Former curator still believes pillar could be an Indigenous artifact

Grant Keddie said he was surprised and saddened to hear the museum returned the stone to a local carver before it was properly analyzed.

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The origins of a carved sandstone pillar once heralded as an Indigenous artifact by the Royal BC Museum is a mystery that may never be solved, says the museum’s former curator of archaeology.

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Grant Keddie said he was surprised and saddened to hear the museum returned the stone to a local carver before it was properly analyzed.

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“It’s just such a shame when you can’t pull something off,” said Keddie, who retired on Jan. 31 after 50 years as a curator.

He continues to believe the pillar may be a genuine Indigenous ceremonial stone figure that fell from the eroded cliffs of Dallas Road onto the beach below, where it was discovered decades later by a local artist who carved a face on it.

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“It’s very likely that the original stone didn’t have a face,” Keddie said. “It was just a simple rock that had been shaped into a round shape and stuck into the ground.”

Controversy erupted last year when the museum announced it had discovered a ritual pillar used in Lekwungen salmon and puberty ceremonies. A few days later, carver Ray Boudreau saw a photo of the stone pillar and said he carved it. He sent photos to the media of a strikingly similar sculpture he had been working on three years earlier.

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Embarrassed, the museum said the column’s provenance is being verified with museum staff, local First Nations people and the carver.

Keddie was instructed not to speak to the media. The silence caused much speculation.

Then, on September 13, the museum returned the stone to Boudreau with an apology.

“I want to thank you for your patience as we navigated this uncharted territory and sincerely apologize for the mistakes made during the process,” wrote Alicia Dubois, the museum’s chief executive officer. “I assure you that as a team we have learned from this experience and are taking concrete action to ensure similar mistakes are not made in the future.”

It’s unfortunate that the museum didn’t do the necessary work on the stone, Keddie said. In an article he is preparing for his website, the archaeologist explains why he still believes the stone was likely an indigenous ritual figure.

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The 100-kilogram oblong stone pillar was discovered on the beach between Finlayson and Cloverdale points below Beacon Hill Park. Keddie and a team of four wrestled the heavy rock from the beach.

It was taken to the museum and successively dipped in fresh water to leach out the salt. When the restoration work was complete, the museum invited members of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations for a private tour of the stone.

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Finlayson Point was once a defensive Lekwung village and burial mounds still stand atop Beacon Hill, Keddie said. The 1880 oral history of the Lekwungen people described particular stones not far from Finlayson Point.

The stones were used to influence the wind and were also where a girl “reaching the age of puberty has to bring some salmon to a row of large stones”. Special stones have also been found in Cadboro Bay.

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Keddie’s article also includes images of stone figures with similar bulbous faces from BC’s south coast.

“I was super excited,” Keddie said. “It’s very rare that you have an oral history of something that happened in the distant past and actually find evidence of it. This is really exciting stuff.”

At the time of discovery, most museum staff, including Keddie, were working at home due to COVID. Keddie didn’t have a chance to look at the stone properly after cleaning it and make a more thorough examination through magnification. He had also hoped to run tests to determine the source of the sandstone, which is not natural in the area.

Keddie didn’t want to make the find public, but said he was “under pressure to make a message.”

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And when Boudreau came forward, Keddie continued to research the origin of the stone and went to the beach to look at some of Boudreau’s other carvings.

“There was absolutely no question that that was his carving,” he concluded.

Keddie noted that in media interviews, Boudreau said he knew the stone was “unusual” and “already formed.”

“I’d still like to support the idea that it might actually have been in the hands of First Nations people because it was too perfect,” the carver told the Times Colonist.

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During this period, all of the museum’s managers left the museum for various reasons. Keddie was disappointed to suddenly see the stone given to Boudreau.

“I realized that all of the new management knew nothing about the story. Who made the decision to return it? I have no idea. The point is that corporate knowledge is gone and that’s becoming a real problem. We cannot be sure if it is actually an indigenous stone.”

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Keddie still believes, based on the evidence at the time, that he made the right decision.

“Now I know there’s a more complex story that’s still not over, a mystery that goes on forever,” he said.

Ray Boudreau thinks Keddie’s theory is far-fetched — but he’s not sure.

“In any case, it was empty when I found it,” he said. “Pretty hard to prove, but who knows? could have been I can’t argue what happened before I found it.”

The stone pillar still lies on his front lawn. Boudeau didn’t do anything with it and said he was reluctant to dive right in and carve.

“It has its own little character. I look at it every day. I’m a little suspicious of carving it. One must also wonder about spiritual powers,” he said. “Having sort of a rectangular square shape isn’t something that nature creates. It was totally square, really weird. I’ll give you that.”

Despite requests for more information, the museum has not provided an explanation for what happened.

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