A stone figure found on a beach was probably by a Lekwungen people artefact, the Royal British Columbia Museum said, but Ray Boudreau begged to differ
Early one morning last summer, walkers on a beach in western Canada spotted an oblong stone figure resting on the sand.
Weighing nearly 100kg, it bore a face with exaggerated features – a bulging eye, contorted nose and lips – and was covered in a thin layer of seaweed and algae.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is really weird, but also pretty neat,’” said Bernhard Spalteholz, who snapped a few pictures and then called a friend – who notified an archaeologist at the largest museum in the city of Victoria.
After studying the stone figure and consulting with local First Nations, the Royal British Columbia Museum announced in January that the stone figure was most likely a ceremonial pillar carved by the Lekwungen people, who have long lived in the area.
“This is a remarkable find with a remarkable story,” Jack Lohman, museum head, wrote in a blogpost celebrating the find, adding that the museum was eager to learn more about the pillar’s “cultural significance”.
But the excitement was short-lived.
A few days later, an artist who lives nearby told a local paper that figure was no more than three years old – and that he had carved it.
“It’s absolutely 110% my carving,” Ray Boudreau, told the Times Colonist, sharing photos of a strikingly similar sculpture that he had worked on in 2017.
Boudreau said he had used a simple hammer and chisel to shape the distinctive face before the stone disappeared from the beach where he had been working on it. The Observer was unable to reach Boudreau for comment.
In the weeks since then, a fierce debate has erupted over the mysterious figure, the museum’s initial findings – and the way in which such assertions are authenticated.
After Boudreau’s comments, the museum quietly deleted the blogpost and any other references to the discovery.
But Lou-ann Neel, head of the museum’s Indigenous curation and repatriation department, has defended the assessment the sculpture – and feels the public has been too quick to pass judgment.
“We don’t know if the stone is in its original shape. We don’t know if Mr Boudreau started working on a stone that already had a carving on it,” she told the Observer. “I think there’s a lot of questions and things I’d like to talk to him about.”
Other works by Boudreau dot the shoreline south of Victoria, but the area was once a large Lekwungen settlement. “Elders have talked about old carved stones prevalent in the area, but interestingly, not on this particular beach,” she said. An Indigenous artist herself, Neel points out that the shape – wide on one end and tapering at the other – appears in other Indigenous stone figures found in the area.
It was that history that prompted the museum archaeologist Grant Keddie to speculate the pillar could be the same one mentioned by Indigenous elders to an anthropologist in the late 1880s.
In the now deleted blogpost, Keddie wrote that the sculpture was probably “a ritual stone pillar” used during Lekwungen salmon and puberty ceremonies.
Skeptical locals have taken to social media to mock the museum’s initial findings.
“I suspected when I first saw this that it wasn’t local. It looked more like something you’d find on Easter Island, or in a gift shop in Honolulu. How embarrassing for the Royal BC Museum,” Victoria resident Maureen Moore Ralph wrote on Facebook.
Neel said such comments reflect a misunderstanding over how Indigenous art “should” look.
“There’s a tendency for people outside the culture to view the different forms and shapes quite differently because they don’t have the cultural knowledge to understand the choices artists would make,” she said. “When I saw it, I thought it was a mix of styles that I had seen before.”
The controversy has also overshadowed a fresh effort by the museum to work alongside First Nation elders to gain insight and context for Indigenous artworks.
For now, the stone face sits in a tank of fresh water, denuded of seaweed and cleansed of salt. Elders will study the pillar, drawing on their knowledge of the region’s art and history before drawing a conclusion.
The authentication process is not yet finished, but Neel said she was disappointed that so many people were quick to credit Boudreau.
“Why is everyone choosing not to believe that it could be an artefact or something from this area?” she said.