Rock Art Research & Art History Home 1999 North America Journal

Virginia, West Virginia & Ohio

29 June 2002


15 May

Westham Petroglyphs

Before leaving for my North American research I was finally given permission by the property owner to visit the Westham Petroglyphs here in Richmond, Virginia. The timing was quite appropriate as I was about to spend ten weeks seeing rock art in two different continents, and I had yet to visit this site "in my own back yard." The owner was very courteous and acknowledged receiving my many phone calls and letters—none of which had previously garnered a reply.

The site is near the west bank of the James River, near the upper limits of the falls. The petroglyphs occur on several boulders of a large granite outcrop. The majority of motifs resemble hatchets or clubs. On one boulder the petroglyphs are more abstracted, with a fish-like motif, a geometric design and a possible anthropomorph or zoomorph with what look like rabbit ears.

These latter motifs will take more work to analyze as they are almost completely obscured by thick moss. With permission of the property owner (the area is well landscaped) and with recommendations from conservators I will investigate cleaning the petroglyphs in order to properly record the site. Since this first visit was simply to locate the petroglyphs no attempt was made to make accurate scaled drawings or measurements. This work will probably occur in the early winter when the thick mat of poison ivy has died.

Link to photos ~ Westham Petroglyphs

18 May

I arrived in Hurricane, West Virginia, in time to meet Mike Anslinger of Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc. and ride with him to Huntington. My contact, Bob Maslowski, arranged for me to give a slide lecture at the monthly meeting of the West Virginia Archeological Society, Huntington Chapter. My talk was titled "A Comparison of Southwestern and Brazilian Pictograph Styles" and was a brief summary of my Master's thesis research. The audience was small but very enthusiastic. Afterward, there was a long question and answer session, or rather "question and hypothesis" session.

Bob graciously provided accommodations for me in a bed and breakfast he and his wife operate. It was rather luxurious by my standards, but who was I to complain. We discussed rock art and interpretation until the bottle of his award-winning wine was empty.

19 May

Wildcat Branch Petroglyphs (Wayne Co. - 46WA41)

Bob took me to a few West Virginia petroglyph sites, this being the first. The petroglyphs are on a flat rock about 8 feet in diameter, within 100 feet of a creek that flows into the Big Sandy River, half a mile away. The rock is almost flush with the current ground level in the back yard of a private residence. There are a few words that have been written on the rock with colored chalk, but otherwise it is in good shape.

There appear to be four bird-like figures and another zoomorph that looks to me like a beaver. Most are hard to make out at first glance. The petroglyphs would probably show up more clearly on an overcast day.

Link to photos ~ Wildcat Branch

Salt Rock (Cabell Co. - 46CB5)

These petroglyphs are on two large boulders about 100 yards from the northeast bank of the Guyandotte River. Probably the earliest record of the site is from Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley by Ephraim G. Squier and Edwin H. Davis. This text was the first publication from the Smithsonian Institute in 1848, and has recently been re-issued with a new introduction by David J. Meltzer (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998).

The petroglyphs feature two very interesting figures: a life-size anthropomorph on the top of one rock (very naturalistic outline with stylized internal elaboration) and a long zoomorph on the side of the other rock. The face of the anthropomorph features a motif found in Late Mississippian shell gorgets—a "weeping eye" motif. Bob told me that this, combined with the proximity to a Fort Ancient Culture occupation site to the west (c. AD 1550), probably indicates a date of AD 1550-1650 for the rock art. I need to read more about these cultures, but for now I'll take his word for it. He knows what he is talking about.
Link to photos ~ Salt Rock
"Prom Queen" Petroglyph

This is a very humorous petroglyph. It represents fairly clearly a woman in a dress with her hands on her hips. While the "head" of the figure actually looks like it is original Native American, the rest of the figure appears to have been carved with a coal chisel. The petroglyph was originally recorded by an amateur archaeologist on a private farm. The story has it that several years ago a major automobile dealership was being constructed in the area and found the rock with the petroglyph. The dealership decided to display the rock in their showroom for P.R. purposes—"sensitivity" to West Virginia's prehistoric cultures. After spending time and money to remove the rock, a local man saw it and admitted that he and some friends had carved it several decades ago. The dealership quickly abandoned its plans and now the rock lies in the parking lot of the local Fire Department.

