Among the more enigmatic artifacts curated at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab are fragments of prehistoric rock art. Archaeological evidence of art dates back tens of thousands of years and has been an endless source of fascination for scholars, as well as the general public. The carved Venus of Willendorf figures, the painted bison at Lascaux, Chinese bronzeworks and other early artistic endeavors captivate and excite the human imagination. The recent discovery of 40,800 year old stenciled hands and painted dots in a Spanish cave is evidence that Neandertals may have been the first cave painters (Than 2012); it is almost certainly only a matter of time before future discoveries push the limits of early art even farther into the past.
While perhaps not as spectacular as the painted caves of Europe, the rock art of the eastern North America is remarkable in its own right. Puritan minister Cotton Mather provided the earliest written documentation of rock art in eastern North America in 1690 and since that time, rock art has been recorded in at least fifteen eastern states and four Canadian provinces ( Diaz-Granados & Duncan 2004:xxi). Maryland’s largest and best known example of prehistoric rock art was located along the Susquehanna River at the Bald Friar site in Cecil County. The petroglyphs occurred on several islands below Bald Friar Falls, with the largest island called Indian Rock.
Known as petroglyphs (“petro” meaning stone and “glyph” meaning to carve), these figures were painstakingly pecked or carved into the rock, and possibly finished using green sticks with sand as an abrasive element to smooth out the carvings. The Bald Friar carvings include concentric circles, grid-like patterns and a design that has been described as a serpent head. The petroglyph featured in this blog post depicts two fish swimming away from two vertical lines. The meanings of rock art and why it was created are mysterious; various interpretations include rock art as a storytelling device, as depictions of spiritual beliefs, or solely as expressions of artistic creativity.
The age of the Bald Friar carvings is also unknown, although they are thought to be somewhere between 500 and 1,000 years old. Local Indians reportedly told William Penn that the carvings had been there “since our grandfather’s grandfather’s time” (Anonymous 1927:21). Geologist Persiflor Frazer, Jr. was the first scholar to document the petroglyphs in detail, in 1877 (Lenik 2004:293). In 1916, a group of archaeologists located, sketched, and photographed many of the petroglyphs on the islands and shorelines surrounding Indian Rock.
Their work would prove essential in the early 1920s when the site was threatened by the construction of Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam. This dam, when completed in 1928, was the United State’s second largest hydroelectric project by power output. River water held by the dam forms the 14-mile long Conowingo Reservoir and is used as drinking water for Baltimore, as cooling water for the Peach Bottom Nuclear Generating Station and for recreational fishing and boating.
With imminent inundation of the glyphs under the reservoir on the horizon, a Maryland Academy of Sciences team rescued many of the carvings in 1926. Using dynamite, the team recovered about 90 pieces of the carved designs, mostly from Indian Rock. The fragmented rock art was displayed outside of the Academy of Sciences in Baltimore for many years and was later moved to Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, to the public library in Elkton, and to the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air. In 2005, many of the petroglyph pieces that had been displayed at Druid Hill Park arrived at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory for curation. The lab also owns five Bald Friar petroglyhs donated in the mid-1980s by collector W. Howard Webb. The remaining carvings were submerged beneath the waters of the Conowingo Reservoir once the dam was completed.
In recent years, concern has mounted over the amount of silt that has become trapped in the reservoir; in fact a report released in 2012 show that sedimentation levels have reached a point that the dam is in danger of no longer functioning properly (Wheeler 2012). More sediment and phosphorus from the Susquehanna are reaching the Chesapeake Bay, impeding Bay clean-up efforts. Some of the Bald Friar rock art may now rest under the silt trapped behind the dam.
For more information on rock art along the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers, please visit these websites:
Petroglyphs of Pennsylvania: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/petroglyphs/3892
Maryland Petroglyphs (rock art) http://mht.maryland.gov/archeology_petroglyphs.html
1927 To Preserve One of the Greatest Monuments of Maryland. Maryland Academy of Sciences Bulletin 6(4):21-22.
Diaz-Granados, Carol and James R. Duncan, editors
2004 Preface. The Rock-Art of Eastern North America; Capturing Images and Insight. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.
Lenik, Edward J.
2004 The Bald Friar Petroglyphs of Maryland: Threatened, Rescued, Lost, and Found. In The Rock-Art of Eastern North America; Capturing Images and Insight. Edited by Carol Diaz-Granados and James R. Duncan. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, pp. 290-307.
Maryland Historical Trust
2012 Maryland Petroglyphs. http://mht.maryland.gov/archeology_petroglyphs_baldfriar.html.
2012 World’s Oldest Cave Art Found—Made by Neanderthals? Accessed on April 20, 2013 at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120614-neanderthal-cave-paintings-spain-science-pike/.
2012 Study Finds Conowingo Dam Losing Ability to Prevent Bay Pollution. The Baltimore Sun, August 30, 2012. Accessed on April 22, 2013 at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-08-30/features/bal-bmg-study-finds-conowingo-dam-losing-ability-to-prevent-bay-pollution-20120830_1_sediment-phosphorus-bay-pollution.