Ancient Petroglyphs in Susquehanna River Reveal Lost American Culture | WYPR

Ancient Petroglyphs in Susquehanna River Reveal Lost American Culture

Sep 16, 2020

The sun was already low on the horizon when I set off into the Susquehanna River in my kayak just southwest of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The golden light illuminated rocky islands in the broad and quiet river, and the crowns of sycamores towering alongshore.

The guide on my trip along the Chesapeake Bay’s biggest tributary was historian Paul Nevin, the Director of a museum in Lancaster County called the Zimmerman Center for Heritage.

“We are on a trip to see the Safe Harbor Petroglyphs, which is one of the most outstanding rock art sites in the northeast United States,” Nevin said.

In the distance, a wall appeared– the nearly century-old Safe Harbor hydroelectric dam, stretching across nearly a mile of the river.  Downstream from the dam, amid a jumble of boulders, is an island of rock the size of a beached sperm whale.  Across its back teeters a sun-bleached and twisted tree trunk, thrown high by floodwaters.  

We land our kayaks, tie them up and scramble up onto the rock.  There, in the fading light, we see something amazing: Carved into the face of the huge granite boulder at our feet are ancient, engraved Native American images of eagles, snakes, bears, a weasel-like creature, human and animal footprints, and dancing, leaping people.

“One of the symbols right here is of a person,” Nevin said. “You can see what looks like two horns or maybe feathers or part of a headdress – but this symbolizes that this is a medicine person. And when you look closely down here, you can see that the legs are spread wide and another person is emerging.  So this seems to be a medicine woman giving birth right here.”

Nevin explains that these petroglyphs were carved perhaps a thousand years ago – although nobody really knows – by a civilization of people who occupied the Susquehanna Valley even before the Susquehannock Indians. It was the Susquehannock tribe that populated the area back in 1608 when English Captain John Smith and other colonists arrived.

What happened to these ancient, forgotten people? Those who came before what the colonists called Indians? It is a mystery, Nevin says. But these pre-Indians may have been conquered by and incorporated into the dominant Susquehannock tribe centuries before Europeans invaded.

“The story of the Suquehannock is maybe a cautionary tale for us,” Nevin said. “They were a powerful tribe. The native people who lived around the Chesapeake Bay saw them as this mighty people. Their largest settlement in the 1650’s had about 3,000 people, so it was larger than any of the European settlements at that time. Their populations grew for a number of years, and then all of a sudden they were struck by an unknown virus, a disease that decimated their population.”

What is clear from the surviving petroglyphs, however, is that the ancient people who carved the artwork here treasured and revered the animal life around them and were closely in tune with the natural world. For example, a curved snake cut into the granite – visible in the warm light of the sunset-- has a head that points exactly to the place on the horizon where the sun rises at the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

If only our own hearts and minds – and daily lives -- were so closely lined up with the rhythms of our world.

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Photo of local historian Paul Nevin by Tom Pelton