The new petroglyph in its natural state, above, and digitally outlined, below.
Participants in a Friends of V.I. National Park seminar on January 21 discovered perhaps the most exciting archaeological find on St. John in decades.
Led by VINP archaeologist Ken Wild, about 11 people hiked down the Reef Bay Trail on Friday, January 21, in the “Petroglyph Hunt” seminar, looking for an elusive rock carving, previously only seen in photographs.
“We found a role of film in our archives from the 60s or 70s that wasn’t labeled or anything, but showed this petroglyph which had never been recorded,” said Wild. “We blew up the picture and took along copies for everyone in the seminar. Then we hiked out and started looking for the petroglyph.”
Having the photo in hand was the key to discovering the new carving, Wild explained.
“We found it within an hour,” he said. “It was a matter of taking the photo with us because it showed the rock fragmentation and how the rock was stacked. You wouldn’t find it looking for the petroglyph.”
“We had looked before, but we didn’t have the photo with us and that’s why we didn’t find it,” said Wild.
The new petroglyph is significant because it changes the entire time period VINP officials had previously ascribed to the Reef Bay carvings.
“Evidence that the petroglyphs were carved by the Taino Indians has been strongly supported through the designs found on pottery at the Cinnamon Bay and Trunk Bay archaeology excavation and the correlating radiocarbon dates,” said VINP archaeologist Kourtney Donohue. “This ‘new’ petroglyph is exciting because it is, of course, new to us, but it also has significant implications regarding Reef Bay and the history of St. John”
The design of the new carving is echoed in pottery found in other areas of island, Donohue explained.
“The design of the recently documented petroglyph is similarly found painted on the oldest dated pottery on St. John, known as Saladoid pottery,” she said. “Saladoid pottery has been dated between 300 BC and 500 AD. This means that the people that were coming to the Reef Bay petroglyphs were utilizing this site for a lot longer than we once thought, possibly a thousand years more.”
“And they could potentially be 2,500 years old,” Donohue said.
The new carving also speaks to the importance of the Reef Bay area, as people evidently associated the area with enough significance to carve into the rock formations, Donohue added.
“This finding strongly supports that there was continuity in the cultural beliefs between the first people that made ceramics on St. John and those of the Taino Indians,” said the VINP archaeologist. “This is 1,500 years of shared cultural and ancestral ties. It is also 1,500 years of people coming to a single place that they felt was sacred.”
“It really emphasizes the significance that Reef Bay had to the people who lived here prior to the European colonization of the islands,” she said.
The style of the carving can also be found in other Caribbean archaeological sites, attesting to the route of travel of pre-Colombian peoples, according to Donohue.
“This style of carving is also found down island, in St. Lucia and even as far as Venezuela, further confirming the route of those who came to live in St. John during the 4th century BC,” she said. “This also exemplifies how far people traveled and how widely spread their cultural beliefs and ties extended throughout the Caribbean.”
The new petroglyph is located near the Reef Bay pool, but does not reflect off the pool like the more famous carving depicted in island jewelry and Caneel Bay Resort’s logo. While archaeologists were buzzing with the new find, they do have more work to do in order to unlock all of the carving’s secrets.
“This find is new to us and we know we have some research to do,” said Donohue. “It raises more questions about things we don’t yet understand, but we understand enough to know that this is a unique find and that is very exciting.”