CONESTOGA, Pa. (WHTM) — In the middle of the ancient Susquehanna River below the Safe Harbor Dam is another historical gem: petroglyphs. Depicting animal tracks, mythical creatures, serpents, human footprints, and more, the stone carvings have fascinated people for decades.

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Historians believe the petroglyphs were carved into rocks in the river by the Shenks Ferry people, who lived in Lancaster County before the Susquehannocks. Paul Nevin, director of the Zimmerman Center for Heritage and an expert on the Susquehanna petroglyphs, said they were likely created between 800 and 1,000 years ago.

Petroglyphs are rare in this region of the United States, Nevin said, which makes the amount of rock art found on the lower Susquehanna especially noteworthy. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission website states that “the lower Susquehanna River has the highest concentration of petroglyphs in the Northeast.”

While most Native artifacts can be visited in museums, “this is a place where the things that the Native people created are still at the place where they were created,” Nevin said.

This carving depicts a thunderbird, which is a mythical creature that is said to be responsible for thunderstorms. According to the myth, it lives in the water, and when it flies into the sky, the flap of its wings is the thunder, and the water falling from its feathers is the rain.

These petroglyphs include carvings of serpents several feet long that align with the sun on the equinox and solstices, which are some of Nevin’s favorite stone creations.

“It immediately puts to rest the argument, like, ‘Is this just Native American graffiti? There’s no Xbox, there’s no internet, what does a teenager do back then?'” Uncharted Lancaster founder Adam Zurn said. “This is very planned, very purposeful.”

“When you talk to Native people, they would say that you don’t want to desecrate your Mother Earth, you’re not going to carve graffiti on Mother Earth, so you go there with intention,” Nevin said.

The carvings were created using a technique called “indirect percussion,” Nevin explained. He said to think of it like a “stone hammer and stone chisel.” The work was time-consuming — making a quarter-inch-deep dot about the diameter of a quarter would have taken around 20 minutes — and it was considered sacred, Nevin said.

This snake petroglyph on Little Indian Rock aligns with the path of the sun at the winter solstice sunrise and summer solstice sunset.

Big Indian Rock and Little Indian Rock are two of the places where petroglyphs can be found on the Susquehanna today. They’ve attracted river goers for centuries, with non-Native visitors adding some more recent “Euro-style” carvings in the 1800s and 1900s, but the petroglyphs didn’t gain much public attention until a few decades ago, Nevin said.

“Archaeologists used to feel that if these places were hidden from the public, they would be protected,” Nevin said, but that perspective has changed.

“Archaeologists now feel that when people are aware that places like this are sacred places to Native people, they’re special places for all of us, they’re part of the history of the river so they’re part of all of our history — actually having more people coming to the site helps to protect it,” Nevin explained. He said that in the last 30-35 years, no new acts of vandalism have been committed at the sites.

Something about these places has attracted people for hundreds of years. Standing on Big Indian Rock in the middle of the river, Zurn likes to look west toward the hills on the York County shore and imagine he’s seeing a similar view to what the Shenks Ferry people would have seen from that spot.

“It’s tree-covered, we can’t see any houses or power lines when we look that way, and I think that the view probably hasn’t changed in 500-1,000 years,” Zurn said, “and I like to think maybe 500 years from now in the future, people might be standing there again and seeing the same thing, and we’re kind of connected together in that moment.”

How to see the Susquehanna petroglyphs

Some of the petroglyphs that were found in the lower Susquehanna River have been removed and preserved in museums on dry land, but to see the carvings on the river, visitors need a small boat like a kayak or canoe.

Zurn’s route starts at the Safe Harbor Park canoe launch. Boaters enter the Conestoga River from that launch and start paddling downstream toward the Susquehanna River. Upon reaching the river, boaters then turn south away from the Safe Harbor Dam and continue downstream.

First they’ll come across Little Indian Rock. It’s a bit difficult to locate, as it looks very similar to the other rocks on the river, but it can be identified by a small tree and shrubbery growing on it. Those with keen eyesight might be able to see some petroglyphs on the northern side of the rock once they get close to the site.

Little Indian Rock (north side)
Little Indian Rock (south side)

Zurn said it’s easiest to dock one’s boat on the southern side of the rock. There are remnants of a duck blind there that could also help in recognizing the location. Tied to the tree on the top of the rock is a visitor log, which all are welcome to sign.

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There are more petroglyphs on Little Indian Rock than Big Indian Rock, so it’s worth a stop for the intrepid visitors who are able to locate it.

There are visitor logs at both Little Indian Rock and Big Indian Rock.

Continuing south on the Susquehanna, boaters will come across Big Indian Rock next. It’s large and round, and as of early August, it had a dead log laying across it which made it easy to spot. There is a flat area on the north side of the rock where it’s easy to get out of a boat.

Big Indian Rock (north side)

After exploring the rocks, boaters have two options: continue downstream and get out at the Pequea Boat Launch, or go back upstream and get out the way they came in. For inexperienced boaters or when the river is flowing quickly, continuing downstream is easiest. When the river is flowing slowly, it’s fastest for boaters to leave the way they came.

Those planning to continue down the river should prepare for a two-car operation, leaving one car at the Pequea Boat Launch before driving up to Safe Harbor Park to get in the water.

Respecting the history

Anyone visiting the Susquehanna petroglyphs should take care to respect and preserve these important places. They are sacred to Native people, Nevin noted, and they are an important historical relic.

Individuals should remove their shoes before walking on the rocks to minimize erosion.

They should not mark the rocks in any way; for example, they shouldn’t use chalk or paint to mark the petroglyphs. (There is a safe technique for making the petroglyphs stand out clearly. More on that later.)

And, needless to say, no one should carve anything else into the rocks.

Safety and timing

The best time to see the petroglyphs is when both the water and the sun are low.

During high-water events, the petroglyphs might be submerged underwater, and boating conditions can be unsafe. Nevin said that individuals should not go out on the river if the water flow, which can be found on this website, is more than 30,000 cubic feet per second.

Nevin also recommended that visitors have some experience kayaking, canoeing, or operating a small motorboat before heading out to see the petroglyphs, as some parts of the trip can be challenging for beginners.

Early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky are the best times to see the petroglyphs because the shadows help demarcate the indentations in the rock.

Shanks Mare Outfitters offers tours to the petroglyphs for those who would prefer to go with a guide.

The “magic sponge technique”

Although marking the rocks in any way can be detrimental to the petroglyphs, Nevin recommended a safe way to accentuate the rock carvings. He calls it the “magic sponge technique.”

Visitors can gently wipe a slightly damp sponge across the rock. It will turn the rock around the carvings a darker color, making the carvings themselves stand out.

Wiping a damp sponge across the rock makes the petroglyphs stand out.

At other rock art sites, this might be destructive, but Nevin said that the rocks on which these petroglyphs are carved are especially hard.

“This is one site that wiping over the carving with a wet sponge, doing it lightly, will not harm the petroglyphs,” Nevin said.