rock designs may have recorded
important events such as births, deaths, potlatches,
legends or contact with others such as European explorers.
Some mark Clan territories, indicate portage locations, or
record periods of time. While others may mark or warn of
burial locations for important people such as shamans and/
or their paraphernalia. However, no one can say absolutely
what the artist had in mind while creating many of these
images. Therefore, realize what many of these pictographs
and petroglyphs actually represent may in fact be very
personal and known only to the person who created them.
Long ago a Tlingit elder interpreted this
petroglyph as showing how Raven created the
You will see examples of both Southeast and
Southcentral Alaskan rock art in this brochure.
For easier identification, all the pictographs and
petroglyphs have been labelled according to
their area of origin.
Next to each drawing from Southeast you will
find the letters “SE” and next to each from
Southcentral, there will be an “SC.”
PRESERVING OUR HERITAGE
a. Raven carrying
fire in his bill.
b. The box of daylight Raven stole.
c. The creation of the earth.
d. The North wind brings the weather.
e. The Wolf Crest representing the
guardian of fresh water.
The next few years are crucial to the preservation of rock
art. Destruction can be from natural or human actions.
Vandalism and theft threaten the survival of this important
Rock art exists in a great open air museum for which
we are all responsible. Be careful how you treat these
ligitimate artistic works. Walking on rock art causes
the rock and the design to crumble; touching leaves oil
residues on the surface; chalking, rubbings and tracings
apply pressure to soft rock surfaces, accelerating
deterioration. The most destructive action, however, is
grafitti. Writing or spray painting on the rocks destroys the
integrity of this fragile heritage resource.
The Native People who lived along
southern coastal Alaska created some of
the most outstanding rock art in the world.
Take home a memory of their distinctive art
by taking photos.
Petroglyphs and Pictographs of
Southern Coastal Alaska
• Use a polarizing filter to reduce glare.
• Side lighting is important.
• Maximum shadows early in the morning or late
evening bring out the design.
• Artificial side lighting at night gives best results.
• Never chalk, paint or in any way alter the art to
enhance your shot, as this proves destructive.
• Digital photography offers the ability to enhance
Rock art along the coast of Alaska is truly unique. If you
think you may have found a new petroglyph or pictograph,
or you have witnessed vandalism to an archaeological site,
please notify the nearest Forest Service office. When we
respect and protect rock art, we help save this vital link
with the past for our children’s enjoyment in the future.
Contact a forest archaeologist at:
Chugach National Forest
Tongass National Forest
USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender.
ART ON THE ROCKS
Humans have painted or pecked
symbols on rocks or walls of caves for
thousands of years. The rock art of
southern coastal Alaska offers a unique
glimpse of these ancient maritime
peoples and their views of the world.
There are different styles of rock art found all
over the world. Most of the rock art in southern
coastal Alaska was made during the last 10,000
years. Seeing these ancient pictures takes us
back to a world lost in time, linked to the present
only by what the prehistoric artists decided to
carve or paint on the living rock.
PICTOGRAPH: a design
painted on rock with pigments
made by mixing grease or
salmon eggs with red ochre or
charcoal (shown in red).
PETROGLYPH: a design that is
pecked or ground into the rock
surface.The designs below and the
similarly styled designs throughout
the brochure are examples of
petroglyphs (shown in black.)
Circles and spirals and
“O” and “Y” designs are
the most universal
and may be of
have found similar
abstract symbols along the
coast of Siberia.
The best way to
record rock art is to
Group of blackfish whales
and stylized animals.
Over time, weather erodes rock so it is easy enough
to imagine what can happen to pictures painted on
the surface.Some designs may have disappeared
due simply to weather conditions. Recent radiocarbon
(C14) dating of associated cultural materials suggest
that most pictographs painted in southeast Alaska are
not much older han 400-500 years, and typically are
found in caves or under rock overhangs, protected
from wind, snow, and rain.
Indian religious leaders, called shamans, may
have made many of the early petroglyphs during
ceremonial rites to pay respect to the spirits and bring
luck to their clans.
Holes in hands and in symbols
of people represented a special
ability to perceive spirits.
SC - Kodiak Island
the death of
several men whose
canoe was overturned
by a whale.