'Lost' petroglyph rediscovered on St. John

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ST. THOMAS - The V.I. National Park, with a little help from some of its "friends," has uncovered a new petroglyph at the Reef Bay trail on St. John.

During a Friends of the V.I. National Park seminar at the end of January, a group of locals and visitors went on a "petroglyph hunt" led by Ken Wild, the park's archeologist.

Wild said the petroglyph - an ancient stone carving made by Taino Indians - had never been recorded. The park first learned of the "lost" carving when workers uncovered a roll of film in its archives several years ago. Wild said that the other photos on the roll were obviously taken at the Reef Bay trail and the petroglyph pool, so he assumed there was another petroglyph in the area that had never been found.

While he searched for it himself for a long time, he always turned up empty. This year, he decided to use his annual archeology seminar - which he puts on for the Friends of the V.I. National Park's seminar series to help the nonprofit raise funds - to find the missing carving. He set a group of people, armed only with the original black and white photograph found in the archives, loose at the petroglyph pools in the Reef Bay valley.

"Within 30 minutes we found them," Wild said.

Regular St. John visitors Sue and Darrell Borger of Kenosha, Wis., made the ground-breaking discovery. Wild said they were particularly committed to the hunt.

"This one couple, I could tell, they really wanted to find it," Wild said.

As it turned out, the carving was on a rock right at the main site that thousands of visitors pass every year. It was simply overgrown with Sansevieria, or mother-in-law tongue.

The known petroglyphs located at the upper waterfall in the Reef Bay valley, just off the Reef Bay trail, have been studied by Wild and other archeologists for decades. The markings typically depict faces and symbols that were made by Taino Indians and are situated right along the edge of a spring-fed pool. The pool level never changes, so the carvings are always perfectly reflected in the water.

Wild said the carvings at the pool are from the Classic Taino period, which is between A.D. 1300-1450, although they could have been carved as early as 1100-1200.

"The ones that reflect off the water are Classic Taino period, but this other guy, he's different," Wild said.

By matching the new petroglyph's geometrical design to a style of pottery called Saladoid, which has been found in archaeology excavations in Cinnamon Bay and Trunk Bay, Wild has been able to date the newly found rock art to about A.D. 500 - centuries earlier than the petroglyphs at the reflection pool.

The revelation is a major breakthrough in the study of pre-Columbian civilization in the Virgin Islands, Wild said.

"It represents at the minimum 1,500 years they were going to Reef Bay as a sacred place and making carvings," Wild said.

It means that even as culture and religion changed in hundreds of years, the Reef Bay valley remained an important site.

The geometric style of the new carving also is found further down the Caribbean island chain, in St. Lucia and even Venezuela, which demonstrates how the native people traveled and settled while keeping their cultural beliefs, Wild said.

The find answers some questions, but certainly sparks new ones, as well. There should be an archeological dig at the Reef Bay petroglyph pools, because it obviously is a sacred site and could shed light on the religion and culture of the Taino Indians and their ancestors, Wild said.

"That day, I found a Saladoid pot shard right there on the ground," Wild said. "There's an archeology site that goes with that."

It is not likely to happen any time soon though, he said. The area is under the protection of the National Park System, and funding typically is allocated to the sites in danger of being lost - such as the Cinnamon Bay site, which is on a rapidly eroding beach. He said the petroglyphs are very well protected, and park officials are at the site on an almost daily basis.

Wild said he likely will put something together for the park about the new petroglyph and down the road probably will present a paper at the International Congress for Caribbean Archeologists about the new find.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 774-7882 ext. 311 or e-mail alewin@dailynews.vi.

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