Postings on the environment, outdoor adventure, issues relating to Appalachia and the South. Topics will range from trout fishing to archaeology and water quality, based on my work as a journalist.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Table Rock petroglyphs

The view from the Petrogylph Site is a jaw-dropping gander at the tail of the Blue Ridge Escarpment; one of the carvings looks like the Clemson University tiger paw; about 600 carvings have been documented at Pinnacle Mountain; Dennis Chastain, just under six-feet tall, gives perspective on the sheer size of the Bear Cave.

Charles Sowell photos
Primitive man’s perseverance always manages to astound.
Imagine how much time, sheer sweat, and devotion it must have taken for primitive North American Indians to chip out hundreds, if not thousands, of petroglyphs in the tough stone of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Remember, metal was not used by these people. No hammer or sharp chisel to gnaw at the extraordinarily durable Table Rock gneiss.
The primitive carvings are located about 30 miles northwest of Greenville, SC. Hidden in plain sight for generations near the summit of Pinnacle – at 3,415 feet, the third tallest mountain in South Carolina – one of two peaks that make up Table Rock State Park.
The carvings are located just off the Foothills Trail, part of a system of footpaths that roughly follow the spine of the escarpment from Jones Gap State Park in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness area to Oconee State Park near the Georgia state line.
The Foothills Trail is a 76-mile long segment of path that starts at the foot of Table Rock, climbs up and over to Pinnacle and then crosses over to Sassafras Mountain, the tallest peak in the state.
The carvings are located off a much older path, a highway that primitive men and early European settlers used to cross over the imposing palisade of the escarpment and into the rich valleys of North Carolina and beyond.
The highway has carried everything from 20th Century bulldozers to hogs for early 19th Century Greenville and barefoot unknowns from the darkest reaches of American prehistory.
It runs along a geologic feature called “Long Ridge,” a seemingly gently sloping incline that climbs from the southwest to Bald Rock on Pinnacle Mountain where it joins the Foothills Trail.
There is no asphalt paving this highway, no concrete. This road is made of more enduring stuff; a stone called Table Rock gneiss which is one of the harder metamorphosed rocks to be found in this part of the world.
Travel this ancient roadway with someone who is able to read the markers and you’ll get a lesson in both history and human nature.
“This is where me and Tommy (Charles) found the first petrogylph,” said Dennis Chastain, an author and nature guide in the mountains of North and South Carolina.
About five years ago Chastain was approached by Charles, a state archeologist who was looking for petroglyphs. The carvings were being found all over the southeast and just days before Charles had found a couple of hundred petroglyphs near a waterfall some distance down slope on Pinnacle.
“Here’s where we found the first one,” Chastain said, pointing to a weathered oval with a raised center just off the main walking path.
The weathered patch of rock is a supremely unimpressive sight until you stop to consider that the little oval was carved into a legendarily tough stone by someone with no metal tools.
How these primitive North Americans did it is a matter of some conjecture, as is exactly who the carvers were. The best theory right now is the circles were carved by Indians of the Hopewell Culture, the mound builders, between 1,500 and 3,500 years ago.
“There is really no way to date this kind of carving,” Chastain said, pointing to a series of ovals and circles – each with a distinctive raised center which distinguishes the artifact from an accident of nature.
“There’s certainly nothing organic left on this exposed rock to do any kind of carbon dating,” Chastain said. “But we are pretty sure the Cherokee didn’t do them as writings about the tribe from the early 19th Century made no mention of carving in the tribe’s oral tradition.”
There is, of course, no way to prove this theory. But it matches what is observable and checkable about the Cherokee and the tradition of carving petroglyphs in American Indian culture. It is also one of Chastain’s pet theories on the carvings and on the multitude of stone shelters that dot the monoliths of Table Rock and Pinnacle mountains.
On a windblown patch of Pinnacle, under an achingly Carolina blue sky in the heart of winter, the tenacity of these earliest Americans is painfully evident. One feels it in burning thighs and wheezing lungs. The ancients trod this road as a matter of course, no horses. Our own European ancestors did it as a matter economics – driving hogs to market from Western North Carolina and Tennessee along the same paths the Hopewell and Cherokee trod.
Man has been traveling through this part of the world for eons; always on the way somewhere else. “This isn’t the kind of county that supports year-round living. Not enough water, no arable land. The people who carved these petroglyphs were passing through.
“Come on, wait to you see the Petrogylph Site,” Chastain says with a touch of the magician waiting to spring a trick in his voice.
And he does.
Hundreds of circles and ovals, one carving looks like a Clemson Tiger paw, others like daisy chains. Chastain stands with hands on hips surveying evidence of ancient exuberance.
“I think the carvings are of a religious nature,” he said looking Southwest toward the tail of the Blue Ridge Escarpment as it trails away toward Georgia. “I mean look at this view.”
Indeed, one gets a sense of ethereal grandeur here and can appreciate why the ancients chose this spot to chisel and carve.
And they had shelter while they worked, too. Chastain lead the way to a stone shelter, about the size of an apartment kitchen, just yards from the Petrogylph Site.
“You can see how easily this place could be made really livable,” Chastain said, scrambling into the small cave.
He leads on to the Lighthouse Cave. High on a white stone cliff a cleft in the rock was visible from the mountains of distant Georgia when hunters built a fire and gathered around to listen to their hounds chase fox or raccoon.
Less visible, but far more impressive from a size standpoint is the Bear Cave; the spot where Chastain and Charles encountered two black bear cubs and their 250-pound momma while on another archeological errand.
Two cubs scrambled out of one of the cave’s many clefts and sat at Chastain’s feet, bawling. Mom came along seconds later.
“Let me tell you, when that sow bear popped out, it got my attention,” Chastain said.
The sow and cubs eventually wandered off. Chastain lived to climb another day and the petrogylph carvers, seemingly, watched in silence.
Contact Chastain for guided tours of the petroglyphs at or contact me at for directions.

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