Stories in Stone - Mysterious Petroglyphs and Inscriptions in the Northeast

Latest update October 29, 2018 Started on April 1, 2018

Over the 25 years of exploring the northeast, we’ve encountered petroglyphs and post-European settlement Inscriptions. Though some are still part of the popular culture, most have been lost to the deep forest of New England. There are many interesting interpretations for some of the known inscriptions in the northeast. While others are still somewhat of a mystery.

The mission of this expedition will be to locate and document all known and newly discover carvings across the northeast. We will also be researching historical records for any that have been lost and long forgotten. Once we have cataloged a petroglyph or inscription, then the hard work begins. Based on local records, archeological data, legends and lore, we will try to unravel their story. We’ll try to put them into historical context as best as possible with the available information. In the end, the story behind some will remain a mystery. I’ll leave the speculation of their origin to others.

April 1, 2018
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In The Field

Lecture at Bourne Historical Society

Mavis Robinson, the administrator at the Bourne Historical Society, invited me to do a lecture on my Expedition Stories in Stone at their facility for Archeology Month. Mavis was a fantastic host for the event. When she noticed that many of the followers of Stories in Stone asked if the event could be videotaped, she quickly made arrangements to have this done.

During my presentation, I spoke about the project, a variety of interesting inscriptions, the workflow used when investigated them, and ended with a quick analysis of the famous Bourne Stone housed at their facility. The turnout was fantastic, and we had a full house. Audience members stuck around for the Q&A and had many great questions about the project and other things with which I’m involved.

The video of the event was recently forwarded to me to share with everyone!


The Bourne Stone

In Bourne, Massachusetts there is four-foot-long by 18-inch-wide stone that is not only a valuable artifact, but also a local source of mystery. Around 1680 it is believed to have served as the entry stone into the Christian Indian Meeting House at Great Herring Pond. When the meeting house no longer existed, the stone was moved to the doorway of Bourne natives Andrew Jackson and Katherine Parker Homestead. The stone remained there until descendants sold the property. Eventually the stone was given to a Miss Fisher and in the 1930s, Percival Hall Lombard, one of the founders of the Bourne Historical Society (BHS), purchased it from her.

The mystery behind the rock does not concern its path from a meetinghouse entry stone to the BHS museum. Using records from as far back as 1693 to the early 1900s, local historians have been able to build a strong case that confirms what is currently accepted. The real mystery involves an inscription on one of the rock’s faces. Though the inscription was not mentioned until 1936 when Brown University professor of psychology Edmund D. Delabarre examined it, it is reasonable to assume that the markings were visible when the BHS purchased it. Who originally created the inscription and how to interpret it has been the center of debate for over 80 years.

Professor Delabarre believed it was the work of the native people living near Herring Pond. He viewed the markings as a series of symbols meaning, "A white man journeyed seven days on a trail to make compact with the Indians beneath the light of a new moon."

Since Professor Delabarre’s initial conclusion there have been a wide array of claims made about the inscriptions. Though most agreed that they were native petroglyphs, some interpreted them as Norse, Iberian, Phoenician, Carthaginian, or medieval English in origin. The few that suggested an interpretation of the symbols vary greatly. Olaf Strandwold read them as Norse runes and translated them to read, “Jesus amply provides for us here and in heaven.” Barry Fell translated them as Iberian text reading, “A proclamation of annexation. Do not deface. By this Hanno takes possession.” Edward Lenik identified the markings as a combination of native pictographs and signatures of many different sachems.

When reviewing the data on the Bourne Rock, I happened upon a handful of drawings of the inscriptions. Most people use these as their basis for interpreting the markings. In my opinion this only would lead a person to continue the bias or mistakes of the person who created the drawings. To get an uninfluenced view of the markings a person would need to visit it him or herself.

In August, 2018 I visited the BHS to examine the stone. The first thing I noticed was that the markings appears to have been filled with charcoal to make them more visible. Since the markings were shallow and the coloring of the stone created a great deal of visual noise, this may have seemed like a helpful idea, but instead created another obstacle. It would lead the viewer to only recognize what is already highlighted instead of objectively analyzing the rockface and inscriptions. One thing that stood out was a rubbing of the stone that was on display. It was very different from all the past drawings, and showed features never recognized before. This reminded me of the importance to continually review artifacts with fresh eyes and new tools.

