Stone Masks and Stone Wearers

I have long thought that many of the seated human stone figures found in British Columbia are wearing masks. Some figures have faces that are a mixture of human and other animal features. Several of the stone figures are wearing what appear to be a mask separated from their facial area (Figures 5-9). I would also propose that there are small stone masks (Figures 1-3), with attachment holes on their sides, that were worn on some of the small stone figures. We need to consider that seated human stone and other stone ritual figures may be only one component of a ritual object, that included other components of perishable material such as wood, feathers or woven fibres, as well as other stone components.

Small Stone Masks

The two tiny masks shown here (figure 1-3) in the RBCM collections, are originally from private collections, resulting in the lack of details on their provenience. I would propose these small stone masks were attached to some of the small stone seated human figure bowls. In figure 1, the left side is from the Lytton region and given the Borden Unit number EbRj-Y:1171. The mask on the right side is from a general region of the southern Interior of British Columbia, Borden Unit ER-Y.

Figure 1. Front view of small stone masks.
Figure 2. Back view of small stone masks.
Figure 3. Side view of small stone masks.
Description and Measurements

EbRj-Y:1171. This small mask weights 16.2 grams. It is 36mm high by 31.7mm wide and 10.5 mm thick.

The two raised eyes have a joining raised oval ring surrounding them. This is similar to the face on some stone bowls from the region. There is an incised triangular shaped nose and an open cut mouth with a raised rim around it. On the top of the head is a decorative feature that is likely a custom head-dress. The back is hollowed out and holes are found on the middle of each side. The latter do not appear to be intended as ear holes.

ER-Y:835. This small stone mask weights 55 grams. It is 50.5mm high by 50.7mm wide and 16mm thick. This round mask has raised eyes around a flat area with long incised line defining the central area of the face. It has an incised roughly triangular nose, The mouth is an incised straight cut, with a cross hatched pattern of incised lines below on the chin. It has 2.5mm rounded, drilled holes in the cheek area of the face. The back is only slightly inset and not hollowed out as in EbRj-Y:1177. The decorative feature on the head may be a similar head-dress as in the other stone mask.

Antler Etching of Human with Mask

Figure 4, shows an example of a unique antler figure of a human wearing and holding up a bird mask. This was collected by Harlan I Smith when he worked at the American Museum of Natural History, before joining what is now the Canadian Museum of History, where a copy of the artifact resides. Smith shows a drawing of a caste of this figure in two of his publications. Smith (1923) indicates that the antler artifact is: “slightly restored. From original surface soil, 4 feet below top, in shell No.1, Port Hammond, B.C. Collected by Harlan I. Smith. Cat. No. 16-3977 in American museum of Natural History, New York; ½ natural size. After Figure 59, Smith, Shell-heaps, 1903. Cast, Cat. No. XII-B-608 in Victoria Memorial Museum, Ottawa, Canada”.

Figure 4. Antler carving showing a human holding a face mask.

Masks on Stone Figures

Figure 5.

Figure 5, is the Inverarity Bowl from the British Museum (see appendix 1 below for details on its provenance). The figure appears to be wearing a head-dress with two animal ear features on top. The headdress is separated from the face feature which projects forward. I propose that the face here is a mask being worn by the human figure.

Figure 5, Shows both sides of Inverarity bowl showing head-dress and separated mask feature.

Figure 6, 7 and 8.

The seated human figure bowl seen in Figure 6, from the side, figure 7, from the back, and figure 8 from the front, clearly shows an example of the separation of what I consider a facial mask, from the rest of the head (see appendix 1 for details).

Figure 6 . Side view of human figure showing a face mask as separate feature from the head.
Figure 7. Same figures as 6 showing raised top of mask and its separation from the back.
Figure 8. Front Views showing image of a toad or frog.

Figure 9 and 10

This image, from the Qualicum Beach area of Vancouver Island, appears to be wearing a face mask with a snake costume attached down its back (See Keddie, 2024, for details on the provenience).

Figure 9 . The Qualicum Bowl. View from both sides.
Figure 10. Qualicum Bowl. Left: View of snake costume on back. Right: View of weathered face on lower front of the bowl, looking up from the bottom

Figure 11.

I have added this stone bowl from Costa Rica to show another example of a more obvious mask being worn on a stone figure. This stone figure has a bowl on its back and is like a number of bowls from British Columbia in being associated with snakes, having a face on the back, and having a bulbous face with a protruding tongue. On this figure, one can clearly see the forehead of the person above the mask.

Figure 11. Stone bowl from Costa Rica wearing a mask.

Appendix 1.

Figure 5. The Inverarity Bowl.

This bowl is now in the British Museum (Am1976,03.22). Height: 18 cm Length: 11 cm. Width: 7.50 cm.

The British Musem records that this bowl was purchased from Robert Bruce Inverarity in 1976. Inverarity was an art historian who acquired his own collection. Inverarity in his notes (British Museum Ethnology document 1225), “records that he purchased this object from the “Teakwood Box” antiquities shop in Vancouver, BC in 1949. The shop was run by Muriel Brooks, widow of R. A. Brooks, the former proprietor who collected and sold a large quantity of high-quality Northwest Coast material. Much of his stock came from an undisclosed archaeological site on the Fraser River named Brooks Mound, although the exact location of this site has never been established”.

Reginald Brooks faked a large number of stone bowls which he artificially aged with tar. This bowl and the stone head shown by Duff 1956:141; Figure 14D) as his number 49, are the only human figurine items in the Reginald Brooks collection that I propose are non-fakes (see Keddie 2003).

This bowl is not dated and from an unknown location. I would not use the language in the British Museum catalogue that describes this bowl as “carved in Marpole Culture style”, as there is no such established criteria for this. (see Hannah 1996), for an attempt to make distinctions of design and special-temporal patterns. He argues that “types” correspond to three different sub-areas. I would argue, in addition, that bowl manufacture and use had diverse patterns of spread by ritualists that travelled to and communicated with each. Further dating and isotopic analysis of these bowls is needed to develop the story of human figure bowls.

A description of this bowl is in Duff (1956:41), as his no.49. Duff described it “Based on a photograph and personal communication from Inverarity”:

“Made of course soapstone, the figure is about 6 inches high. It is seated, holds a bowl with a face on the front and wears a large three-humped head-dress. The face protrudes forward and has large, but undetailed incised eyes, nose and mouth. Bent arms and legs are carved in relief along the sides of the bowl. Fingers and toes are indicated, and a pelvic structure extends across the lower back. The backbone and rib cage are also clearly shown. The face incised on the front of the bowl is impossible to identify, but is somewhat like that on bowl No. 7. The bowl depression is proportionally large, and extends into the chest as well as the lap of the figure”.

Figure 6-8. Private collection.

The provenance of this bowl is not known. The image on the front of the bowl does not have enough distinct detail. It could be either a western toad (Anaxyrus boreas) or a Columbia spotted frog (Rana lusteiventris).


Hannah, John. 1996. Seated Human Figure Bowls: An Investigation of a Prehistoric Stone Carving Tradition from the Northwest Coast. Masters Thesis, Archaeology, Simon Fraser University.

Keddie, Grant. A New Look at Stone images. In: Archaeology of Coastal British Columbia. Essays in Honour of Professor Phillip M. Hobler, pp. 165-174. Edited by Roy L. Carlson. Publication Number 30, Archaeology Press, Simon Fraser University.

Keddie, Grant. 2024. Seated Human figurine bowls. Part Three. Word Press.

Smith, Harlan I. Archaeology of the Gulf of Georgia and Puget Sound. Memoirs of the AMNH ; v. 2, pt. 6