Month: March 2020

A humble rock’s cryptic message (part II)

If you don’t have a ruler,
a high g whistle will do.

I frequently visit a particular bluff overlooking the Potomac River where a year ago I found a mysterious cross chiseled into a rock (see part I). I go there looking for clues—bits of metal, stone, pottery, anything odd or out of place—that might help to explain who made the cross, what it signifies, and why it was carved on such a humble rock in that patch of forest.

At the start of my search for answers, I was pretty confident that a couple of hours with the computer would yield at least some leads to follow. But after days of pouring over accounts of local history and thousands of images of head stones, property markers, Norse and Irish symbols, and just plain lithic doodlings, the image on my rock remained a complete mystery.

A few times I had a flash of inspiration, which quickly vanished. For example, maybe the angle hanging on the cross’s arm had something to do with Masonic symbology, as in the famous square and compass. But Masonic symbols are notably elaborate, and often encrusted in gold. Mine was simple and crude.

Mason’s marks: A close match,
but looks aren’t everything.

Or perhaps it could have been the work of a real mason, a sturdy fellow, covered with stone dust and wielding a hammer and chisel. For thousands of years, masons have carved little logos on the stones they’ve dressed, mostly so the paymaster would know who to pay and for what. I was interested to find that many of these mason’s marks feature the same diamond spearhead as the one chiseled in my rock.

Even more tantalizing, my site lies just a few hundred paces from the C&O Canal, and the stone blocks used in constructing the canal’s locks often bear such marks. That would be a convenient explanation for my mystery. Except, why would a mason saunter into the woods and put his mark on some random stone?

I also sent photos to several local experts along with an account of how I found the image and why I thought it was special. Nobody replied. Maybe they were just too busy trying to answer their own questions. ‘You found it, you deal with it,’ they probably thought as they hit the delete button.

But is it interesting?  Yes, I did find it, so of course it was special—at least to me. But how special was it really? One of my favorite cartoons by Ed Koren shows a couple walking down a beach and the woman is saying, “I do think your problems are serious, Richard. They’re just not very interesting.”

It’s true. Human artifacts are as plentiful as trash after a rock concert. In and around the Potomac River I find everything from bits of plastic to entire boats. From Sphinxes to skyscrapers, castles to cave art, to dog poop bags; mountains of rubbish and cultural treasures; people enthusiastically proclaim the Anthropocene.

A scene from a rich gallery of
rock art in Northeast Brazil.

This goes for rock art, as well. I have seen many famous examples: depictions of fornication rites in the Brazilian Brazil’s Sertâo, hunting scenes in Arizona, a canoe in the Minnesota wilderness, ancient tombstones in Ireland, and even a fish petroglyph right here on the Potomac.

My stone doesn’t rise to the level of such lithic icons. But who knows? We can’t judge the significance of something without knowing what its significance is.

Signs and clues. Somewhere on that bluff by the river lay the answer. So I set off on yet another pilgrimage, following the deer trails as they appear and fade in the forest, skirting rock piles and climbing over fallen tree trunks. I spotted the piece of rotted tree limb I had placed over the stone on my last visit and keeled down to clear away the blanket of leaves.

A great altar of rock slabs
keeps watch on the river bluff.

On each visit I’m struck by the rock’s modest size, particularly compared to the great boulders and cliffs that define this stretch of river landscape. If I were the chiseler,  I would have chosen one of these to carve the image. In fact, just a dozen paces from my rock stands an outcropping of great stone slabs that rise out of the forest floor like an altar. Even now they seemed to call out, ‘Hey! You with the chisel. Come over here!’

What could I find that might give context to this mysterious image? First off, there is no obvious evidence of human occupation—no crumbling foundations, no lone chimney, not even a rock wall, all common elsewhere in this forest.

I started to walk, slowly, mindfully, in widening circles, my eyes fixed to the ground. I began to find bits of glass and pottery, and then a deposit of bottles, several intact, but most shattered. One was a rich blue, several were amber colored, and many were just clear. All were glass: The age of plastic was yet to come.

A shattered milk bottle transmits
a bit of local history.

Ketchup and milk. I used a stick to fish out the top of an old milk bottle with a bulge at the neck where the cream would collect. Then an intact ketchup bottle that was stamped Blue Label. As I learned later, one of the nation’s first consumer protection laws outlawed the use of the preservative benzoate. Blue Label dug in its heels, but its competitor Heinz simply added more vinegar, offered a money back guarantee, and, around 1915, Blue Label ketchup was no more. But that’s just a factoid, not a useful data point.

