Susquehanna petroglyphs find a home near their original site
Five fragmented stones, with shallow carvings made by American Indians, were given a new home this spring at Susquehanna State Park in Havre de Grace, MD. Their arrival at the park is a reunion of sorts, but not for the stones themselves.
The fragments, or petroglyphs, were once part of a large set of carvings on massive boulders in the lower Susquehanna River, at a site known as Bald Friar. They were literally blasted from their original setting in the 1920s — creating about 90 separate pieces — to save them from being submerged in the river by the Conowingo Dam.
This particular set of fragments has traveled together for nearly 100 years. They spent time along the Maryland Academy of Sciences walkway in Baltimore and then in a forgotten heap, overgrown with poison ivy, at the edge of a maintenance area in the city’s Druid Hill Park. More recently, they were stored in an archeology lab in southern Maryland. Until now, the stones and their carvings have remained far from the river that inspired them.
In the new exhibit at Susquehanna State Park, the carvings are sheltered in the ground floor of a historic mill, but the wide river passes just outside its doors, with a footpath and overlook, a few miles south of their original location.
“I think the native people are pleased or would be pleased by this place,” said Sid Jamieson, an Iroquois Confederacy native who lives near the Susquehanna headwaters in Pennsylvania. “And now visitors have an opportunity to see them.”
Some experts estimate the age of the petroglyphs at 500–1,000 years. But Charlie Hall, the archeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust who was instrumental in locating and rescuing the stones, said they might be much older. “My belief is that most of these are about 4,000 years old, but various time periods and motifs and techniques appear among the whole palette,” Hall said.
During colonial times, when William Penn is said to have asked about the age of the Bald Friar petroglyphs, Indians replied that they had been there “since our grandfather’s grandfather’s time.” The first detailed records of the carvings were made in the late 1800s.
The meaning of the petroglyphs remains a mystery. They are shallow marks of geometric shapes and designs, made at an important river crossing near a deep hole, along a plentiful shad migration route. Were the markings artistic, spiritual, practical or a combination of all three? Viewing the stones with wonder and imagination is part of their appeal.
“The thing I like most about these stones is that they aren’t arrowheads or broken pots. They aren’t utilitarian objects, and that’s what people know about the most, perpetuating this myth that native Americans were just living hand-to-mouth and struggling for existence. These petroglyphs show spiritual understanding and relationship to nature. They are abstract, they are also so human,” Hall said.
Some of the stones that were removed from the original site were lost and others moved to different locations at libraries and historical societies. Hall began searching for some of the “lost” stones in 2006 and finally succeeded with help from a retired maintenance supervisor from Druid Hill Park. More work followed to value the stones, establish state ownership and move them to the state archeology laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum for conservation work.
In 2015, the Maryland Historical Trust and Department of Natural Resources partnered with the Chesapeake Conservancy to bring the stones closer to their original home. The interpretive display was financed by Turney McKnight, a conservancy board member with a personal interest in the petroglyphs.
Jamieson appreciates the effort to save and display this important part of Indian heritage in the Chesapeake region. “Native people feel that all things have meaning, all things have a place, and all things have purpose,” Jamieson said. “If you apply that to the petroglyphs, you see that they still have meaning, they still have a purpose, and now they have a new place.”
Jamieson would also like to see the full collection of petroglyphs reunited. “It would be nice if we could gather them all up and put them in one place again. That might take some negotiation,” he said.
The exhibit in Susquehanna State Park is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through the end of September. Admission is free. For details, call 410-557-7994.
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