This study is the first comprehensive analysis of the unexpectedly rich collection of informal inscriptions carved into the basalt lava (traprock) cliffs and promontories of the Connecticut Valley. An analysis of the tools and techniques used to produce the inscriptions, and problems in documenting and conserving the historic rock carvings are presented. The vernacular inscriptions range from unskilled scratching of the weathered surfaces with objects “at hand,” to deep carvings executed by master stonecutters using hardened steel masonry chisels. Although the earliest carvings date from the late 1700s, the peak period for traprock inscriptions spans from about 1830 to 1920, coincident with the rise of landscape tourism in the Connecticut Valley. Inscriptions produced throughout the nineteenth century characteristically display well-balanced lettering with bold serifs, reversed letters and numerals, graphic ornamentation, and frames and enclosures all produced by confident, if not skilled, hands. In contrast, since the mid-twentieth century, most inscriptions are crude devices. The different styles are ascribed to cultural trends and the ages of the carvers. Comparison to contemporaneous inscriptions from other areas suggests that the vernacular custom of carving personal badges, or “tagging,” places of scenic or historic interest was widely practiced in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

A number of inscriptions have been assigned to likely or known carvers based on often surprisingly robust threads of geographical, historical, and anecdotal evidence, or personal communications. The regional practice of carving personal identifiers and calendar dates at popular promontories and scenic overlooks was primarily a response to the unique physical geography of the region. The weathered rock surfaces on the sheer cliffs and rugged ledges provided both the motivation and opportunity for the placement of inscriptions, originally as placed as idle scratchings, but later, through the nineteenth century, as skillfully chiseled carvings. The puzzling absence of Native American rock wall petroglyphs in the study area is explored in context of the rich collection of historic inscriptions and the relatively limited culture of indigenous rock art from the region. The vernacular culture of rock carving was also influenced tangentially by national and global developments in geographic exploration, the rise of landscape tourism, emerging attitudes about the transcendental qualities of nature, as well as practicalities including high rates of literacy and the proliferation of technical and mechanical skills in the region. Problems of conservation and methods of obtaining facsimile copies of the traprock inscriptions are discussed.

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