Travel through the Southwest and petroglyphs are readily on view in national parks such as Canyonlands, Arches and Dinosaur, all of which are located in Utah. But, you don’t have to travel across the country to see these mysterious forms of ancient communication. Petroglyphs can be seen in South Central Pennsylvania!
In the early 1600s, the Susquehannock Indians, for whom the Susquehanna River is named, occupied its namesake valley and traded with the arriving Europeans. Even before the Susquehannocks, the valley was home to the Algonquin-speaking Shenks Ferry people, who began fishing the river’s waters and farming along its banks in the 1300s.
These Native Americans may have disappeared from the area 450 years ago, but they left their marks behind in the form of ancient rock carvings known as petroglyphs. The carvings, which take the shape of animals, human figures and symbols, can be found on rocks rising out of the Susquehanna River. Dating back as many as 1,000 years, the petroglyphs serve as a link to an ancient culture. They continue to enchant us and prompt speculation regarding their purpose. Their mystery is made even more intriguing by the rocks’ water-only access.
The Quest Begins
My journey to learn more about these artifacts begins when my sister and I launch our kayaks at Conestoga River Park, which is located along River Road in Safe Harbor and is home to Lock 6 of the Conestoga Navigational Canal (1825-1872). Much the way the natives would have navigated with their dug-out log canoes, we paddle the slow-flowing waters of the narrow Conestoga River, traveling one-half mile downstream and into the broad channel of the Susquehanna River.
Upriver to our right, the impressive concrete hulk of Safe Harbor Hydroelectric Dam stretches from shore to shore. Straight across the river is York County, and downriver to our left is our destination – numerous rock islands of various shapes and sizes. Historians believe Native Americans used these islands as fishing spots to catch migrating spawning shad that once numbered in the millions.
We paddle to the large gray-domed island that is known as Big Indian Rock. Its southern end offers an escape from the river’s steady current and provides a suitable location to land. We cautiously climb to the top of the smooth down-sloping rock. After signing the visitors’ log, which is stored in a large plastic bag, we start searching for the enigmatic carvings.
Depending on the angle of the sun, visitors could be standing directly in front of a carving and not know it. Therefore, the best times to view the petroglyphs are near sunrise or sunset, when the sun’s slanted rays create shadows along the edges of the carvings. To help reveal the artwork, we pour water from a plastic milk jug we have brought with us. The water splashes along the surface of the rock and fills the shallow engravings.
As if by magic, numerous figures appear, the first being a primitive human stick figure with angled horns coming out of both sides of its head. Other humanlike figures take shape, joining what resembles turkey tracks and a large birdlike figure.
Awed by what we have found, we slip back into our kayaks and paddle upstream to a smaller island that reveals more petroglyphs. This is Little Indian Rock, the site of one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in the state. Some of the carvings are close to the water, and I am able to use my paddle to splash water on them. Engraved images of walking birds and four-legged animals begin to materialize.
We land and carefully make our way to the northern edge of the sun-drenched rock. Alongside a variety of carvings that include bird, bear, deer and elk tracks, human footprints, and animal, thunderbird and human figures, we spy the graceful, curving form of the god-like Manitou spirit. The enlarged hands and feet on the human-figure carvings provide a cartoonlike appearance.
Parallel wavy lines close to the edge of the rock catch our interest. Do they represent snakes or possibly the river, or are they perhaps directional markers pointing to the position of sunrise on the equinox? A carving of another curvy serpent aligns itself with the location of sunset on the summer solstice and sunrise on the winter solstice.
It is amazing to look at something carved so long ago; we try to imagine what the “artists” were thinking. These carvings appear to be deliberate and must have had significant meaning, but what is that purpose? Did the carvings serve as art, maps, or possibly calendars? Do they have religious significance, or are they a combination of all these theories?
For generations the petroglyphs have remained a mystery, but the adventure and intrigue of discovering them will continue to serve as a long-lasting memory for all who make the trek to see them.
—Bart Stump lives in York Township and enjoys kayaking and exploring with his family.