With permission from the BHS I collected images of the Bourne Stone. That evening I was able to create an excellent 3D model of it. Using the inspection features of my viewer, I removed all the coloring and texture of the stone. This made the inscription much more visible. I could see that many of the new features in the rubbing were correct. Not only could I see the shoe prints, a hand, and boat-like symbols, I also saw several features that are most likely portions of the inscription never recognized before. More reviewing of this new data will be needed before I can make any conclusions about these features.

Having been able to analyze the Bourne Stone objectively, I would agree with the conclusion that it was most likely the work of natives from the late prehistoric or early contact period. Using the 3D model, I could see familiar Native American motifs. I also noticed the signs of a pecking method to create the inscription, the same technique used by local native people when creating petroglyphs. If it were done by early European visitors, it would have been done using metal tools, and the tools markings would have been very different.

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Leif’s Rock

There has been a debate in New England as to who were the first visitors to our shores. Centered in this debate are over 20 inscriptions in stone that were found in the Narragansett Basin. These inscriptions were suspected to have been left by per-colonial visitors. They have inspired many theories concerning possible pre-colonial visitors. Such theories suggest Vikings, the Portuguese, the Chinese, the Phoenicians and even Irish monks were possibly the first people to set foot in the northeast.

One of the inscriptions involved in the debate can be found on the west shore of Mount Hope Bay. It was claimed the early English settlers knew of it and its inscriptions in an unknown tongue. In 1835 a Bristol historian proposed that the inscription had been made by Norsemen in the eleventh century. He thought that the mysterious text found below etched image of a boat were Viking Runes. One translation of the text asserted that it said, "Haldor strays himself and is lost here". The rock soon was called Northmen’s Rock by the locals.

In the 1700s and 1800s the public was infatuated with the idea of Viking visitors to New England. With the discovery of the Northmen's Rock, it was now believed that Leif Erikson landed at Mount Hope. The popular theroy claimed that Leif and his crew landed and built houses and wintered at the very beginning of the eleventh century. In 1874 Professor Rasmus Bjørn Anderson would attributing Norse ancestry to various Indian languages in New England, linking Mout Haup of the Indians, and Mount Hope of the English to Mon Top of the Norsemen.

In 1919 the RI Citizen’s Historical Society felt the Northmen’s rock was an important historical landmark. They held a ceremony at the rock and christened it with corn, wine and oil. During the ceremony they renamed it “Leif’s Rock”. This upset Edmund Delabarre, a Brown University psychology professor who believed the evidence suggested the inscription was no older that the 1700s or 1800s. This would inspire Edmund to do a detailed study of the stone inscriptions in Southern New England, which he later published.

Leif’s Rock had been on my list to find for over 10 years. I knew of its general location but had not enough details to pin point it. With the recent interest in hunting down inscriptions, and a bit of digging through the archives, I eventually uncovered not only where I could find it, but also many old images and illustrations of the inscription.

We headed out to the shores of Bristol and it didn’t take long to find the Leif’s Rock. The rock was in the tidal zone and has been weathered extensively. In addition, more modern inscriptions have been made on its irregularly colored surface. All these factors made it almost impossible to see the inscription of a boat and Viking Runes.

Having recently had a great deal of success in using photogrammetry to bring forward details that normal photography will miss, we decided to make a return to Leif’s Rock and see if we might be able to reveal the original inscription. On Feb 19, we hiked out to the rock, and took a series of high resolution photographs, and built a 3D model from them.

At first, we could not see much more detail with the 3D models than we had seen in our original images. So we used a Matcap view of the model, which removes the images, revealing only the detailed shape of the object. As we rotated the model to encourage shadows in the shallower marking, we then saw the inscription of a boat and the markings that were thought to be Viking runes.

After over 200 years of weathering and twentieth century graffiti, the inscription barely holds a grip on its corner of the stone. Fortunately, modern imagery technology was able to coax it out of the noise in which it remains hidden.

