Until Paul Nevin produces a soft bristle brush and bucket of Susquehanna River water from his johnboat, the tip of a rounded boulder in the tailrace of the Safe Harbor Dam looks like any other rock.
But then the York County resident washes away the patina of caked mud. Shadows from the setting sun reveal sacred carvings from a people long gone.
A thunderbird, a powerful spirit for Native Americans that gives thanks to the creator for rain, appears in the gloaming, its body bisected by a serpentlike creature.
It is one of about 300 carvings on seven mica schist rocks amid a jumble of other rocks out here in the middle of the river. It is believed they were carved by Shenks Ferry Native Americans, using simple stone tools over a period from 500 to 1,000 years ago.
Because of a drawdown to repair the top of the Holtwood Dam downriver, the water level is down more than 3 feet this day, giving Nevin a chance to see carvings normally buried underwater.
This carving Nevin knew about, but he hasn’t seen it in about five years. He runs his fingers gently inside its narrow outline, greeting it like an old friend.
“For Native Americans, this is a sacred place,” he says. “And you feel it when you are out here.
Originally seen as insignificant graffiti when first recorded in the 1860s by the Linnaean Society of Lancaster, the petroglyphs on 25 miles of the Lower Susquehanna are celebrated by archaeologists today as the finest example of Native American carvings in the Northeastern United States.
All are on the National Register of Historic Places.
And to the 62-year-old Nevin, who has discovered some 150 new carvings since the 1980s, it is apparent they are far more than doodlings.
There are four carvings that correspond exactly to the position of the sun for the spring and fall equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. There are representations of the Seven Sisters constellation.
And the carvings include lots of serpentlike creatures, concentric circles, human footprints and faces, as well as elk, martens and other animals that once populated the area.
“These symbols meant a lot to these people,” says Nevin, who has been searching for, documenting and protecting the Safe Harbor petroglyphs for 35 years.
“They were meant to either transmit knowledge, stories, to give information about where the people lived or who they were. Maybe places where medicine men would come to receive visions to help their community.”
Clearly, this spot was a sacred site. Of 27,000 square miles drained by the Susquehanna, petroglyphs have only been found at about 10 sites, all on rocks in the river between Turkey Hill and just below the Maryland line.
Forgotten by time
From 1930-32, before the Safe Harbor Dam was built over the top of many petroglyphs and drowned others, the state made a major effort to document the rock art.
Some 188 plaster casts were made, and 68 sections of rock containing petroglyphs were cut from the bedrock.
Some may be seen at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. A few are on display at the Conestoga Area Historical Society and the Blue Rock Heritage Center in Washington Boro.
The designs of seven of the Safe Harbor petroglyphs are inlaid in the tile in the entrance lobby of the state Capitol.
After the state’s two-year expedition ended and the Safe Harbor Dam opened, many people assumed the remaining petroglyphs were underwater, and they were more or less forgotten.
In one desecration, concrete footings for two duck blinds were poured over the carvings in the 1950s.
More modern graffiti has been added through the years, including the initials of a World War I soldier from Albany, New York, who visited on a summer day in 1917, and a carving of a dove with an olive branch believed added in the 1880s on Big Indian Rock.