Posts Tagged ‘Prince Madoc’

Falls of the Ohio State Park Interpretive Center

On November 24 the Falls of the Ohio’s Interpretive Center closed for renovations.  This is the first large-scale overhaul of the permanent exhibits since the center opened in 1994.  Since that time, the state of the art in terms of exhibit display has progressed by leaps and bounds.  According to an article appearing in the Courier-Journal, the Falls of the Ohio Foundation has raised six million dollars to pay for the new updates which are expected to be completed sometime in the fall of 2015.  Louisville’s respected museum design company, Solid Light Inc. will handle the redesign and installation.  The Interpretive Center will be employing the latest interactive technologies and refining its focus to better educate visitors about the significance of the Falls of the Ohio area.  Four new themed exhibits will take the place of the old static displays and are named “The Devonian Sea”, “A Changing Land”, “Converging Cultures” and “The Falls Today”.

Grand Hall of the Interpretive Center, 3/2010

I am looking forward to checking out the new exhibits once they open.  But if I may for a moment, pause and reflect upon the demise of the original beloved centerpiece that was once on display in the Interpretive Center’s main hall.  In style, it does harken back to a tradition when collections of natural history specimens and objects that provoked wonder were kept in Wunderkammers and cabinets of curiosity.  This eclectic display has never failed to fire up my imagination.  Yes, it is a mishmash of objects (both real and artificial) and it jumps all over the timeline.  This is actually one of the reasons I find this display so appealing.  My experience of the Falls is one where all this history and information exits simultaneously in the present and I felt that from this art-like installation.

old display at the Falls of the Ohio, birds above the mammoth skeleton

old fish display at the Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center


I love the scale of the mammoth skeleton and the taxidermed fish and birds lifting to and flowing from the ceiling.  With this display it was easy to adjust for scale and you received a truer sense for just how big the Devonian sharks were and how truly huge an Ice Age elephant was.  I’m not sure that a projection or video could convey this as much as something you could make a true physical comparison with that is sharing the same space with you?  A walk around the centerpiece revealed beautifully fabricated and delicate Devonian Age sea creatures inhabiting a coral reef.  The displays under glass contained specimens and relics that were a tip of the hat to many of the great 19th century naturalists that helped put the Falls of the Ohio on the map.  In essence, a lot of the information you needed to know about the Falls was contained in this single display.

Prince Madoc figure in the old display at the Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center

Of all the elements in this centerpiece, perhaps the most controversial was the inclusion of a life-size figure of Prince Madoc.  He was one of three figures presented which also included a representation of a Native American and a pioneer figure that might have also been a portrait of John James Audubon?  In case you have never heard of Prince Madoc…he potentially was a 12th century Welsh explorer and he and a band of his people may have been early European visitors to North America.  There is a persistent legend about a group of blonde hair blue-eyed Indians that may be descendants of Prince Madoc.  An old Native American story has this band being routed in battle near the Falls of the Ohio and is the connection to our area.  When President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark west to explore the continent…he asked that they keep an eye out for evidence of this story.  I have a good friend who couldn’t bear to look at the Prince Madoc figure and not because it wasn’t done well.  To him, it was a travesty to include this in a tableau that included factual elements.  To date, there is no convincing evidence, no archeological proof that Prince Madoc ever came to this continent.  I guess the veracity of the story never bothered me and I just liked the tale because of its association with the Falls.  To me, this is what history is about…some parts fact and some parts myth.  The Prince Madoc figure was there to add an extra dimension of imagination I could appreciate.

underneath the mammoth's ribcage

Prince Madoc may have been banished from future displays, but the mammoth skeleton was kept.  It was taken down and repositioned so that you have to pass between its legs and under its ribcage to enter into an auditorium.  I’m sure the new displays will be incredible, but I do hope they will also inspire visitors to use their own imaginations to some degree.

My collection of found Styrofoam, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2014

Having touched base with the Interpretive Center, I decided to connect with my own peculiar low-tech universe.  On this day it was sunny and windy and I made my way under the willow trees which provided some shelter from the breezes.  My larder of river-polished polystyrene chunks as white as the recent snowfall was there waiting for me.  I got an idea to make a particular figure from other items I found that day, but the piece I started crumbled to pieces.  A rare but not unheard of temporary setback.  I will return to it when I find the right form for this figure’s body.  On to improvised plan #2.  I looked around my pile and selected two new pieces and joined them together as head and body.  The addition of beaver-chewed willow stick limbs and some stones for eyes and plastic for the mouth and you have the basics of a figure.

Benchmark figure in the Falls landscape, Nov. 2014

This is the second piece I made and he is decidedly less complex than the sculpture that fell apart.  I kind of like this guy as an abstracted representation of a figure out in the landscape.  I walked him through the land and stopping here and there for different photo opportunities.  Here are a few more pics from this day.

