Friday, April 27, 2018

Journey to the Petroglyphs: Rock Art in Pennsylvania’s Lower Susquehanna River Valley

A previous blog identified the Lower Susquehanna River as containing one of the largest concentrations of prehistoric petroglyphs, or rock carvings, in the Northeast. Out of the multitude of these sites which were once accessible in the area, only a small handful remain intact. Although several publications discuss the images found on these petroglyphs, fewer accounts convey the beauty and natural wonder of their surroundings.

The golden hour on the Susquehanna. In the background, you can see people standing on Little Indian Rock, the most well-known of the petroglyph sites in the Lower Susquehanna.

 Despite the looming presence of Safe Harbor Dam and the alarms which signal dam releases at frequent intervals, the water just down river remains relatively calm. It is important to remember that the river landscape of today is drastically different from what existed before the construction of several hydroelectric dams along the river. This section of the Susquehanna was once described by Donald Cadzow as having numerous rapids only navigable by canoe, quite a difference from the glassy waters that are found here today. From the confluence of the Conestoga and Susquehanna Rivers, a paddler can make their way past numerous rocky outcrops (some containing petroglyphs) and islands blanketed with thick vegetation. It’s not difficult to imagine why this was a place of significance to the prehistoric people who visited and lived here for thousands of years. Wildlife, resources, and natural beauty abound.

The petroglyph sites in this area of the Susquehanna were first documented in 1863 by professor T. C. Porter of the Linnaean Society of Lancaster County. Since then there has been periodic interest in the sites, which for many years were thought to have been lost behind Safe Harbor Dam. Unlike the abstract glyphs documented on Walnut Island, now submerged behind Safe Harbor Dam, those found on Little Indian Rock are more naturalistic and represent identifiable animals such as birds, humans, snakes, and quadrupeds.

A composite photograph showing numerous glyphs on the northern face of Little Indian Rock at sunrise.

 At first glance, it is apparent that Little Indian Rock has numerous carvings on its surface, but it isn’t until closely examining the site under optimal light that the sheer number of glyphs on this rock become apparent. No doubt that an immense amount of time was spent creating them. Although no definitive age has been established for the creation of these sites, they are thought to have been made no more recently than around 500 years ago but are possibly much older. It is agreed upon that they are of Algonkian origin as they bear similarities to other petroglyph sites and motifs of the expansive culture group that once inhabited this area.

Big Indian Rock at sunrise.

The other prominent petroglyph site in the Lower Susquehanna, Big Indian Rock, exists just downstream of Little Indian Rock. This location contains numerous, but less distinct glyphs and more widely spaced images than Little Indian Rock. Many of the glyphs on Big Indian Rock are nearly impossible to see without ideal lighting. This site is unique, not only for the motifs which adorn it, but also for its prominence in the river. It is the tallest and largest of the rocky outcrops in this section of the Susquehanna. From atop Big Indian Rock, individuals experience a breathtaking vista that stretches for miles.

The modification of these petroglyph sites extends beyond their most prominent petroglyph panels. Understandably, maps have failed to capture the full scope of the ways in which humans have modified these sites. The preservation of these sites has largely been attributed to their remote location in the three-quarters of a mile-wide Susquehanna River. As with any significant historic or prehistoric site, vandalism is always a concern. When visiting petroglyph sites care should be taken to avoid impact. With proper respect and conservation, these awe-inspiring sites will exist long into the future.

-          Do not touch the petroglyphs, even small amounts of oils from your hands can darken and destroy the carved images

-          Photograph and sketch the images but avoid taking rubbings which can hasten the deterioration of the petroglyphs. The best time of day for viewing petroglyphs is early morning or evening, when the Sun is low on the horizon.

-          Do not introduce any foreign substance to the rock surface such as paint or chalk, these actions can damage the image.

-          Do not repeck, recarve or deface the images in any way, these actions destroy the original image. Many rock art sites have been destroyed by the addition of historic graffiti.

Thank you for visiting our blog, we encourage everyone to learn about the archaeological resources in your community. We ask you to join us in ensuring that our archaeological heritage is preserved by supporting public programs and preservation laws so that we can protect the past for future generations. 

Additional Resources:

Cadzow, Donald A. Petroglyphs Rock Carvings in the Susquehanna River Near Safe Harbor. Pennsylvania... Vol. 3. No. 1. Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1934.

Carr, Kurt W. and Nevin, Paul A., Advanced Technology Rubs Ancient Past. Pennsylvania Heritage, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Fall 2008 (

Diaz-Granados, Carol, and James R. Duncan, eds. The rock-art of eastern North America: Capturing Images and Insight. Vol. 45879. University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Lenik, Edward J. Making pictures in stone: American Indian rock art of the Northeast. University of Alabama Press, 2009.

Vastokas, Joan M., and Romas K. Vastokas. Sacred art of the Algonkians: A study of the Peterborough Petroglyphs. Mansard Press, 1973.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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