Discovering South Carolina's Rock Art

Discovering South Carolina's Rock Art

Discovering South Carolina's Rock Art

Discovering South Carolina's Rock Art


For years Tommy Charles searched South Carolina's upcountry for examples of ancient rock art carvings and paintings, efforts conducted on behalf of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA). As SCIAA's collections coordinator, Charles amassed considerable field experience in both prehistoric and historic archaeology and had firsthand involvement in cataloging sixty-four sites of South Carolina rock art. Charles chronicles his adventures in exploration and preservation in Discovering South Carolina's Rock Art.
Although Native American rock art is common in the western United States and even at many sites east of the Mississippi, it was believed to be almost nonexistent in South Carolina until the 1980s, when several randomly discovered petroglyphs were reported in the upstate. These discoveries set in motion the first organized endeavor to identify and document these ancient examples of human expression in South Carolina. Over the ensuing years, and assisted by a host of volunteers and avocational collectors, Charles scoured the Piedmont and mountains of South Carolina in search of additional rock art. Frustrated by the inability to find these elusive artifacts, many of which are eroded almost beyond visibility, Charles began employing methods still considered unorthodox by current scientific standards for archaeological research to assist with his search and documentation.
Survey efforts led to the discovery of rock art created by Native Americans and Europeans. Of particular interest are the many circle-and-line petroglyphs the survey found in South Carolina. Seeking a reason for this repetitive symbol, Charles's investigation into these finds led to the discovery that similar motifs had been identified along the Appalachian Mountains from Alabama to New York, as well as in the American Southwest and Western Europe.
This engrossing account of the search for South Carolina's rock art brings awareness to the precarious state of these artifacts, threatened not only by natural attrition but also by human activities. Charles argues that, if left unprotected, rock art is ultimately doomed to exist only in our historical records.


Unofficially and unintentionally the South Carolina Rock Art Survey began in 1983, when a collector of Indian artifacts reported a petroglyph located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Oconee County, South Carolina. Prior to this exciting discovery, it was generally believed that prehistoric rock art did not exist in the state. During the ensuing fourteen years, five more petroglyphs were reported. Although it was meager, this evidence suggested that rock art in South Carolina might be rare simply because we had never searched for it. Toward determining if this premise might be true, I met with a group of Greenville County citizens who had funded other archaeological endeavors and proposed to them that we conduct a survey to look for additional examples of rock art. They enthusiastically agreed to support the project.

The Survey

In January of 1997, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology (SCIAA) at the University of South Carolina joined with these Greenville County citizens and a host of volunteers to conduct a formal survey to seek and record the state’s rock art.

Because of the state’s natural geography, we confined our search to the Piedmont and Blue Ridge Mountain regions (see figs. 1, 4, 5, 7, and 8), the areas where most South Carolina rock formations are found. Recording all the various forms of rock alteration was not an objective. Rather we chose to concentrate on petroglyphs and pictographs considered to be products of prehistoric peoples and on historic carvings believed to be of some antiquity or particular interest. Because there were no preexisting studies of South Carolina rock art and because none of the original participants had previous experience in the field of rock-art research, our objectives were modest: to begin the survey, to acquire on-the-job experience, and to see where the research would eventually lead. Initially we inspected public lands and tracts of land owned by our supporters. Early in the survey, however, our failure to find any rock art prompted us to expand our methods to include a media appeal for information from the general public. the immediate success of this approach reinvigorated survey participants and perhaps prevented an early termination of the program. During the following nine years, as time and funding permitted, the rockart survey continued. Volunteers came and went, each adding new enthusiasm and energy to the cause. As a group, we learned how to search for and record rock art . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.