Petroglyphs in national monument illuminate our distant past

Petroglyph National Monument
Petroglyph National Monument, along Albuquerque’s West Mesa, preserves upwards of 24,000 images of rock art, engraved in desert varnish along the escarpment. (Courtesy Wikipedia)
If you’d like to take a “cool’ walk this winter, you might consider Albuquerque’s Petroglyph National Monument. Temperatures will be much lower than July and, for certain, the grandkids will think the park is totally cool.

Petroglyph National Monument consists of a 17-mile-long stretch of volcanic basalt escarpment comprising Albuquerque’s West Mesa. From the visitors center, there’s a mile-long trail through Rinconada Canyon along the base of the escarpment from which you can see many of the 24,000 petroglyphs etched in the desert varnish. So variable are the images, a walk along this trail might be considered equivalent to coursing galleries in New York or Chicago art museums.

There are animal images: big horn sheep, coyotes, bear, turtles, lizards, snakes, and birds — including Macaws imported from Meso-America. There are faces and elaborate masks, hand prints, full-body images of people in feather headdresses holding corn plants, bows and arrows, and other implements, and even kacinas. Some are representative of religious or spiritual entities, and some tell stories of who came to the area and where they went. It may be stretching the point, but you could consider petroglyphs in the same way we think of texting today.

Many of the glyphs are geometric — circles, spirals, squares, and other abstract designs. But they are not just rock art or graffiti. The context of each images is important and integral to its meaning, oriented to surroundings images and the landscape in which it sits. Placement was not casual nor random, although weathering has undoubtedly tumbled boulders down the escarpment, introducing a randomness.

Petroglyphs are powerful, cultural symbols reflecting the complex societies and religions of native people who lived here long before the Spanish arrived.

Most of the rock art etched in the escarpment is from 400 to 700 years old, although scientists say some of the images may be as old at 3,000 years. As you walk the trail, it’s common to ask who made these pictures and why. There are any number of interpretations, but the National Park Service, which manages the national monument with the City of Albuquerque, notes the meaning of each petroglyph is known only to it creator.

Rectangular block reveals more than a dozen different images, including people, animals, and geometric designs. (Below) Three faces stare down from this block of basalt, sitting among other boulders.
Some experts think animal images represent rituals to assure a successful hunt. Images involving plants may be part of ceremonies asking for a bountiful harvest. Some represent wind, water, rain, and lightning, while others made by holy people — or medicine men — might be calling upon spirits and gods to bring healing or protection or represent spiritual emergence or journeys. Others might have been carved as part of rite of passage ceremonies. There are even some crosses more recently carved by Spanish settlers.

The original artists are, of course, long gone, although descendants who are today’s Pueblo people may indeed know the meanings. But many of the images have supernatural, spiritual significance and are considered sacred by Pueblo people, so — even if they know — they’re not saying. It would be like a priest telling what he heard in the confessional.

The site of the national monument has a history almost as interesting as the petroglyphs themselves. More than 200,000 years ago, five volcanic eruptions occurred west of the Rio Grandé fault, through which the river now flows. The resulting lava erupting from the ground here is much older than lava comprising El Malpais farther west. Travel Interstate-25 just north of Los Lunas, at the Isleta Pueblo village, and you’ll pass through the layer of lava defining the escarpment.

On high ground east of Albuquerque, look west and you’ll see the cones resulting from the fissure. The dormant (note — not extinct) volcanoes are named Butte, Bond, Vulcan, Black, and JA — after the initials painted on its side by students from John Adams middle school. Lava flowed from the fissure to a depth of up to 50 feet. The lava contains high concentrations of iron, manganese, and calcium, which combine to give the rock its gray color.

Rain, wind, and variable temperatures eroded underlying and overlying sediments, exposing the basalt layer. Then, over time, minerals in rock surfaces oxidized creating the glossy, almost-black desert varnish.

Long ago, native people, as well as Spanish settlers, discovered images can be created on the faces of the boulders by chipping away this dark layer using rocks and other tools. It may have been a “Eureka!” moment or even an accidental rock thrown against a larger block. But the resulting chip, revealing the underlying gray-white rock, opened the door for artists to create images.

Petroglyph National Monument is a day-use park free to the public. Its headquarters and visitor center are off Unser Boulevard NW at Western Trail. Take I-40 north at Unser Boulevard and follow signs. The visitor center has restroom facilities, water, and a gift shop. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. You can hike Rinconada Canyon from sunrise to sunset, parking outside the gated lots at the visitor center.

Boca Negra Canyon is a mile or so north of the visitor center. It has three paved trails for viewing up to 100 petroglyphs on self-guided tours of five to 30 minutes. It has restrooms and water, shaded seating areas, and picnic tables. Parking fee is $1 weekdays and $2 weekends. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Seven miles north of the visitor center is Piedras Marcadas Canyon. Open from sunrise to sunset daily, it has an undeveloped 1.5-mile trail with some of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in the national monument. Water, restrooms, or other amenities are unavailable at this site.