From the Field

Petroglyphs On The Mighty Susquehanna


Petroglyphs created as long as 1,000 years ago or more once existed on about 25 miles of the lower Susquehanna River between Wrightsville PA and northern Maryland. Many were documented, even cut and removed when Conowingo and Safe Harbor Dams were built, and others were submerged. Since that time, the remaining visible petroglyphs weren’t exactly “lost”, it’s just that nobody seemed to care. Not until Paul Nevin read about them and made his first visit in 1982.  

On a warm day in June I meet Paul at the Zimmerman Center for Heritage in Wrightsville, PA for a trip to see the petroglyphs. He’s driving his work van (“Paul A. Nevin Fine Carpentry & Restoration”) and pulling a 16’ jon boat, well-worn from years on the rocky Susquehanna. It’s his first trip out this year. We use a private concrete boat launch and get started, Paul pointing out that we are in good water, in the original channel of the Susquehanna.

With thirty years’ experience, Paul knows how to navigate here with an outboard motor. Guiding us past big rocks barely submerged, we arrive at Big Indian Rock, secure the boat, and climb on.

Paul Nevin photo

Paul Nevin, Restoration Specialist, Historian, Caretaker of the Safe Harbor Petroglyphs (Image courtesy: Cindy Chance)

The rock outcropping is granitic mica schist, and it sparkles. It’s infused with ribbons of quartz, and I see that someone once erected a duck blind here. There’s a nice flat portion and it seems big enough for 20 people. It’s midday and, with the sun directly overhead, the petroglyphs are not visible. Paul grabs a sponge and fills a bucket with some water. Using the wet sponge, he dabs at the rock and outlines a human figure with oversized hands and feet. Then another figure, an animal track, a four-legged animal, design after design. The rock quickly dries and the designs disappear. It’s like magic.

Before we go the short distance to Little Indian Rock, we sit. We are in the middle of the Susquehanna and as we sit quietly we hear the water, and the breeze in the trees, and the sound of birds. An eagle flies by. There’s no one else around. After 10 minutes we make ourselves get up and move on.

The last thing Paul does as he leaves Big Indian Rock, and the first thing he does when we arrive at Little Indian Rock, is to switch out the laminated information cards and waterproof visitor log. The card lists the principles of “Petroglyph Site Ethics” and asks people to respect the site that many Native Americans still view as sacred. Many visitors sign the log and leave comments about their experience. He has learned that by signaling that a place is well cared for, visitors are encouraged to protect it. Paul has organized a sort of “Friends of the Safe Harbor Petroglyphs” – including the duck hunter who built the now-removed blind – to help monitor the condition of Big and Little Indian Rock. Both sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The trip to Big Indian Rock is not for the faint of heart. If you have the opportunity, grab it. Standing there next to me, Paul gently placed his foot into the slight depression of a carved human footprint. “It’s easy to connect with this. You are standing in the place where these ancient works were created. That’s really rare.”

You can take a tour with Paul Nevin through Shank’s Mare Outfitters south of Wrightsville, PA. In July, August, and September, Paul leads tours for a limited number of participants. Sign up early as these trips fill up quickly.

You can meet Paul at the Zimmerman Center for Heritage just south of Wrightsville, PA. Learn about his work at Native Lands Park behind the Center and how Paul helped protect a Susquehannock Indian town located there. But that’s a story for another day.

Cindy Chance

Cindy Chance is the cultural anthropologist and trail administrator for the Captian John Smith Chesapeake National Historic trail. She lives in Annapolis, MD and works closely with the NPS Chesapeake Office.

May 21, 2015

Main image: One of many petroglyph carvings recovered from the Susquehanna River before construction of the Safe Harbor Dam in the 1930s. Image courtesy: The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Archaeology
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