For rock art hunters, New Mexico offers a variety of locations to explore, some with petroglyphs numbering in the thousands over a very small area. Some locations are well known, while others take a significant effort in both time and research to find. And I like many avid rock art enthusiasts tend to keep the lesser known sites close to the vest. I do it for two reasons…half the fun is the research and discovery process. Nothing that is handed to you is as rewarding as finding it yourself. And second, there is little doubt that some among us hold this ancient art in less regard than others. Which has led to widespread vandalism of some of the more well known and easily accessible sites. That being said, there are plenty of publicly known locations to start your journey. And with a little effort you’ll find many more, some perhaps not seen by others in modern times.
Pictographs vs. Petroglyphs
What is the difference between a pictograph and petroglyph?. The answer lies in the tools used to create the art. Pictographs are essentially paintings, using varies pigments that produce different colors. Ochre was a widely used example that produces earthy shades of orange and red. But explore enough and you’ll find other colors like white, yellow, blue and green. On the other hand, Petroglyph were created by artists that used rocks and other blunt instruments to chip a design out of their sandstone canvas.
In my experience different tribes at different periods of time seemed to favor one style over the other. But it would be incorrect to say that pictographs were created by one group of Indians, and petroglyphs by another. As there example of both styles being used at the same time, and taking on the same artistic characteristics and subjects.
What is the rock art telling us?
At this point nobody knows precisely, and chance are good we never will. There is no equivalent to the Rosetta Stone in North American archaeology, and even if one were found, the rock art one finds in Utah and throughout the American Southwest is spread over such a vast period of time, and many different cultures that one translation wouldn’t fit them all.That being said, I don’t think we need to look farther than our own lives to get a sense of what the ancient Native Americans were recording in the sandstone. Like us they were human beings with aspirations, struggles, and questions about their place in the Universe.
If you look closely enough at the rock art and make some educated guesses you will see at this three different things.
The Natural World
There are repeated depictions of animals found in the real world. Bighorn sheep, snakes, buffalo, deer, elk and lizards. No doubt the Indians saw these as either a food source, a predator to be wary of, or both. If you look at the Native American mythology of today you can also imagine these creatures taking on a spiritual or earthly mythological component. The oral traditions of the Raven and Coyote as a trickster that one sees in modern tribes is a good example.
The Spirit World
As noted above, there also seems to be a clear spiritual, or mythological component to the rock art that depicts creatures and anthropomorphic figures that are clearly not realistic representations of something found on Earth in the present or during the period ancient Indian tribes lived in the West. No doubt these creates find their origin in dreams, oral stories and spiritual beliefs about the world and the broader universe. Similar examples of such creatures can be found in the mythology of ancient Greece, the Norse, the Irish, etc.
The Celestial World
Finally, research has demonstrated that certain markings left behind were related to celestial events and observations. Such as arrows and other markers painted or carved onto rock faces where the sunlight only falls on key days of the astronomical calendar, such as the Summer and Winter Solstices, and the Spring and Fall Equinoxes. These markings alone tell us the Native Americans were keen observers of the night sky, and knew lunar, solar and constellation cycles well.
Popular New Mexico Rock Art Sites
Crow Canyon Petroglyphs (Dinétah Region Map)
The Crow Canyon Petroglyphs are located in Northwest New Mexico, near the Four Corners area, and the town of Farmington. The Petroglyphs are found in the traditional homeland of the Navajo, known as the Dinétah, and were largely carved by the Navajo between the 16th and 18th century. However, the rock art of the earlier Anasazi can also be seen.
The BLM recommends having a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle to reach this site. Access is highly dependent on the weather, and requires crossing two washes that may be impassable in inclement weather. Drive south 19 miles from the junction of County Road 4450 and Highway 64. Follow the signs across Largo Wash, and then turn north and drive one mile to the mouth of Crow Canyon. Visit the Official Website.
Petroglyph Hill – Galisteo Basin
This is a petroglyph site outside of Galisteo, NM, that was purchased recently from the owners of the Thorton Ranch. Access to the site remains restricted but in recent years has been opened to guided public tours. Its estimated that over 2000 petrogylphs exist on this volcanic outcrop. A small fraction have been classified as Archaic, going back thousands of years, while the majority are believed to have been produced by New Mexico’s Puebloan peoples (1200-1325 A.D), in particular by a group that once inhabited the nearby Burnt Corn Pueblo archaeological site.
Another location related to this site, known as Comanche Gap (which remains closed to the public), offers some spectacular examples of the rock art produced by tribes in this area, and some of the best rock art examples I have seen in the Southwest.
La Cieneguilla Petroglyphn (Location Map)
This petroglyph site is located just outside of Santa Fe New Mexico. Follow Airport Road 3.3 miles west from the intersection of Airport Road and NM Road 599. You will see a sign marking the location as well as a gravel parking lot. The petroglyphs are located on a basalt cliff face overlooking the Santa Fe River.
The rock art at this location has been attributed to the Keres Pueblo peoples and was carved between the 13th and 17th centuries, covering a time before and after their contact with the Spanish. This location is known for its large number of hump-backed flute player images (known popularly as Kokopelli). Birds are also a common theme among the petroglyphs.
An interesting side note of this location, is that it falls along the route of the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, an ancient trade route between Mexico and the Indian tribes of the southwest, that was later co-opted by the Spanish for their own purposes, including spreading Christianity across the region.
Mesa Prieta Petroglyph (Google Maps)
The 148 acre Wells Petroglyph Preserve was setup to protect a section of the petroglyph located on Mesa Prieta, in north central New Mexico. The petroglyphs are carved into a layer of 3 million year old basalt. A small number of the images can be attributed to archaic Indians, and typically appear as geometric patterns, or hand prints, but the vast majority of the rock art is attributed to Ancient Puebloans migrating into New Mexico from the Four Corners region. It’s estimated that more than 75,000 petroglyphs are located on the mesa.
Visiting the Wells Petroglyph Preserve requires setting up a tour with the Mesa Prieta Preservation Project, whose offices are located in Velarde, NM.
Three Rivers Petroglyphs – (Google Maps)
The site is located 17 miles north of Tularosa, NM, and 28 miles south of Carrizozo, NM on U.S. 54, in southeastern New Mexico. Turn east from U.S. 54 at Three Rivers onto County Road B30 and travel five miles on paved road, following signs. According to the BLM these petroglyphs, depicting humans, reptiles, fish, mammals and insects were carved using stone tools by the Jornada Mogollon between 900 and 1400 A.D. The Mogollon were an Ancestral Puebloan people related to the modern Puebloan peoples of New Mexico (Hopi, Zuni, Keres, and Towa) as well as the Anasazi and Hohokam and Patayan.
It’s estimated the Three Rivers site contains more than 21,000 petroglyphs spread across 50 acres. Visit the Official Website.