Postcard view of Inscription Rock, on the shoreline of Kelly's Island, Erie County, Ohio, ca. 1915-1935.
Inscription Rock is located in Erie County on Kelleys Island. It is one of Ohio's most famous rock art sites. Pre-contact groups of North American Indian peoples engraved more than one hundred designs onto a huge limestone boulder on the south shore of the island. The symbols are called "petroglyphs" from the Greek words for rock writing.
There was once another boulder with petroglyphs along the north shore of Kelleys Island, but workers quarrying the limestone blasted it apart with dynamite in the mid-nineteenth century.
The precise age of these carvings is unknown. Based on the symbolism and the amount of weathering of the generally soft limestone, they probably are less than one thousand years old and so likely are the work of the the so-called "Late Prehistoric" period Sandusky culture, or the work of American Indian peoples living in the region during the period of European colonization.
The large boulders on the north and south shores of the island were dramatic landmarks for the American Indians who lived in the area. Marking the rocks with petroglyphs was one way of making a personal connection with the land.
In the early historic times, symbols such as those carved into Inscription Rock were also carved and painted on the trunks of trees or on sheets of bark mounted on poles. Cadwallader Colden, in 1750, described such images in use by the Iroquois in Canada:
They always peel a large Piece of Bark from some great Tree; they commonly choose an Oak, as most lasting; upon the smooth Side of this Wood they, with their red Paint, draw one or more Canoes, going from Home, with the Number of Men in them paddling, which go upon the Expedition; and some Animal, as a Deer or Fox, an Emblem of the Nation against which the Expedition is designed, is painted at the Head of the Canoes . . . These Trees are the Annals . . . of the Five Nations . . . and by them . . . they preserve the History of their great Achievements.
It is likely that Ohio's American Indians also carved or painted important symbols on trees, bark, leather, fabric, and other perishable materials. Most of this ancient art has vanished. The petroglyphs we see today are only the tip of an artistic iceberg.
Inscription Rock is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.