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Makepeace – Manly Cave (AKA Golem Cave)

Recently I ventured to find the cave hidden along a ridge of an ordinary hill in Hardwick Massachusetts. In the dark recesses of this grotto is a piece of local history that has been long forgotten. Those who might stumble on this unique geological feature will discover names and initials dating back to the 1800s that can be found emblazoned on its walls.

The town of Hardwick, situated on the western border of Worcester County, was first settled in 1737 and officially incorporated two years later. In the 1800s it was known for its manufacturing industry and textile and paper mills. Though these mills had left by the 1930s, Hardwick still retained its agricultural roots. Though most might consider it the typical small New England village, the one thing that makes it stand out is that it is home of the Hardwick Fair, which began in 1762. Today it is the oldest annual fair in the United States.

On the southern end of Hardwick you will find the Ware–Hardwick Covered Bridge, a historic covered bridge spanning the Ware River. It is one of the few surviving nineteenth century covered bridges in Massachusetts. Originally built in 1886, it was recognized in 1986 for its historic value when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I set out to find the cave late this spring. I expected the first half of my hike to find the cave would be easy. To my chagrin I found the trails at the base of the hill were overgrown and difficult to navigate. Eventually I struck a path off the trail and straight up to the first ledge I had plotted on my GPS. I quickly found an overhang with a man-made stone bench under it. The ledge consisted of Hardwick Tonalite: dark gray, strongly foliated biotite tonalite to granodiorite gneiss. With no inscription to be found, I proceeded south. For the next few hours I followed from one exposed ledge to another. Along the way I found three more, larger overhangs that also showed signs of human occupation, but still no inscription.

Eventually I found a cliff about 50 feet tall. At the base was a steep slope formed from stone ejected from its face. I made my way to its base and followed north for 400 feet, keeping close to the ledge. Rounding a curve in the rockface, I was suddenly surprised by the mouth of a cave far larger than I had ever expected; 13 feet tall, 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep. The back of the cave was coated with soot, and the soil was black. Though there were no signs of recent activity, it was obvious that it had been used as a shelter at one time.

Inside the cave, along the wall on the left, I found several names and initials inscribed in the stone. M.H. Makepeace and G.F. Manly 1884 were those that stood out the most. Research by local resident revealed that the inscription G.F. Manly 1884 was the work of George Forester Manley. George was 19 years old at the time and lived in the last house on the north end of Turkey Street in Hardwick. The M.H. Makepeace inscription is attributed to a person who lived on north end of Old Gilbertville Road in Ware during the same time period. We were not able to get the full name of that person, but Jim uncovered a Jonathan and Anna Nye Makepeace who married in Hardwick in 1799. In the early 1800s they had two children whose names began with “M”. The homes of both Manly and Makepeace still stand today.

One interesting natural feature of the cave never mentioned in any of the research is a mysterious face that seems to appear in all the photos I took. Each person who saw the images noticed that no matter what direction a photo was taken from, they could see a face peeking out of the top of the cave. This artifact, a result of the natural shape of the rock and shortcomings of the camera, has inspired the nickname Golem Cave.

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Making the Invisible Visible Pt III

Pictographs in the northeast are rare. The few I am aware of are from the colonial period of New England. Unlike petroglyph, pictographs are just a surface coating and tend to be far less durable. Pictographs that have survived in America are either in protected areas such as caves and shelters or exist in dryer climates.

Though New England’s harsh weather appears to have erased the pictographs, we are hoping that some of the surface coating might still faintly remain on the rocks surface. If so, we might be able to reveal the remaining coating with an image enhancement program called DStretch. This program has been very successful in drawing out details in an image that are invisible to the human eye. This tool applies a decorrelation stretch algorithm that was originally developed by NASA JPL. Simply, an algorithm that will find and extract a weak signal from the noise is applied to the color data. In this application the weak signal is the difference in hue that is too subtle for the human eye to notice. Once this weak signal is detected, the contrast for each color is stretched to equalize the color variances. This tool has buttons for a variety of colorspaces that the decorrelation can be performed in and give different results. The results I’ve seen with pictographs in the western United States is no less than amazing.

