The Seal Stone Enigma

Author: Allison Young McLain

The Seal Stone Petroglyph

Photograph by Lawrence Burr.


Sea Stone Picture

Drawing by Mareca Guthrie.

In September 2010, Billy Jamieson, an antique dealer from Toronto contacted the University of Alaska Museum of the North for help identifying a “basalt carving that has turned up in California”. According to the owners the carving, weighing 240 pounds, was collected on an Air Force Base near Attu Island, an identification that could only refer to Shemya Island.

Nothing like it has ever been reported from anywhere in Alaska and the carvings bear a strong resemblance to petroglyphs from the Northwest Coast of North America. The owners called it the Seal Stone because they thought it looked like a seal with eyes, nostrils, ears, and a mouth carved on one end.

I have worked for nearly 35 years with Unangaxˆ artifacts and art objects. I had also documented petroglyph sites while working in the Tongass National Forest, and had studied NW coast art at the University of British Columbia. I was asked to determine the stone’s authenticity, and, if possible, the cultural affiliation through examination of the motifs and style of the petroglyphs.

To make the study I compared photographs and drawings of Arctic and Northwest Coast petroglyphs with a drawing and 30 photographs of the Seal Stone taken by Mareca Guthrie at the Museum.

The Seal Stone has a wealth of figures pecked into one surface and two sides of the stone. In addition to the seal face I identified:

   Sea Otter

   Birds

   Phalluses and Female Genitalia

   Human Faces, Wide-Open eyes, and Spirals

   a cetacean

   a sea monster

   a bird head with teeth or a human form

   a Northwest Coast style Copper.

There no doubt this is a genuine artifact. The edges of the grooves that form the motifs are worn and weathered, it takes many years for stone to acquire this weathered look. Additionally, a forger would have had to know enough about Arctic petroglyphs to include motifs tantalizingly similar to other petroglyphs but not similar enough to establish a regional provenance for the stone. If the owner or antique dealer made up the origin story that placed this stone on Shemya, someone did their homework on the Aleutian Islands, Alaskan airbases, and timeframe in which a petroglyph of this size could feasibly have been removed and transported to the Lower 48.

The motifs on the Seal Stone are almost identical to Unangaxˆ motifs found in ivory, stone, bone and wood carvings, yet are just different enough from other Arctic petroglyph motifs to place the Seal Stone within the realm of Unangaxˆ art.  Plus there is an uncanny similarity between the motifs and the magical guises, spirit protectors and demons described in Unangaxˆ folklore.

Throughout Aleut folklore there is a central theme of the transformative power that Unangaxˆ people believed existed between themselves and the creatures in their world. The Seal Stone is a powerful artifact combining many important motifs in Aleut spirituality. These motifs represent the transformative relationship between Aleuts and sea mammals, birds, and other animals.


One thought on “The Seal Stone Enigma

  1. Dixie West emailed to say, “Please tell Allison McLain that I am delighted to see this rare Aleutian rock art published. I have been looking forward to seeing this and can now cite this on the Aleutian Working Group webpage. Thanks to Allison.” Thanks for your comment Dixie. CF

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