It looks like a block of concrete,
but it turned out to be
something more.

And then another milk bottle fragment, this one marked “Chestnut Farms Chevy Chase.” That would be Chevy Chase, Maryland, a classy community up against the DC border that for years before WWII excluded Blacks and Jews, but seemed to be OK with cows.

Then I found fragments of a concrete post—at least it looked like concrete—and near by a mostly intact one. I stuck a few pieces in my pocket to examine at home.

A sweep along the edge of the bluff yielded a tangle of fine copper wire, and then a coconut shell with the top carefully sliced off, in the manner of a human skull used for ritualistic purposes.

A coconut shell that is somehow
more than just a nut.

Circle of rocks. Nearby a group of similarly sized rocks formed a rough circle. Was it the remains of an old campfire? Anyone who has made a fire pit knows that you place the rocks one touching the other, both to contain the fire and to support a pot or a skewered fish. Here the rocks were spaced out, like the megalithic stone circles of ancient Ireland and Scotland. Could it be a minilithic stone circle?

At first glance it looks like a fire pit,
but why are the rocks spaced apart?

Retracing my way back to my rock I examined a shallow, leaf-filled pit, about the dimensions of a hotel whirlpool bath. The forest is full of such pits, typically created when a tree falls and wrenches its roots out of the ground, taking a ball of earth and stones along with it. But here there were no rotting remains of a tree. Just the pit.

This was turning out to be quite a lively place. I was pretty sure that I’d find some answers on my next visit—or at least more mysteries.

What is this rock trying to say?

Swept clean of leaves, a faint cross
emerges on the forest floor.

I scarcely noticed the rock lying there, flat on its side, under a blanket of rain-soaked leaves. It was so humble, so unobtrusive, especially in a landscape of truly serious rocks, of cliffs plunging into the Potomac River and stone slabs rising like altars from the forest floor.

Yet there was something about this seemingly modest rock that brought me to a halt.

Now I could see it. An incised line ran down the rock’s left side. And that line was bisected by a second one, forming a cross. I bent over the rock and brushed away the leaves and bits of gnawed hickory nut shells. The stem of the cross ended in a diamond-shaped head, neatly chiseled. On one of the arms hung another incision, this one shaped like a carpenter’s angle.

Most of the rocks here stand at
attention. Mine just lies flat on
the ground.

A human story. I found this rock image last March, almost a year ago. It was a grey, chilly day, and a light rain was beginning to fall. Real adventurers shrug off such discomforts, as did I—at least for a few minutes.

What was the image’s meaning? All rocks tell stories to those who know how to read them, chronicles of mountain building, epochs of intense heat and crushing pressures, catastrophic floods, or the silent rain of skeletal fragments of tiny marine organisms into the oceanic abyss.

Some rocks go one step further and tell stories not just of the  lithosphere, but also of what Jesuit priest and geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere—the vastly more complex world of human cognition, emotions, and imagination.

Most rocks that make the leap into the noosphere speak to us in ways that we can clearly understand, such as a piece of marble carved into a Virgin Mary, or a chunk of bog iron that ends up as a pickax. But the image engraved on this rock gave no hint of its origin or its meaning. It was enigmatic, a mystery worth trying to solve.

Newly minted mansions compete
for attention with ancient cliffs.

Quick look. The rain was coming down heavier now, so I just made a quick survey. Down below, the river’s rapids and channels twisted and turned among the rocky islands. I tried to avoid looking up the hillsides on the opposite Virginia shore where a group of newly minted mansions leered at the river with their reflective windows.

Of course people have always lived along this river, first Indians, then European colonists, African slaves, and a succession of subsistence farmers and other modest folk. They lived in tiny homes, now reduced to fragments of foundations and solitary chimneys. Their owners scratched out a living from the thin soil, much like the chickens that foraged in their yards. When the government turned the land into a park in the 1970s, the people were forced to leave.

As the park moved in,
the river people moved out.
Only traces of their modest
houses remain.

Did one of these humble people carve the image I found? Or was it someone who came along after they left? Or perhaps long before?

By now icy rivulets were trickling under my collar and my cotton hat had absorbed all the water it could. I kicked some leaves and dirt over the rock, along with a chunk of rotting limb. I would come back to search for clues over the following weeks and months and hopefully get to know a little more about the people who lived here and maybe the meaning of the rock image they created. Just maybe.