Though I have not been able to use DStretch on any of the known colonial pictographs, out of curiosity, I applied the tool to photos from known Indian shelters I’ve visited over the years. To my surprised I saw results with one of them. On what appeared to be bare rock, a have hidden text was revealed. At Abrams Bedroom in Swansea MA, the boulder at the entrance to the shelter was shown to previously have the word CAVE painted on it. Since it appears that it had been spray painted onto the rock, it could be from no earlier than the late 40s. Though the find has no historical value, it showed the easy of use of this tool, and its value in the field & to review older images for unknown pictographs.

DStretch is also available for free.

Below is a video demonstration of DStretch being applied to the rock outside of Abrams Bedroom in Massachusetts.

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Making the Invisible Visible Pt II

Another way to accomplish virtually the same results you get with MatCap Shading & Specular Enhancement of a 3D model, is through Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM). This is a technique currently used by archeologists that work with difficult to see inscriptions. With this technique you do not create a 3D model, but instead take a series of photos of your subject from a stationary camera. While photographing your subject, you illuminate it with a flash following a planned pattern. With this tool you do not move the object when examining it, you instead move the position of the light source. Just like with the 3D model, you can also apply a Specular Enhancement. The results I’ve seen so far are very impressive. One advantage this technique has over using the 3D model is that the object is always stationary. As you manipulate the light to reveal features on the rocks surface, the fixed position of the rock makes it easier to see & interpret them. The disadvantage with this technique is it is much more difficult and time consuming. Free software available for PTM and the improved version know as Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI).

We decided to give RTI a try this weekend. To do this we needed a camera, tripod, an independent flash/light source, and two black cue balls. Positioning the cue balls near our subject, we proceeded to do a series of photos moving the light sources position for each one. The light source follows a dome pattern, best to be described as a series of positions along each spine of an umbrella.

Our first attempt was unsuccessful. When processing our images with the RTI software, we encountered an error. The issue was most likely due our rush to get a first try under our belts, poor planning, and not following the recommended workflow. We will continue attempting to master this technique, so we can evaluate if it will be a useful tool for our expeditions.

Below is a Video Demo of Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) provided by Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI) a non-profit organization.

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Making the Invisible Visible

The goal of this project is to not only rediscover and document the inscribed rocks, but to also view them with fresh eyes, through new technology and photographic techniques. MatCap Shading and Specular enhancement of 3D models and Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM) are two techniques we are investigating, to leverage details from the weathered and difficult to see inscriptions. Since there is a handful of recorded pictographs in the northeast, that were last known to be barely visible, we will also be experimenting with an image enhancement technique known as Decorrelation Stretch (DStretch). Over the next few posts I will give a brief overview of each of these techniques. During the debrief of this expedition we will provide a short report on them and what we believe are the best practice when applying them.

Though we’ve already gotten excellent results when 3D modeling sites through photogrammetry, capturing an inscription can be much more difficult. The rough texture, and highly irregular coloring of the stone can make it difficult to see an inscription. Also, a greatly weathered inscription can often be impossible to notice. To eliminate these issues, we need to strip away the texture & coloring, and better highlight even the shallowest inscription. Using features in 3D modeling called MatCap Shading and Specular enhancement, we should be able to do this. Matcap Shading would replace the photo-texture on the model with a smoother silver/gray shade, and apply a fixed light source. This should eliminate a lot of the visual clutter in the model. Next, we can apply a specular enhancement, which will make the surface of the model more reflective, highlighting even a shallow marking on the rock with a shine or shadow. This technique can be applied by anyone using any of a variety of free 3D modeling software, and viewers.

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Expedition Background

We’ve begun to dig thorough our own records and organize the inscriptions we’ve already visited or are aware of. Currently we have added 76 petroglyphs and inscriptions to the list, with many more to go. We’ve put them in a database, recording information including our data sources and the currently concluded context. We’ll be using this as a road map to plan our expeditions to locate the inscription starting this spring. Once an inscriptions is found, we'll use photography techniques to best capture even the most weathered rocks. As we go along we update the database, and provide a field report of our findings. When possible we will construct 3D model of the inscriptions.

Here is a link to an example of a 3D model we’ve already done for the recently found In Hoc Signo Vinces Inscription.

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This is really exciting Michael! Excited to follow along!

Thanks David, we're excited too. It should be a fascinating journey exploration and discovery!

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