It is a lot more complicated to produce rock art in 2011 than it was 1,500 years ago, at least that’s what Alutiiq Museum Executive Director Sven Haakanson found when he set out to try this spring.
The Alutiiq Museum is hosting a year-long exhibit on Kodiak rock art, a show inspired by Haakanson’s ongoing study of the Cape Alitak petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are images pecked into stone, not to be confused with pictographs, which are rock painting. For the past decade, Haakanson has been spending a few weeks of each summer investigating the rock carvings at Cape Alitak, a wind and wave pounded landscape at Kodiak Island’s southern tip.
“The Cape Alitak petroglyphs are the largest known cluster of stationary rock art in Alaska,” said Haakanson. “Until recently, they had never been systematically recorded.” Last summer a crew from the museum took on the maddening task of documenting the fading artwork and the ancient settlements that lie behind them. Although pecked into Kodiak’s hard granite bedrock, the glyphs are fading from view. Some are covered by the tide daily, others are overgrown with algae or partially buried. A bucket of water, shifting light, and a great deal of patience helped the archaeologists see the ancestral images, and to map and photograph many for the museum’s archives.
Results from the survey are being displayed at the Alutiiq Museum, where wall murals, maps, graphics, photographs, and video bring the ancient images to life. The center of the show, however, is a set of 12 replica petroglyphs, painstakingly carved by Haakanson on evenings and week-ends. “We wanted to be to experience the size of the petroglyphs,” said Haakanson. “They are larger than most people realize. We also wanted our visitors to be able to interact with the petroglyphs by making their own rubbings. Most people can’t visit Cape Alitak, so we are bringing a flavor of the Cape and its Alutiiq artwork to Kodiak.”
How did Haakanson manage to create those replicas? No one in the Alutiiq community remembers making petroglyphs. This art form, and even related rock sculpting techniques like lamp making, faded long ago. So, Haakanson did what all good artists do – he experimented. First, he needed rocks – sizeable boulders on which to carve designs. Haakanson gained permission from Koniag, Inc. and the Ouzinkie Native Corporation to harvest large water-worn boulders from their lands. Andy Christofferson kindly helped. Then Haakanson set to work in the back of his pick up truck.
After transferring a full-sized petroglyph to a boulder, he tried different methods of carving. Most archaeologists thought that ancient Alutiiqs made the petroglyphs by using a long, narrow beach cobble to peck the design into the surface of another rock. Haakanson found that this didn’t work very well, so he added another step. He used a hammer to drive the other rock. That worked better. Eventually he substituted a chisel for the hand held pounding rock, and a pneumatic air pounder for the hammer. Once he had the technique perfected, each carving took about two hours. Some help from Mitch Simeonoff and Haakanson’s daughters, Elidh and Bella, made the process go a little faster.
“Our ancestors made many beautiful things by carving stone - tools, decorated lamps, and even sculptures. I’m looking forward to experimenting more with rock carving, maybe even hosting a class.”
Quyanaasinaq – Many thanks to Akhiok-Kaguyak, Inc. and the Simeonoff Family for assistance with petroglyph research, and the National Park Service Tribal Historic Preservation Program and Ocean Beauty Seafoods for sponsoring the exhibit.
Photo: Petroglyph Reproduction in Haakanson's truck.