Archeologists distinguish between two types of prehistoric rock art, petroglyphs, images pecked or carved on rock, and pictographs, images painted on rock. West Virginia has 27 recorded Indian petroglyphs and two pictographs. Common motifs include human figures, animals, animal tracks, and geometric designs. Notable sites include Salt Rock, Cabell County; Browns Island, Hancock County; Hamilton Farm, Monongalia County; Table Rock, Timmons Farm, and Clifton Heights, Ohio County; and Ceredo and Wildcat Branch, Wayne County. The Harrison County Site is a rockshelter with a unique combination of petroglyphs and pictographs.
In 1964, Oscar Mairs and Hillis Youse recorded the Luther Elkins Site in Wyoming County. This simple Indian glyph with clusters, vertical linear and curvilinear designs, a sunburst pattern, a swastika-like pattern, and turkey tracks, became the state’s most controversial petroglyph. Barry Fell, a Harvard biologist, interpreted the clusters of lines as a Christian message written by Irish monks in the sixth century Ogam language. Heated debates between archeologists and Fell supporters ensued, with Fell’s interpretations discredited in the view of most professionals.
Most petroglyphs are assumed to date to the Late Prehistoric or Protohistoric Periods (A.D. 1200–1690). The only datable image is a six-foot shaman with weeping eye mask at Salt Rock, dated at approximately A.D. 1600. The mask motif is similar to shell masks found on protohistoric village sites. Professional archeologists believe several Ohio Valley petroglyphs were carved by Algonquians and some motifs represent the ideology and mythology of certain elements of the Ojibwa and other Algonquian tribes. The underwater panther, thunderers, serpents, tracks, and power lines are design elements common to Ojibwa mnemonic birch bark scrolls as well as West Virginia petroglyphs.
This Article was written by Robert F. Maslowski
Last Revised on October 22, 2010
Braley, Dean. Shaman's Story: The West Virginia Petroglyphs. St. Albans: St. Albans Pub., 1993.
Brashler, Janet G. An Application of the Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses to Two West Virginia Petroglyph Sites. West Virginia Archeologist, (Spring 1989).
Richardson, James B. III & James L. Swauger. The Petroglyphs Speak: Rock Art and Iroquois Origins. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology, (1996).
Cite This Article
Maslowski, Robert F. "Petroglyphs." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 22 October 2010. Web. 26 May 2015.