Benchmark figure posed near river trash, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2014

To me, this figure has a sort of benchmark quality to it.  Here it’s posed next to some typical river trash.  There are places out here that “bleed” red from some oxides that originate beneath the sand.  I did keep the plastic wheel I found and added it to my ever-growing collection of toy wheels.  I have several hundred of them now and hope to create a grand piece with them.

Figure in a hole on the fossil cliffs, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2014

Up on the fossil cliffs that overlook the river, I found a nice hole for my figure to stand in.  I tried to set the figure up by positioning the legs in a naturally occurring crack in the stone, but the wind was just too strong to allow this to happen.  A single fisherman shares the scene with my latest creation.

Styro-figure posed next to a nice piece of driftwood, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2014

For this image, I simply liked the piece of driftwood my Styro-figure is posed next to because of its worn and polished sculptural qualities.

Styro-figure posed next to anonymous improvised driftwood shelter, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2014

Here, I’ve set up the figure under an anonymous driftwood construction.  I liked the way the propped up driftwood defined and framed a space for my figure to exist in.  On this particular day, there wasn’t a made up story that came to mind.  For most of my Falls forays…this is the typical way the day goes.  It’s about being outside and reacting to the elements and conditions I come into contact with on the river’s edge.  This is how I interpret what is happening at the Falls of the Ohio.  I am already looking forward to my next visit and sharing it with you.

The Interpretive Center as seen from the riverbank, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2014










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high Ohio River, 8/09

As a child, I can remember the moment when it occurred to me that recorded history doesn’t always measure up to the truth.  It happened in the third grade when we were reading about the discovery of North America by Christopher Columbus.  The teacher brought up the subject of Leif Ericson and his documented voyage to Vineland.  I remember thinking that if the Vikings were first…why were we making such a big deal out of Columbus?  Unfortunately at the time, the proprietary rights of the indigenous Americans didn’t figure into the discussion.  Later I learned that history is indeed fickle and subjective and usually supports the point of view of the victor or whomever was doing the recording.  That turned out to be a valuable lesson in life, although I didn’t know it at the time.

Prince Madoc, detail, 8/09

Among the many things I love about the Falls of the Ohio is the story of Prince Madoc and the Blond-haired, Blue-eyed Indians.  When Lewis and Clark began their exploration of the continent, President Jefferson asked Lewis to confirm their existence.  These people would be the descendants of a colony of Welsh travelers  that accompanied a Prince Madoc back around the year 1170 A.D.!  An even earlier date, five hundred years earlier, has been suggested as the time of the actual voyage and is connected with the descendants of King Arthur!  The most persistent stories, however, go back to the 12th century.

Prince Madoc, 8/09

After arriving in what is believed to be Alabama’s Gulf Coast…Madoc and his people eventually filtered into the heartland by traveling along the rivers.  In their wake, they left little evidence, however, a series of stone fortifications built by unknown hands is attributed to them.  According to a native American oral tradition, these blond-haired, fair-skinned people existed and were routed in battle near the Falls of the Ohio.  The survivors kept moving where they may have merged with the Mandans in the Dakotas.  Lewis and Clark did encounter the Mandans and found them different from the other Indians.  The artist George Catlin did the most extensive study of this tribe before they were all but destroyed by smallpox.  Those survivors later integrated with other native American groups. 

Prince Madoc at the Falls, 8/09

The physical evidence isn’t great.  There are the stone works… walls, fortifications, altered caves, a limestone slab from Kentucky with what appears to be runic writing in ancient Welsh on it.  A few unusual burials have been documented in our area, but nothing definitive has made the case.  Strangely though, there have been documented discoveries of Roman coins. One cache was turned up in the 1960’s during the construction of a bridge crossing the Ohio River at Louisville.  The coins’ discoverer gave two of them to a friend and kept the rest for himself and these were lost again?  The two surviving coins were eventually given to the Interpretive Center at the Falls where they were put on display with facsimiles to simulate the discovered horde.  Other coins have been found in other locations.  Usually, these finds are poo-pooed away as outright forgeries or instances where modern people just happened to lose Roman era coins!

Prince Madoc, in progress, 8/09

I’m sure that history must be full of forgotten stories and the discovery of this continent is among them.  This place has probably been “discovered” and “lost”  on a number of occasions.  With Madoc, whether his story proves to be fact is not as important as the tale itself.  What we remember frequently trumps the truth anyway and seems all the more compelling because there is a persistent mystery surrounding it.  In my own way, I enjoy working in this gray area between fact and fiction as I interpret life at the Falls of the Ohio.  If anyone is interested in the Prince Madoc legend…the links provided for the Falls of the Ohio State Park and the Falls archaeological society can be found in my web log to the right.

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