Petroglyph National Monument: Petroglyph art at its best

rock art“Each of these rocks is alive, keeper of a message left by the ancestors… There are spirits, guardians; there is medicine…” so reads the inscription of pueblo elder, William F. Weahkee at Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico. 

Petroglyph art abounds at Petroglyph National Monument. Walking amongst these ancient lava beds and images you get a sense of solitude and sacredness yet you are surrounded by modern development. Petroglyph National Monument is divided into three canyons and contains over 20,000 images pecked in stone. There is Boca Negra canyon, Piedras Marcadas Canyon and Rinconada Canyon.

There is a sense of cultural continuity as Spanish colonists, Christians and Native people all left their marks in the black rock. Archaeologists estimate that most of the images were made 400 to 700 years ago by the ancestors of today’s Native people. Some images are estimated to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old. Walking amongst these jagged rocks I saw images of animals, insects, people, crosses and some mysterious, indecipherable symbols which only their creators would know.

“Archaeologists believe that 90% of the petroglyphs were created using the Rio Grande style, which developed about A.D.1300, and continued until the end of the 1600’s. Images of the Rio Grande  petroglyph art style include human figures such as flute players or dancers; masks and masked figures; human feet and hands; animals including mountain lions, birds, serpents, reptiles, insects, and animal tracks; spirals, four-pointed stars, and geometric designs.”

So what do these symbols portray or mean? Why were they created? These questions may be answered by clues in the subject matter, carving technique, or setting. One thing for sure is that it was important to the artist and planning of the subject and the setting was involved. Carving each image with primitive stone tools took a very long time.

There are images of birds native to Central America which indicates that the Native people did have cultural links to far away places. There are many questions to be asked about the meaning behind the symbols and petroglyph art. What do the spirals represent? A calendar, an emergence story, the cycles of life, a desert millipede? What of the two faced humans placed at the corner of a boulder? Are they guarding a secret location? Are they indicating paths you can take? Perhaps some petroglyph art meanings were never meant to be disclosed. Native peoples themselves hold varying interpretations of many images, depending on context. Cultural biases from our own century also need to be taken into account when it comes to interpreting the petroglyph art.

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