Carved conundrums

Joel Dunn of Chesapeake Conservancy examines one of the Bald Friar Petroglyphs at the Maryland Archeological Conservation Lab. (Peter Turcik)

In 1926, a team from the Maryland Academy of Sciences took a load of dynamite 10 miles up the Susquehanna River from Havre de Grace and blew up Indian Rock at Bald Friar’s Ford.

They did it to save a piece of history.

The rock, a mighty boulder nearly as big as an island and close to the river’s north bank, was one of the East Coast’s finest examples of American Indian petroglyphs.

While the amateur scientists were laying their charges, a few miles downstream contractors were placing tons of concrete and reinforcing steel across the Susquehanna River to build the Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam. The dam, once completed, would be what was then the nation’s second largest hydroelectric dam. Its 14-mile long reservoir would drown the Bald Friar Ford and the ancient petroglyphs.

The blast shattered Indian Rock.

The scientists picked through the pieces and salvaged many petroglyphs. They took them to Baltimore, where they were displayed at the Maryland Academy of Science’s headquarters. Times changed, the academy moved to smaller spaces, and the rocks were moved to Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. In the 1960s and early ’70s, some were parceled out to county museums. In the park, they were overgrown and largely forgotten.

In 2006, Charles Hall, a Maryland state terrestrial archeologist, grew concerned. He worried that neglect, weathering and vandals would destroy the ancient art. He started a search, inventoried the stones he could find, and moved many to the state’s archaeological conservation lab in southern Maryland.

Now it’s time for a new move. There is an effort afoot to bring the stones to Susquehanna State Park, a spot only a few miles from the petroglyph’s original location. The effort has the strong support of both the Haudenosaunee, the Indian nation that represents the seven tribes of the Iroquois, and the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs.

The park is along the Susquehanna, right beside the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and the spot where Smith met with the Susquehannock Indians. At that location, the stones could be protected and where a display could be developed to relate their history. It is a story where some things are known, but much remains a mystery.

Exactly when the petroglyphs were carved is unknown. It could have been as recently as the last 500 years, or much further back in time. People inhabited the Susquehanna’s valley as long ago as 10,000 years. But perhaps an even more intriguing question is why were these time-consuming art projects pecked and sanded into the river’s hard schist rocks, and by whom? And why were such specific locations selected — at the fall line of the river and along the river’s lowest ford? And what do the symbols mean?

The symbols are enigmatic. Many are geometric shapes, composed of curved lines, dished hollows and diamonds. Some are concentric circles. One has been interpreted by some as a picture of two fish swimming away from two straight lines. Perhaps the most intriguing is a recurring symbol that some describe as a serpent’s head. Other interpretations have been posited; including, among other things, human faces.

This symbol is also found at the one other place where petroglyphs have been found in Maryland — at Great Falls on the Potomac River. It is probably no coincidence that at both Great Falls and Bald Friar, the carvings were made at the river’s fall line, in a place where the river’s earliest people went to fish in the spring when a silver tide of shad and herring crowded the river on their migratory run upstream.

Interestingly, the carvings from Bald Friar are very different from a better known set found 20 miles farther up the Susquehanna at Safe Harbor. There, the petroglyphs clearly represent animals and people, some with drawn bows. Were the two sets made by different peoples with different cultures? Were they made at very different times?

We may never know. But these carvings offer an opportunity to think about the people who lived along the Susquehanna long before Europeans arrived, to explore their history, visualize their landscape and begin to restore their memory, their land and their ancient petroglyphs, to an honored place.

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