Museum displays enigmatic object
When the Seal Stone arrived at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in the summer of 2011, it was addressed to Senior Ethnology & History Collections Manager Angela Linn, the first person at the museum contacted by the donors about the object.
“I remember the moment we opened the crate. I remember when we saw it under regular overhead lighting, being distinctly underwhelmed. Then we started using raking light to look at the carvings. That’s when we got the chills.”
Linn and her colleague discovered one figure after another as the stone’s elaborately detailed motifs emerged under the light shined over the surface from the side. She felt a real sense of awe at the artistry of the original creator. And she wondered about its purpose.
Every object has a story. Ever since the Seal Stone was brought to the attention of professionals at the UA Museum of the North, it has been examined by many different disciplines. Now it is on display in the Gallery of Alaska where visitors can learn about the object from a variety of perspectives.
Linn said this particular object is an important acquisition by the museum because it captures an element of culture that is often hidden or not well understood. Usually, petroglyphs and pictographs are located in difficult-to-access areas, hidden from view. “While this was certainly an intentional act by the creators because of culturally-defined reasons associated with the intent behind the work, it poses a challenging question for modern-day museums and indigenous people alike.”
The Seal Stone raises many questions for museum professionals, ranging from the responsibility to preserve items of Alaska's cultural heritage to how to honor the intent of the originators of certain objects if there is no definitive cultural context behind it.
Another question addresses the ethics surrounding the exhibition of objects with unknown or unclear provenience and original context. According to the oral history accompanying the Seal Stone, the large, grey boulder covered with intricate petroglyphs was found on a small island in the Aleutians during World War II by an American airman. It ended up at antique store in Berkeley, California.
After decades of using it as a lawn ornament, the owners donated it to the museum where it was accessioned by the archaeology department. It had been named for the animal profile perched at the very edge of the rock.
Archaeology collection manager Scott Shirar said the Seal Stone is a prehistoric artifact, but it can also be appreciated for its aesthetic elements, like a work of folk art. “There's often close relationships and overlap between the objects and specimens accessioned by the different museum departments and the Seal Stone is a perfect example of this.”
One study focusing on art motifs found images in the stone that are similar to those in recorded Unungax folklore. The figures entwine and emerge, revealing whales, faces, sea lions and otters, birds and even eyes.
Interpreting the geology of the stone means understanding how and where the rock formed. The Seal Stone is metamorphic. This is an unusual rock type for the western Aleutians where most rocks are igneous, formed through the cooling of lava and magma, or sedimentary, derived from the erosion of igneous rocks.
The origins of the Seal Stone are still a mystery. Petroglyphs from the Aleutians are incredibly rare, so the museum’s curatorial staff don't know where it came from, exactly. The oral history of the stone suggests it was found on Shemya Island, but the geochemistry implies that the rock may have formed elsewhere. And as with other petroglyphs, there is no way to know exactly when the designs were carved and pecked out of the surface.
That makes this piece a good fit for the UA Museum of the North, Linn said. “Because of our statewide collecting mission and our positioning within the University of Alaska, we have access to a wide range of scientific disciplines and approaches from which to begin the investigation into items like the Seal Stone.
“We have hundreds of thousands of cultural objects to compare it to, representing over 14,000 years of human occupation. We have a network of cultural experts with whom we can consult, including indigenous culture bearers. And as a state institution and a federal repository, we will make that information accessible to researchers and source communities alike, both in person and online.”
Shirar said the Seal Stone is a good example of the importance of scientifically documented collections versus simply taking an object off the beach. “The questions of provenance that are addressed in the exhibit could have easily been answered through proper documentation at the time of collection.”
Now that the Seal Stone is at the museum, it is on exhibit and accessible, thanks to the donors. That means visitors can marvel at the distance it has travelled and admire its designs, while independent researchers can conduct their own analyses about this one-of-a-kind petroglyph.