Travel

Images in stone

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It was mid-April, and the Connecticut River as it passes by Bellows Falls, Vt., was raging with snowmelt, flooding its banks in places.

I had come to see petroglyphs, rock carvings made by Native Americans centuries ago. Would I even be able to see them?

These petroglyphs were carved into rock within the spectacular gorge that gives this little city its identity -- carved into rock near the water's edge.

Over to the old Vilas Bridge I went -- it is but a block from downtown -- and walked along the dirt road just south of the bridge. I looked upriver and down. No petroglyphs. But as I walked back up toward the bridge and looked down again, I noticed two yellow dashes painted on rocks.

They were there for a reason, to indicate where the petroglyphs were carved. There they were, below the markers, the wild water of the river lapping over some of them, but visible.

So far so good. I was one for one. It was my first stop in a two-day search for New England petroglyphs, the closest thing to the written word that Native Americans of long ago left behind.

With its rich cultural past, New England has long been a destination for those who like to combine travel and history.

The Boston Freedom Trail links together 16 historic sites and attracts 3 million visitors a year. People drive the winding old roads of rural New England just to see 18th-century farmhouses. Historical sites like the Mark Twain House in Hartford draw busloads of visitors.

But New England has another history that goes back much further than European settlement.

The Native Americans who peopled the region before 1600 may have left no literature, but they left a record, a tangible history.

They left arrowheads, tools and other artifacts that archaeologists and others still unearth today, giving hints of civilization before the arrival of Europeans.

They also left the carvings they made in rock, some of them enigmatic, some of them more easily understood even today.

It is rock art, and there is more of it than you might expect.

Some of it has weathered the centuries well, a voice for the ages, a voice that certainly seems more permanent than today's e-mail, never mind a text message.

So I worked my way down the riverbank to get a better look at the petroglyphs. They were carved in two clusters, one with 30 visible images, the other with 11. Recent research indicates some of the carvings were made in the centuries after the arrival of colonial settlers -- but some were pecked into the rock many centuries ago, using pointed stones.

Each cluster is dominated by simple images of faces, typically an outline of a head, two eyes, a mouth. Some have horns. What do they mean?

Edward J. Lenik, an archaeologist who specializes in cultural resource investigations for clients, has been researching petroglyphs since 1976 and is the author of "Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands" (University Press of New England; 2002). He says a petroglyph is a window into a long-ago culture.

"The charm is, it reflects the Indians' thought process, their culture in terms of their stories and myths and belief systems, which you don't really get from artifacts," Lenik said. "Here you look at the artwork and try to imagine what it means. Is the Indian trying to make contact with the spirit world? Or is it something else? That is the fascination."

A spiritual place?

One hypothesis holds that the Bellows Falls faces indicate the site was a meeting place of many people. That does not seem far-fetched because the falls would have been a great place to fish for migrating species such as salmon and shad.

Lenik has another hypothesis. The falls, constantly changing but eternal, likely were viewed as a sacred place by the Indians, he said.

"I postulate that the heads carved into the ledges at the Great Falls represent an attempt by the Indians to make contact with and gain access to the spiritual power and energy at the site, perhaps with the manitou or the Great Spirit," Lenik wrote in his book.

For the neophyte petroglyph hunter, Lenik's book is indispensable, the closest thing there is to a field guide to Indian rock art from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick south through New Jersey.

Later that day in Franklin, N.H., I pulled off Route 3 at Dearborn Street, where there is a tiny park known as the Indian Mortar Lot, named for a large mortar there that apparently was used by the Abnaki Indians to grind corn. A few feet away is a lichen-encrusted boulder upon which the image of a fish was carved -- nothing vague about that.

It is thought to be a shad, a migratory fish that comes up the Connecticut River each year to spawn. The boulder, about a yard wide, a yard deep and 2 feet high, originally was found beside Meadow Brook, a tributary of the Winnipesaukee River that flows Franklin on its way to the Connecticut. It would have been visible to people approaching the fishing spot on the brook, Lenik notes.

So perhaps it can be considered an early signboard, something that told visitors to "fish here." If it is a sign, it makes for quite a cultural contrast with the latter-day signs on busy Route 3, including a Radio Shack store across the street. Or maybe this petroglyph was just a piece of art celebrating a fish that the Indians relied upon for food in spring.

On to Dighton

Dighton Rock in Berkley, Mass., is not so straightforward. Here, along the tidal Taunton River, a rock that once stuck up out of the river at low tide has been moved ashore and displayed in a building within what is now Dighton Rock State Park. There are competing theories on who carved the intricate symbols on one side, ranging from Native Americans, to Phoenicians, to the Norse, to 16th-century Portuguese travelers.

Lenik describes the table-shaped rock, 11 feet long, 5 feet high and 9 1/2 feet wide and a dusty red color, as "a natural billboard." Having communicated with latter-day Wampanoag Indians about the rock, Lenik believes the carvings were made primarily by Indians. The museum presents the different theories and the evidence supporting them but leaves it up to visitors to decide for themselves which culture is responsible for the carvings.

The park was quiet the morning I visited, with bright sun. I brought a coffee and sat at a picnic table reading about the rock. It is a good spot for a picnic. And that, I thought, was part of the charm of my trip -- it had taken me places I might not otherwise have visited, filled in some little holes in my understanding of all things New England. Dighton Rock State Park. Who knew?

Many petroglyphs have been altered over the years, some of them scarred by graffiti, including those at Bellows Falls. Those carvings have been highlighted by paint to make them more visible -- though that is frowned upon by archaeologists.

Other petroglyphs are simply hard to find. I looked in vain along the shore in Warwick, R.I., for the Mark Rock petroglyphs, which Lenik visited and photographed in 1978. Mark Rock, actually a series of sandstone ledges 74 feet in length, surely is still there, but to reach it apparently required more patience than I had trying to navigate around a densely populated beach community that provided very limited public access to the water. Too bad, because many of the Mark Rock carvings predate European settlement, Lenik believes.

My loop brought me back to Connecticut, where an unusual petroglyph was discovered in 1995 in Storrs, on Gurleyville Road near the University of Connecticut. In front of an old colonial home is a rock about 22 inches by 13 inches by 12 inches with a detailed carving that includes the name "Stephen" and depictions of turtles, birds and daggers.

Lenik believes the stone was the grave marker of an Indian, and probably was carved by an Indian in the mid- or late-19th century. If so, it is an interesting twist in the rock art milieu because Lenik detects in this carving the influence of the patterns often found on colonial gravestones seen in old Connecticut graveyards.

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