August 27, 2009

A petroglyph on Little Indian Rock in the Susquehanna

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By Julia Ferrante

SAFE HARBOR, Pa. -- Just south of the Safe Harbor hydroelectric dam in Lancaster County, on a series of large rocks pushing through the Susquehanna River, hundreds of carved drawings are revealed with the brush of a damp sponge or the proper angle of the sun.

The engravings, or petroglyphs, are thought to have been etched into the rocks about 1,000 years ago by Algonquin Indians documenting their daily activities, culture and religion. But little else is known about the carvings, which are not formally marked or protected and sometimes are mistaken for graffiti.   

A group of Bucknell University professors and student researchers are hoping to learn more about the iconic symbols and their origins as part of an effort to uncover and promote the history of the Susquehanna River Valley.

'Cultures at the Confluence'
The cross-disciplinary program at the Bucknell Environmental Center, "Cultures at the Confluence," includes efforts to map an extension of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail with the National Park Service; the creation of a Susquehanna River Writers Institute, run for the first time this summer with a gift from the John Ben Snow Foundation; a study of the various functions of local river towns; and other faculty and student collaborative projects.

Associate Professor of English Alf Siewers, German and Humanities Professor Katie Faull and Geography and Environmental Studies Professor Ben Marsh visited the petroglyphs site in Safe Harbor this summer with student researcher Joey McMullen, Class of '09, and staff members in the Office of Communications.

Paul Nevin, a carpenter and historian working with state officials to research the petroglyphs, served as the guide, transporting the group by boat to three outcroppings where petroglyphs have been found: Circle Rock, Little Indian Rock and Big Indian Rock, and explaining the supposed significance of the markings.

"Each rock has its own character," Nevin said. "We think some petroglyphs are related to solar or astronomical signs. From 3 p.m. to sunset, they just kind of magically appear out of the surface of the rock."

Images come to life
On July 30, a hot, sunny day in Safe Harbor, Nevin dipped a large, yellow sponge into a bucket of water, squeezed the excess liquid out and lightly brushed it over the rocks, revealing the head of a man, the wings of a thunderbird or the swirl of a serpent.

"In the old days it was common to chalk them in or fill them with salt," Nevin noted. "The current view is the less touching the better."

The carvings, which range from images of bears to sets of dots to figures of what look like men, seem to relate to the history and belief systems of the Algonquin Indians rather than to the Iroquois Indians. Both were known to have significant settlements in the area, said Faull, who recently received a $100,000 National Endowment for the Humanities We the People grant to translate diaries written by Moravian missionaries who befriended the Iroquois in an area now part of Sunbury.

"The Iroquois don't seem to have a lot of rock art tradition," Nevin agreed. "These seem to relate to an Algonquin group. They are similar to other Algonquin designs."

Some of the carvings, particularly a few of serpents, seem to be aligned with the sunrise or sunset, Nevin said. Others, such as images of Manitou, or a powerful Native American god, relate to spirituality.

"It was very powerful lying there on Big Indian Rock under the beautiful sky and being in a place where the water, sky and earth meet," Faull said. "For me, what was fascinating was, the Moravian missionaries wrote down information about Native American belief systems. Seeing a depiction of a Manitou instead of reading about it - that, to me, was very exciting."

More than 1,000 years old
A historian in 2002 charted the petroglyphs in the Susquehanna and wrote a book about their potential meaning, Faull said. More than 1,000 engravings have been found along a 27-mile stretch of the river near Lancaster and Columbia counties and near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Some are underwater. Others are on small rocks difficult to distinguish among the mass of outcroppings in the river.

Marsh, an expert on the human geography of the region, is working on a GIS mapping to show where trails and settlements were. He said archeologists could use laser technology to determine what tools were used to make the petroglyphs and provide more information about their origins. This research may show how Indian culture has affected Euro-American culture, not just through place names but in the way we've have learned to use the landscape, such as how central Pennsylvania's highways were developed.

Although the Susquehanna Valley was a prominent settlement for Native Americans, there is little public awareness about Native American culture and history in the area.

Bringing it together
McMullen, who graduated in May and now is studying at Harvard University, said the trip to the petroglyphs was a fitting conclusion to his summer research and to his time at Bucknell.

"Although I read everything there was to read about the Susquehanna River petroglyphs, it's the experience of seeing them and understanding their spiritual and cosmic significance that actually allows us to begin to fully appreciate them," McMullen said. "Being able to visit a place that very few will ever see because of the size and location of the rocks, with the advisers of my two honors theses and multiple other research projects, was an extremely fulfilling culmination of my Bucknell experience."

The John Smith Trail
Marsh, Faull and Siewers, whose research focuses on the relation of cultural narratives to the environment in the Irish Sea and the Susquehanna Valley and history of the Susquehannock Indians, are working with several Bucknell graduates, faculty and interns from other universities in the region and the National Parks Service to extend the southern leg of the John Smith Trail through the area. The project is funded by the Conservation Fund.

Seeing the petroglyphs for the first time helped bring that history to life, Siewers said.

"When you sit under the sky dome formed where the petroglyphs lie, you are in the middle of a kind of environmental text that suggests ways to rethink the relationship between story and nature in which we are formed as human beings," he said. "And the way in which these symbols appear only at certain times of day, and in orientation to certain times of the year, is magical. It reminds me of moon-written runes in The Lord of the Rings. But they're right here in the same river that travels by Bucknell. It is a great teaching and research opportunity."

Contact: Division of Communications 

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