Hidden carvings to see spotlight

City board is expected to transfer ownership of petroglyphs in Druid Hill Park to Maryland Historical Trust for study, display


Prehistoric stone carvings described by scientists as a window into an ancient people who once roamed Maryland have been piled in a quiet corner of Baltimore's Druid Hill Park for more than 60 years - all but forgotten, despite their significance.

Transported to Baltimore from the Susquehanna Valley in the 1920s, the Native American carvings, which may date to 2000 B.C., were placed in one of the city's largest parks - out of sight - in the 1940s and have remained virtually ignored ever since.

But now, ownership of the artifacts, known as the Bald Friar Petroglyphs, will be transferred from the Baltimore parks department to the Maryland Historical Trust, which hopes to move them to a museum for further study. The agreement is expected to be approved by the city's Board of Estimates today.

The stone carvings, older than those of the Aztecs, include concentric circles and fish-like designs that are so old archaeologists are unsure of their meaning or their makers. Most were found on rock islands in the Susquehanna River that were blasted apart in the 1920s so the carvings could be moved.

"They're very evocative. They reach out in a way that stone tools and broken pots can't about the humanness of these prehistoric inhabitants," said Charles L. Hall, Maryland's terrestrial archaeologist. "It's that artistic expression that really strikes a chord."

The story of their arrival in Baltimore begins in 1926 with the building of the Conowingo Dam, which flooded the lower Susquehanna Valley, where the carvings were located. Preservationists, unable to save the large rocks intact, used dynamite to blast them into smaller pieces that could be carried away.

Many carvings, or petroglyphs, were destroyed in the process, but some wound up with the Maryland Academy of Sciences, then on North Charles Street. The organization's office moved in the 1940s and the rocks were too large to fit into the new space. They were placed at Druid Hill Park until a better location could be found.

That better spot was never identified.

"They had been here for such a long time there really wasn't anyone around who knew they were still here," said Fran Spero, director of park conservation and community outreach for the city. She said she was alerted to the carvings by a phone call from a curious park visitor about two years ago.

"I guess it's by default that they've been here for so long," she said.

Spero said the department reached out to archaeologists and eventually connected with Hall. The carvings, which scientists fear could be damaged if discovered, will be moved to the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Calvert County if the city approves their transfer today.

There, the carvings will be preserved, kept secure and made available to other institutions on loan, said Julia King, director of the Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory, which is on the museum site. King said scientists will also work to ensure the public has access to the artifacts.

"We will get everything under one roof, out of the weather," she said.

Chris S. Cropper, a spokesman for the Maryland Academy of Sciences, said today's vote is the first step in deciding what to do with the carvings. If the Board of Estimates approves the measure, it will ensure no one else can lay claim to them.

The academy, an independent science group founded in 1797, never forgot about the carvings, he said, and deliberately kept them in the park where they could sit undisturbed.

"The thinking was that that was the best place for them to remain," he said. "They were safe and in a good place and they've been there for all this time out of harm's way."

Wayne Clark, an archaeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust, said he believes some etchings were used as educational guides by tribal leaders during coming-of-age ceremonies.

Others appear to be fish, which Clark said are probably symbolic of creation myths in which fish acted as communicators between the underworld and societies of the time. The carvings cannot be dated more exactly, scientists said, because they do not contain carbon.

Clark said he believes they were crafted between 1000 B.C. and 2000 B.C. because Native Americans were harvesting fish at falls along the river at that time.

Hall said he is less certain of the meaning of the carvings. They could have been used to mark territory, he said. One carving appears to represent a serpent, which often signified danger.

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, saw the carvings as he explored the area during the 17th century and asked Native Americans when they were made, Hall said. Tribal leaders responded that they had been carved by their grandfathers' grandfathers. Hall believes the carvings were probably crafted long before more modern tribes migrated to the area.

"It's not like the stick figures of humans or animals. They're not easily made into images that we can relate to," Hall said. "We know they're old, but we don't know exactly how old."

Archaeologists have been studying the carvings since the late 19th century, Hall said. Moving them to a museum will ensure their preservation.

"They speak volumes about these people and how they related to their environment," Hall said. "They are a very unique resource."


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