Petroglyph National Monument

Established in 1990, the 7200-acre Petroglyph National Monument
is the only unit in our National Park System to focus on
North America's extensive heritage of prehistoric Indian rock art

Rock Art Images

Petroglyph National Monument rock art shows strong similarities to other Anasazi artistic media from 1350-1680 AD, and to contemporary Pueblo Indian cultural symbolism.
Photos by Isaac Eastvold

Looking due west from virtually any point in Albuquerque, one can see the familiar outline of volcanoes. Just one mile east of the volcanoes, a serpentine "wall" of black rock stretches north and south for 17 miles; this is the West Mesa basaltic escarpment. The escarpment and volcanic landscape is rich with hundreds of archeological sites indicating that for thousands of years this has been a multi-use area—home to prehistoric Indian peoples and their complex cultural traditions. Perhaps the most precious archeological feature, and the one most likely to be destroyed by short-sighted urban sprawl and individual vandalism, is an extraordinary major concentration of prehistoric rock art.

Petroglyphs, images pecked or carved on the basaltic cliffs, are found throughout the 17-mile stretch of the escarpment. The more than 15,000 West Mesa petroglyphs are thought to have been created over a period of 3000 to 5000 years by hunter-gatherers, Anasazi farmers, and Spanish sheep herders. Estimated dates for the oldest petroglyphs, powerful curvilinear abstract designs, are roughly 3000 BC to 500 AD; early Anasazi petroglyphs made between 700 to 1300 AD are similar to designs found on the pottery of that era. The bulk of the petroglyphs consists of Rio Grande Style imagery, some of the most dramatic and complex in the Southwest. These images, which date from the 14th century through the 17th century AD, are beautifully, caringly rendered, and are especially impressive when one considers how painstaking and difficult it must have been—carving stone with stone. Mythological animals and birds, shield bearers, ceremonial anthropomorphs, star beings, flute players and kachina masks are among the types of images made by the southern Tiwa Pueblo farmers who occupied large villages on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Flute Player

Mesa Prieta flute player. Conspicuous knees are unusual. He lacks the humped back of the more familiar Kokopelli.

Contemporary pueblo ceremonial art such as sand paintings, kachina masks, pottery designs, weaving, altar painting, and puppetry have their roots in the Rio Grande Style. Rock Art imagery has preserved an invaluable record of these pueblo Indian religious roots extending back in time beyond the ethnographic records.

While the petroglyphs comprise a prehistoric record of spirits and powers that figure prominently in pueblo ceremony and ritual today, they are also a distinctive pueblo art form that we should not be anxious to destroy. This collection of Native American art from the past is unlike art removed from its original context and placed in the environment of museums; rather, rock art can be experienced in its intended landscape. Imagery incorporating rock, sunlight and shadow enhances and interacts with the landscape in which it occurs—this is not "Indian graffiti," as occasionally it has been irresponsibly labeled. The immense creativity represented here is staggering; one realizes that each drawing is a unique expression and is irreplaceable.

Regardless of when they were made or their functional context, the petroglyphs have preserved the unique ideologies of their makers. It is important, therefore, to consider them in the context of the culture that created them—not in the context of 20th century cultural conditioning. All too often, rock art theories have distorted the ancient cultures by imposing our own ethnocentric biases.

Pueblo Indian leaders testifying before Congress have explained that the figures at Petroglyph National Monument "are part of our living culture . . . to remind us of who we are and where we came from as Indian people . . . and we need to return to them to teach our own sons and daughters of it." Pueblo leaders also told Congress that they "still use certain areas of the escarpment for sacred ceremonies that have been going on for centuries before the time of the Spanish Conquistadors and the White Man."

Beside its distinction as a living tradition and an outdoor church to the Pueblo Indians, Petroglyph National Monument also has the dubious distinction of being the most endangered National Monument in the Park System. Situated directly in the path of Albuquerque's most intense westward growth, significant proportions of the petroglyph-rich escarpment already have suffered from suburban encroachment, roads, powerlines and pipelines. Trash dumping, off-road vehicle abuse, and shooting or spray painting of the petroglyphs also have taken their toll. More new developments, huge new roads cutting through the escarpment, and the expansion of an adjacent airport also are planned or underway.

For more information, please visit the National Park Service’s Petroglyph National Monument remote site page.

Thanks to Isaac Eastvold.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Albuquerque Metro Area - Volume 7

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LAST MODIFIED September 24, 2007

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