Link to photos ~ Prom Queen

Serpent Mound

I departed Milton, WV, and arrived in Adams County, Ohio, by 4 PM. I walked around Serpent Mound and climbed the observation tower trying to get a good shot of the earthwork. My best shots were still insufficient to relay the scope of the site. This site needs to be experienced in the round. Even photos from the air cannot do it justice. I couldn't help but wonder what the landscape looked like at the time of the monument's construction. It sits high on a ridge between two valleys. Today the trees obscure what was probably a very significant landscape.

Link to photos ~ Serpent Mound

Leo Petroglyphs

Since I was making good time I decided to attempt to find the Leo petroglyphs before dark. I only took a couple of wrong turns in this rural part of Ohio, but I made it to the site at 6 PM. Low light and difficulty negotiating the protective guardrails prevented me from getting "outstanding" photos, but at least I saw the rock art.

I was most intrigued by a motif that is frequently presented as a horned face or mask. I can see the resemblance, but I have some doubts about this interpretation. I made a sketch from a different angle than most drawing show the motif (regarding which way is "up"). What are usually shown as the "eyebrows" were not as clear in my view as the popular representations of the figure. Since the rock is almost horizontal, it is impossible to speculate a proper viewing angle for the motif.

I spent the night in the College Hill Motel in Rio Grande. My Ohio contact, Jim Murphy, and I finally spoke by phone and lined up the next day's adventure.

Link to photos ~ Leo Petroglyph

20 May

Tycoon Lake Petroglyph

Jim met me at the McDonalds's in Rio Grande and we headed off to the Tycoon Lake area. We hiked a short distance to a rockshelter that had quite a bit of graffiti on the south end. We scrambled around to the west end to look for a handprint that Jim had found many years ago. Luckily, we found it. It is very shallow—the outline is no more than 1/16 of an inch deep. It required being at exactly the proper angle to even see it.

Due to the amount of recent vandalism at the site, Jim had been wondering if the handprint was historic (non-Native American) as well. I was rather flattered when he asked my opinion. Despite my absolute lack of experience in this region I offered an opinion nonetheless. My initial guess was that it is Native American, perhaps pre-historic. I noticed the small motif below the hand that Jim considered a possible "eye" motif (consistent with the "hand-eye" iconography common in Mississippian high-status mortuary rituals). Without a better knowledge of this iconographic tradition, however, I can only guess about this interpretation.

My conclusion was based on the location and difficulty of seeing the petroglyph. The south end of the rockshelter is covered with images. It is the likely spot for anyone simply wanting to broadcast a message (even a juvenile message). This petroglyph is around the outcrop where access is much more difficult. It is on a flat horizontal surface, barely visible from close proximity much less from anywhere else near the site. The lines are very evenly engraved and clearly in the form of a left hand (three fingers and a thumb). The "eye" is more difficult to make out, but it does not appear to be a natural feature of the rock. To me, this petroglyph looks much too subtle to be the act of historic visitors intent on marking a location.

Link to photos ~ Tycoon Lake

Horseshoe Cave

After poking around the small community where the site is located, we got a name and an address from a local resident, and were eventually guided to the site. The "cave" (a deep rockshelter) is at the head of a watered canyon, well hidden by the foliage. In addition to some graffiti (1879 and 1898) there were two groups of black charcoal drawings. This is another problematic site in need of authentication.

A local informant confirmed that they were here since at least the mid-1960s. They look nothing like what I would expect from the area, but I was told later to consult the literature on Mud Glyph Cave in Tennessee for similar figures. The drawings were difficult to reach comfortably from the current floor level. There were pieces of charcoal scattered about the floor as well—these could have been used to make the drawings if they are historic. If they are Native American in origin then there certainly should be other examples of this style and medium in the region.

I made it to Columbus in time to clean up and head downtown to the Riffe Center where the Contemporary American Theatre Company (CATCO) was staging "Dealer's Choice" by Patrick Marber. This was quite an environmental change for me after two days of trekking through woods and streams. It was also a pleasant surprise when the box-office recognized me and handed me a complementary ticket to the production. Well, not a complete surprise. My former neighbor and great friend, Bruce Hermann, was in the show and also my overnight host. This evening had been arranged by email, but I had no idea it would go this smooth or that the show would be so engaging. It was the perfect end to a long day.

Link to photos ~ Horseshoe Cave

21 May

Today was just a nine hour drive to Ripon, Wisconsin. I found Ripon College with no trouble and checked into my dorm room. It was unusually hot for the area this evening, and I had to buy a fan for the room. This was the last thing I expected this far north.

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Department of Art History,
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, USA.
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