Moving signs of ancient times

Prehistoric carvings stored at Druid Hill Park are being removed for study and eventual display

June 02, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

With a tennis match under way nearby, state archaeologists used chisels and crowbars yesterday to dislodge Native American carvings at Baltimore's Druid Hill Park, where they had been all but forgotten for decades.

More than two dozen of the mysterious prehistoric stone carvings - which could be thousands of years old - are being removed to be studied at a Calvert County laboratory and eventually put on display.

Transported to Baltimore from the Susquehanna Valley in the 1920s, the carvings were rediscovered recently by officials at the Maryland Historical Trust. In October, the city's Board of Estimates agreed to relinquish any ownership it might have in the stones because they were on park land.

The carvings, called the Bald Friar Petroglyphs, are older than those of the Aztecs and include concentric circles, fishlike designs and shapes that appear to depict the sun and humans.

Archaeologists - who are not certain of the age, meaning or origin of the carvings - described the rocks as a rare link to the past.

"They are an attempt by prehistoric folks who lived in Maryland to communicate with each other, and they're still communicating to us today," said Charles L. Hall, Maryland's terrestrial archaeologist, who helped spearhead the effort to recover the carvings. "These are expressions of an inner life, a symbolic life."

The petroglyphs came to Baltimore in 1926 after preservationists removed them from the lower Susquehanna Valley to avoid their being inundated by Conowingo Dam. The stones were found in the Bald Friar area of Pennsylvania, which Hall suggested might have been so named because of the bare rocks.

Many of the carvings were collected by the Maryland Academy of Sciences, then on North Charles Street. When the academy moved in the 1940s, the rocks, too large to fit into the academy's new space, were placed on concrete platforms in eastern Druid Hill Park in what is now a small, overgrown space.

When The Sun reported the rediscovery of the rocks last fall, Hall and others initially were concerned that they might be vandalized or stolen. Since then, archaeologists have removed about 26 of the carvings, and only a handful of large rocks remain. All will be gone in a matter of days.

State officials were able to work quickly, in part because the board of directors of the Maryland Academy of Sciences, now the Maryland Science Center, agreed to the move even though it has not approved transferring its own ownership interests. A spokesman, Chris S. Cropper, said the board is reviewing that transfer.

"The Maryland Science Center has not been a collecting entity for decades," said Cropper, who watched the removal of the stones yesterday with several other officials from the organization. "We just want to be thorough and to do due diligence."

Because the rocks were too large to carry, they were blasted into smaller pieces with dynamite in the 1920s. Some were reassembled like puzzles into concrete that was specially ordered from France. Preservationists at the time felt that the concrete looked similar to the rocks.

Yesterday, archaeologists first chiseled the rocks free from those concrete foundations, then pounded wooden wedges under the approximately 300-pound rocks to lift them up slightly, as ants and spiders scurried for cover. Officials passed ropes under the carvings and used an electric lift to transfer them onto a flatbed truck.

Research began immediately after the rocks were lifted. Rachel Burks, a professor of geology at Towson University, wants to determine the origin of the rocks, which might lead to more carvings or other clues about the petroglyphs' meaning.

"It's a fascinating part of history that there's just no record of," said Burks, who used a jeweler's loupe to study the sides of the rocks that had been buried in concrete. "We're really just trying to figure out where they came from."

The carvings will be studied out of the weather, and archaeologists have said they will eventually be on public view at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Calvert County and other locations.

Whatever their meaning - whether designating a fishing spot or offering a warning - the carvings were meant to be seen by people, Hall said.

"This was so much work," he said. "This meant something to these people."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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