Track Rock Gap petroglyphs: An ancient mystery

I had heard that one of the most important prehistoric Indian sites in North Georgia -- the Track Rock Gap petroglyphs in Union County -- had undergone a recent facelift by its caretaker, the U.S. Forest Service.

Last weekend, my wife and I went to see for ourselves.

Track Rock Gap, near Blairsville, consists of six table-size, soapstone rock boulders containing more than a hundred carvings, or petroglyphs, made by Native Americans beginning about 1,000 years ago. The Forest Service said it undertook the renovation to make the site more appealing to visitors and provide a more meaningful experience for them.

Indeed, we found shiny new interpretive signs explaining the significance of the rock carvings. In addition, a rustic post fence and small stone wall have been erected at the site. Old metal cages that had to be installed years ago over the petroglyphs to discourage vandalism have been removed.

The carvings depict a wide range of figures -- animal and bird tracks, circles with crosses, human footprints, handprints and others. Archaeologists call it one of the most significant rock art sites in the Southeast and the only such site located on public land (the Chattahoochee National Forest) in Georgia.

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Experts believe that the carvings were made by Native Americans during repeated visits over several hundred years beginning around A.D. 1,000. No one knows for sure, though, who those natives were. Some experts have speculated that they were Cherokee Indians and their ancestors, but there is little evidence for that.

Just as mysterious are the meaning and purpose of the carvings. Scientists believe that Track Rock had no single purpose. Some of the carvings may have recorded a specific event; others may have been parts of rituals or to ensure a favorable hunt.

My wife and I spent considerable time trying to find all of the figures carved in the rocks. With the help of the interpretive signs, we were able to make out several of them. One figure -- a cross inside a circle -- also has been found on pottery as old as 1,000 years, we were informed. Other figures, however, eluded us: The glare from the midday sun made it hard to make out some of the carvings. Centuries of weathering also have obscured other figures.

Soapstone is softer than most rocks, but it is durable, a main reason Native Americans used it to make bowls and other utensils. Still, it is hard to carve. Ancient people using only crude tools probably had to invest considerable time and effort to carve out the figures that have lasted more than a thousand years, scientists say.

For directions and additional information: http://fs.usda.gov/goto/conf/trackrock.

In the sky

The moon will be full on Wednesday. June’s full moon is known as “the green corn moon” by the Cherokee people, said David Dundee, astronomer at Tellus Science Museum. Venus, Mars and Jupiter are low in the east about an hour before sunrise. Saturn is high in the east at dark and is visible most of the night.

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