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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Exploring the Leo Petroglyphs & Nature Preserve

Located just beyond the outskirts of the village of Leo, the Leo Petroglyphs & Nature Preserve stands as a testament to the ancient Native American communities of present day Ohio. Sheltered beneath a protective roof, a large sandstone slab preserves a collection of extraordinary rock art, making it one of Ohio's most remarkable ancient Native American sites. Found on the panel of petroglyphs are more than thirty carvings, portraying humans, birds, animal and human footprints, a fish, snakes, and various other depictions, all skillfully etched into the sandstone outcropping.

Leo Petroglyphs Ohio

Trailhead elevation 715'

Water none

Don't miss exploring the cliffs and caves surrounding the trail

Visiting Leo Petroglyphs & Nature Preserve

The Leo Petroglyphs & Nature Preserve lies just a 30-minute drive away from downtown Chillicothe, Ohio, as well as Tar Hollow State Park and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. It's also situated within 45 minutes from Hocking Hills State Park, making it a fantastic complement to any visit to these nearby destinations.

As you arrive at the preserve, you'll find a large shelter and sign near the entrance. Parking is just beyond the shelter and can accommodate a dozen or more vehicles. There is no fee or permit required to visit.

Leo Petroglyphs Ohio

The shelter sits above a small gorge featuring unglaciated Black Hand sandstone cliffs, a mix of hardwood and hemlock trees, shallow rock caves, and a number of small intermittent cascades. The petroglyphs themselves can be found on a large sandstone slab within the shelter. A slightly elevated walkway surrounds the panel, providing visitors with a great vantage point to admire the ancient artwork without causing them damage.

Leo Petroglyphs Ohio

The petroglyphs discovered at the Leo site are attributed to the Fort Ancient peoples, who inhabited the Ohio River valley, northern Kentucky, southeastern Indiana, and western West Virginia from 1000 to 1650 AD. Early Fort Ancient settlements were modest, with no more than 40-50 inhabitants living in rudimentary pit-houses, and often situated near cliffs overlooking streams, similar to the Leo site's landscape.

The Fort Ancient peoples primarily relied on farming and hunting for their sustenance. They were skilled cultivators, credited as the pioneers in introducing maize (corn) to present day Ohio, as well as the first to successfully domesticate sunflowers in the region. Their diet mainly consisted of maize, squash, and beans, supplemented by hunting game animals like black bears, turkeys, deer, and elk. Fishing also played a significant role in their food sources. The Leo site showcases evidence of these animals, featuring numerous depictions of black bears, bear tracks, birds, bird tracks, and fish. The image below shows a depiction of a bird, presumably a turkey, accompanied by its track and another indistinguishable figure.

Leo Petroglyphs Ohio

Certain petroglyphs are more straightforward to interpret than others. For instance, in the image below, recognizable depictions include what appears to be a bear (top, left), a bear track, two snakes (one large, one small), a human-like figure with outstretched arms and three-fingered hands, a bird, and two bird tracks.

Leo Petroglyphs Ohio

However, the cluster of petroglyphs depicted in the image below presents a considerably more intricate challenge for identification. Clearly visible near the top right corner of the photo is a deer head with antlers, but the majority of the remaining cluster leaves room for interpretation. In the past, the petroglyphs were outlined in charcoal to aid visitors in recognizing the figures, but with time, much of the charcoal has faded, making it harder to discern the original depictions today.

Leo Petroglyphs Ohio

Another intriguing section of the sandstone slab showcases depictions of a human footprint, a bird track, a fish, an indistinguishable figure (bottom), and a debated scene portraying a salamander seemingly under attack by a snake.

Leo Petroglyphs Ohio

In Native American cultures, snakes embody a wide array of symbolic meanings and interpretations, which vary among tribes and regions. To some, snakes symbolize transformation and rebirth, healing and medicine, balance and harmony, fertility, protection, and rain. Conversely, in certain Native American cultures, snakes carry a negative connotation, representing evil spirits, death, deception, ancestral curses, or impending danger and misfortune.

While the significance of snakes to the Fort Ancient peoples remains a mystery, their presence is abundantly evident at the Leo site. Among all the figures found here, snakes hold a prominent place, outnumbering other depictions. In the image below, two snakes are featured, with one appearing to be in a striking pose, surrounded by three human footprints.

Leo Petroglyphs Ohio

The Leo site also features a fair presence of human depictions, showcased in various stylistic forms. Ranging from rudimentary light bulb-shaped heads, as demonstrated in a previous image, to the stick figure depicted below, the artwork of the Fort Ancient exhibits a distinctive and diverse array of styles.

Leo Petroglyphs Ohio

The Leo site's most prominent petroglyph portrays a human face of larger than life-sized proportions, adorned with deer antlers and bird-like legs. While the exact intended meaning behind this ancient depiction remains a mystery, the prevailing theory suggests it represents a shaman wearing a ceremonial headdress. Measuring over three feet in height and two feet in width, this distinctive petroglyph fascinates with its unmistakable features, featuring eyebrows and a mouth, setting it apart as the sole human representation at the Leo site containing these attributes.

Leo Petroglyphs Ohio

These are just a few of the petroglyphs that you can expect to encounter at the site. In all, there are thirty-seven documented depictions.

Leo Petroglyphs & Nature Preserve is managed by the Ohio History Connection, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the state's history. Along with the petroglyphs, the 20-acre preserve offers a 0.7-mile hiking trail that winds through a small gorge where the Fort Ancient likely hunted and fished over a thousand years ago. The well-manicured trail leads visitors past shallow caves, small intermittent cascades, and under impressive 50-foot Black Hand sandstone cliffs. If the area has experienced recent rainfall, the trail should not be passed up.

During the debate of a 1969 $414 million capital improvements bill, which included a $25,000 appropriation for the Leo Petroglyph site, Ohio congressman and floor leader Charles Carney of Youngstown, Ohio asked the floor, "Who was Leo Petroglyph and what did he ever do for Ohio?"

Fellow congressman Walter Powell of Hamilton, Ohio was quick to answer with, "It's not a person, it's a place."

Powell had to explain to the Youngstown native that Leo is a town in south-central Ohio and that a petroglyph is an inscription carved in stone, now a historical marker.

The story was subsequently circulated throughout much of Ohio and neighboring states, with the media mocking Carney's ignorance of the site. The bill would later pass and the Leo Petroglyph site received its funding.

Another significant petroglyph site in Ohio, albeit severely mismanaged by The Archaeological Conservancy, is the Barnesville Track Rocks site, located two and a half hours northeast of Leo Petroglyphs & Nature Preserve. Both the Leo and Barnesville sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


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