Earlier this month, under a dozen feet of water and 28 inches of sand, Annette Spaulding found something she had sought for more than 30 years.
It was the outline of an eagle wing. An unknown Native American had etched it into a rock slab on the West River an unknown number of centuries ago. The rock formed the river’s bank until 1909, when construction of a dam at Vernon, Vt., raised water levels on the Connecticut River and its tributary, the West River.
Along with lowlands and barns and houses, the rising water submerged at least three Native American petroglyph, or rock carving, sites near the confluence of the two rivers, according to Spaulding’s research.
The largest one is said to depict nine figures — five eagles, a person, what looks like a dog and two wavy lines with small heads, which Spaulding suspects are lampreys.
It’s known as Indian Rock. A handful of 19th-century accounts and depictions reference the site, including a drawing by a 10-year-old boy from Chesterfield, Larkin Mead, who grew up to be a renowned sculptor. But then the river rose, and the location of Indian Rock became murky.
Spaulding, a certified master diver who lives in Rockingham, Vt., first learned of Indian Rock in the 1970s. While researching something else, she came across Larkin’s sketch in a file. On and off over the past few decades, she searched for the site in the West River, all the while building up a long resume as a search-and-rescue diver, underwater forensic investigator and real-life treasure hunter.
“I have found airplanes, people, missing planes and boats and shipwrecks, but I (had) never found a petroglyph site,” Spaulding said. “I was just drawn to looking for this for some reason — fascinated with it.”
And with the discovery of that eagle wing a little over a week ago, Spaulding believes — tentatively — that she’s finally found it.
Indian Rock isn’t the only significant petroglyph site in southern Vermont. Twenty miles up the Connecticut River, in Bellows Falls, are two rock panels carved with a series of faces.
Such carvings “are some of the few highly visible indicators of Native presence in the region,” Robert G. Goodby, a professor of anthropology at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, wrote in an email. The petroglyphs “could be many hundreds or many thousands of years old.”
According to Goodby, they were probably carved by “ancestors of the modern Abenaki” or related tribes — perhaps by “healers or shamans, depicting visions they had while in a state of trance,” as the lone academic study of the Bellows Falls petroglyphs hypothesizes, though it may be impossible to know for sure, Goodby said.
Rich Holschuh, a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, said he understands the petroglyphs to be at least 2,000 to 3,000 years old.
Those living in the area at the time would have created the petroglyphs at places of gathering, such as fishing spots, he said.
“Probably, these carvings were created by their spiritual leaders, their medicine people, in a process of making sure that they were doing things the right way there,” said Holschuh, who works on behalf of the local Abenaki community and traces his heritage to another Northeastern tribe, the Mi’kmaq.
Petroglyph sites in southern Vermont have spiritual significance to the Abenaki of today, Holschuh said. Members of the tribe visit the Bellows Falls petroglyphs to communicate with the ancestors they believe created them.
Searching for decades
After years of occasional searching, Spaulding resolved in 2013 to focus on looking for Indian Rock.
Research at more than a dozen museums, historical societies and colleges had given her some clues. She had depictions and descriptions of the petroglyphs. She also had a diagram, done by the archaeologist Edward Hitchcock in the 1860s, that showed the sloping rock ledge that held the carvings and its dimensions. (Spaulding showed a Sentinel reporter copies of some of these documents.)
The stretch of river she needed to search seems small, on paper — about a quarter of a mile. “Underwater, oh my God, it’s like 20 miles,” she said.
Searching vertically as well as horizontally, painstakingly removing about 2½ vertical feet of sand from every bit of angled rock surfaces she hoped to examine, Spaulding spent “a few hundred hours underwater” over the past four years.
The task was Sisyphean, akin to digging a moat around a sand castle that never stops caving in. Spaulding kept close track of where she searched. In a few days or weeks, certainly after a hard rain, the sediment could pile back up.
The sand cleared, Spaulding would stare at a dark slab, trying to discern human carvings in the naturally striated rock. It helped to wait for grains of sand to settle into the grooves. “When it fills back into the image, then that fine sand is telling the story that I need,” she said.
Late one day in the fall of 2015, as the sun’s light, the day’s warmth, her tank’s air and her camera’s battery all began to wane, she uncovered a face.
It wasn’t Indian Rock, but one of two other, smaller nearby petroglyph sites Spaulding had come across in her research.
Similar in appearance to the carvings at Bellows Falls, the lone face was 6 to 8 inches across. So small, Spaulding said, “I never dreamed I would find this single petroglyph.”
In 2016, she found an eagle. About 10 inches in wingspan, it resembled those in 19th-century drawings of Indian Rock. She waited out the winter and the rainy season of spring and returned to the river. About 10 days ago, at the end of another fall day, she uncovered “a very perfect image of a wing.”
Spaulding cautions she hasn’t confirmed the two birds are part of Indian Rock. There’s a third site on the West River described in the historical record — in addition to Indian Rock and the face — that consists only of two eagles, she said. Maybe she’s found that.
But the place she found the carvings strongly resembles Hitchcock’s 1860s diagram of Indian Rock’s location in its geometry and depth, Spaulding said.
Her goal before winter is to find one more image that will confirm the find.
Meanwhile, the Native American community and the Vermont Land Trust are working to purchase a 2-acre parcel of private land along the river, adjacent to the submerged petroglyphs, Holschuh said.
The groups hope to preserve the art, protect the spot from development and allow public access, as a place of spiritual reflection for the Abenaki and other visitors, he said.
“This is part of a general raising of awareness that’s occurring right now for the Abenaki people … an effort to let people know that we are still here and that this is part of your community,” he said. “It’s an enriching of the community and a restoration of a group that has been long sidelined or ignored.”
As for Spaulding, she eventually hopes to uncover all nine engravings at once and record video of the ephemeral sight.
And then move on to the next hunt. “I have a lot of other things that I want to look for,” she said, “and a list a mile long.”