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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
American Antiquity
Vol. 3 No. 2 (Oct. 1937), pp179‑182

The text is in the public domain.

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 p179  [Correspondence]

Rock Carvings in Southern Illinois

There are a great many different forms of remains left by the prehistoric inhabitants in southern Illinois. These include village sites, rock shelter, mounds, burial grounds, camp sites, flint quarries, and other interesting features. Among the most interesting of these are the rock carvings. These have been mentioned in an article written by Mr. Moyer, of Mounds City. In his article he devotes some time to the possibility of carvings of human tracks being natural. Aside from his article, the reports of rock carvings are very limited. The Piasa Bird near Alton and the Buffalo near Simpson have received some mention also.

In this article it is proposed to deal with some of the more wide-spread types of design encountered in the rock carvings. The conventionalized forms start with common human tracks, and include various other designs such as the turkey tracks, concentric circles, encircled crosses, and other less common forms.

Petroglyphs occur throughout southern Illinois and along the streams which border this area. The carved human footprints occur abundantly here, through Indiana and Ohio, and along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. They are also found up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Some of the comments on these carvings of human tracks are quite interesting. In one vicinity the most widely accepted report, prevailing for nearly a century, is that they are angel footprints that have been pressed into the sandstone. Another, that they are actual tracks, has been mentioned.

In general these carvings occur on flat sandstone outcroppings but may also occur on the walls of rock shelters. The designs appear to have been pecked and ground into the sandstone to produce a most realistic effect, indicating that the foot or hand was actually used as a model. In a few cases it appears that they were also painted.

One of the most interesting groups of carvings is to be found on the farm of W. Sherman Evans, SE¼, Sec. 35, R 3 E, T 13 S, several miles east of Vienna. Here a flat rock occurs near the top of a point over­looking a bend in a small stream. Surrounding this point are bluffs more or less steep and descending some fifty to one hundred feet. The rock on which the carvings occur is about  p180 twenty by thirty feet in dimensions, but its sides have been covered by soil so that some of the carvings are not to be seen at the present time. Here nearly forty different carvings of human footprints occur. Many of these are in pairs so placed as to represent individuals standing still. The local inhabitants interpret these tracks (Figure 12) as indicative of a wedding ceremony, because of the positions of the important tracks. In addition to these, there are several "turkey" tracks, two circles each enclosing a cross, one eye‑like carving, and, at one edge, a carved depression like a cultivator seat, as if some large person had sat there. Another carving, somewhat indistinct, gives one the impression of a man carrying a spear and dancing.

[image ALT: A sample of ancient petroglyphs near Vienna, Illinois, described in the text.]

Fig. 12.

Another so‑called "track rock" is on the shore of the stream on the Russell farm, about 6 miles west and north of Vergennes. Here a flat piece of sandstone which forms part of the bed of the stream has been carved to represent foot prints of various sizes, from that of a child six years old to that of a large adult. All but one of these are of the right foot. Another peculiar feature is that the largest track, and one resembling in size that of a child eight years old, have the big toe turned at a right-angle to the rest of the foot. Here, too, is a carving of the imprints as they would be left by the hand and arm of a child who had bent over to get a drink at a small pool; and here, as at the Evans farm, is a seat-like carving as if one had sat there.

While there seems to be no village site in the immediate vicinity of the Evans place, there is an extensive site about a quarter of a mile away, on the Russell place.

About six miles west and a mile north of Murphysboro is an interesting village and rock shelter. Here, due to the two distinct hard layers of rock, shelters or caves have been formed at two different levels against a cliff which is nearly 120 feet high. At one place a ripple-marked sandstone slab had fallen down and broken. On this are found carved hand and foot impressions, one of the latter having the big toe turned out at almost a right-angle. Here, too, were some circles enclosing crosses, concentric circles almost of the eye type, an animal face, probably a bear, a small animal with a large tail, and, finally, a Thunder Bird, which will be considered again later.

Along the walls of a rock shelter about half way up the west side of Fountain Bluff and over­looking the Mississippi is a very interesting and extensive series of carvings (Figure 13). Most of these are on the vertical wall of a rock shelter and include the usual items of footprints, hand prints, a seat, concentric circles, eye or turtle designs, a sort of dagger or, probably, a dragon fly or tadpole, and finally, a series of lines one inch wide connecting small cavities, each about three inches in diameter. This last design might be a map of the nearby area and indicate streams and village sites, particularly if the Mississippi River were assumed to occupy its former channel, to the north and east. In this shelter the carvings extend over an area nearly fifty feet long. About a mile northeast of this place, on Leo Rock, appear a number of carvings largely in the form of curved lines, perhaps representing snakes. At the extreme north of Fountain  p181 Bluff on the highest point over­looking the Mississippi River are footprints placed as though a man had stood there looking up stream. About a quarter of a mile east of this point, over­looking the railroad, a natural formation of rock high up on the side of the cliff has been carved sufficiently to represent a large snake apparently coming out of the rock.

[image ALT: A sample of ancient petroglyphs on Fountain Bluff in Illinois, described in the text.]

Fig. 13.

In Austin Hollow, near a road which has been recently improved by CCC workers from Camp Glen, there is a large boulder which formerly had many of these common designs carved on it. This rock is widely known as Track Rock or Turkey Track Rock. It is about eighteen feet by twelve feet by four feet, is situated near a spring, and is over­looked by a bluff on which are a large number of stone burial slabs. Most of the designs unfortunately have been cut off or defaced by initials.

The questions which arise concerning rock carvings are usually "Who made them?", "When were they made?", and "For what purpose?" There is too little information available to draw any conclusions as to the purpose of these carvings, but when one considers the labor involved in making them, he must conclude that they have some quite definite purpose. The various positions of the tracks made possibly may have served to commemorate some event of local importance, such as the wedding mentioned in connection with the Evans glyphs. Some have suggested that they were connected with the puberty rites associated with the initiation ceremony of the boys, but the very nature of the footprints is in opposition to such an interpretation. Another suggestion, that they were made by look-outs seems quite plausible in a few instances but almost impossible in others; for example, on the Fountain Bluffs a group of watchmen might have put in their time marking these carvings, but in the valley, as on the Russell farm or at Austin Hollow, there would be no point to this suggestion.

As to the date when these carvings were made, it is quite safe to assume that they were not made by the Illinois or other Algonkian Indians, who came into this area after 1650. From the distribution of this type of carving it is known that the makers at some time extended throughout the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee river valleys, in the adjacent regions beyond the Mississippi. Since  p182 it has been well pointed out by such men as Swanton, Myer, Dixon, and Spinden that Siouan tribes migrated through this area and seem to have been finally driven west of the Mississippi shortly before the advent of the whites, it seems quite possible that members of this tribe made the carvings.

This is further brought out by a study of other designs. One of the most interesting is the "Thunder Bird," at Peter's Cave. It resembles very much the copper carvings found in this area, near Alton, and in southeast Missouri. One carving at the Evans place resembles very much the copper carving of dancing men from Union County, which in turn is quite similar to those from Mound City and the Etowah Mounds. It would thus seem that these rock carvings were made during some late prehistoric period by Indians of the Siouan stock.

In closing, the writer feels that at this time, when the government is doing so much in the way of conservation, the major groups of rock carvings should be taken over and preserved by the state or national governments, partly for their historic value, but most especially because of their appeal to tourists and others.

Bruce W. Merwin
Southern Illinois Normal University
Carbondale, Illinois

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