We tend to think of provincial parks as places to go to visit nature, and on Vancouver Island especially we often think of old growth trees as one of our main attractions, certainly one we visit parks to see, while we frequently associate ancient human-made structures or objects with Europe, Asia, or Latin America. But amongst Nanaimo’s wealth of parks exhibiting natural wonders, the city also houses Petroglyph Provincial Park, a park that sports some incredibly ancient human-made creations. Carved into the rock face near the Nanaimo Harbour, these petroglyphs are over 1000 years old.
Found in prehistoric cultures all over the world, petroglyphs left a visual record of important information of the cultures to whom they pertained. For oral tradition cultures who had no written script such as the early First Nations cultures on the island, these carvings communicated land ownership or commemorated a special event. They also had a spiritual aspect to them. Petroglyphs were often carved in carefully selected locations, generally near a water source, such as a river or a waterfall, or near a cave, each of these being associated with the otherworld.
The land on which Petroglyph Provincial Park sits was a place of spiritual significance for the Snuneymuxw First Nation. According to Snuneymuxw stories, this was the site where the creator, Xaals, turned the shaman Thauxwaam to stone to punish him for his arrogance and disrespect. After Europeans arrived and the petroglyphs began to be visited by increasing numbers of people the area became a tourist attraction, causing threat to the petroglyphs due to the soft sandstone in which they are carved. Many other petroglyphs have been damaged through increased contact with humans, as well as exposure to the elements.
Established in 1948, Petroglyph Provincial Park was created to protect these ancient rock carvings for future generations. Set on two hectares of land just south of the City of Nanaimo, visitors can see a variety of petroglyphs including wolf-like creatures, human forms, and fish. Before reaching the petroglyphs themselves, visitors can stop at the main interpretation area, where concrete castings of the petroglyphs allow tourists to make souvenirs by rubbing crayons on fabric stretched across the replicas.