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Rock of ages: Up to 70,000 petroglyphs may exist along Mesa Prieta

LYDEN – When Katherine Wells moved to her mesa-side property above the Rio Grande in 1992, she knew that a number of petroglyphs were around – maybe hundreds.

But as the number of discoveries has continued to grow, she and a band of supporters are working to protect tens of thousands of drawings that have been pecked into the basalt boulders along the 12 miles of the Mesa Prieta.

“There are 27,000 (petroglyphs) at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque. It became a monument because Albuquerque was running over it,” she said. “We don’t have Albuquerque, but this site is as important.”

On the 156 acres she donated in 2007 to The Archaeological Conservancy, now called the Wells Petroglyph Preserve, some 6,000 petroglyphs have been recorded and a total of 9,000 are estimated to exist on the land, situated west of the Rio Grande between Alcalde and Velarde. Recently, the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C., recognized that preserve as among 11 threatened areas around the nation.

And along the entire Mesa Prieta, which stretches to the confluence of the Rio Grande and Rio Chama, and the first Spanish settlement of San Gabriel, some 70,000 petroglyphs are estimated to exist. They include abstract images, except for human handprints and animal footprints, from the Archaic Period (2,000 to 5,000 years ago), a host of human, animal, cosmic and geometric forms from the Puebloan Period (beginning in 1200 A.D.), and even more from the Historic Period, which begins with the Spanish arrival in 1598 around Ohkay Owingeh.

Schoolchildren are told the first Thanksgiving occurred after the English arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620, noted archaeologist Janet MacKenzie, a part-time employee with the petroglyph preserve. More likely, she said, the event occurred earlier when the Spanish were huddling in the cold on the Ohkay Owingeh plaza, with the Indians feeding them.

Archaeologist Janet MacKenzie, right, looks over some of the petroglyphs on basalt rocks along the Mesa Prieta. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Archaeologist Janet MacKenzie, right, looks over some of the petroglyphs on basalt rocks along the Mesa Prieta. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Spanish influence

“There are a higher percentage of Spanish Colonial images here than elsewhere,” said Steve Jenison, president of the board for the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project, which has 90 volunteers who use GPS coordinates, photos and drawings to document every image they find.

Among them are images of flute-playing animals, thought to be unique to the site. “That’s not been seen elsewhere,” he said.

Crosses are common, but a Historic Period image that hasn’t been seen at other sites appears to be a Spanish crown-wearing heraldic lion with a noble curve in its upheld tail. “We’ve not heard of heraldic lions (as petroglyphs) anywhere else,” Wells said. Some of the images appear to mirror the Spanish style, while others seem to be adapted by the Pueblo people to their style.

And even later images are what many would term graffiti, including initials of men involved with the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the Depression, and local names, such as a large “Naranjo” written across one rock face.

Local students in 4th to 7th grade are offered a curriculum, taught by their regular teachers but prepared on behalf of the Wells Petroglyph Preserve, about the petroglyphs. It focused on the Pueblo aspect of the designs, but recently a new section was added to discuss the Spanish influence on some of the works, Wells said.

The students also get to visit the preserve, which now has six trails that are open to the general public during two tours in the spring and two in the fall, said MacKenzie. Some 70 to 75 people a year also visit on private tours offered to research societies and other groups. Often, such tours are a reward that service groups, such as Kitchen Angels, give to their volunteers, she said.

This figure of a bird is among thousands of petroglyphs in the Wells Petroglyph Preserve. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

This figure of a bird is among thousands of petroglyphs in the Wells Petroglyph Preserve. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Protection needed

What they encounter is a feast for the eyes and a trigger to the imagination.

Circles large and small, believed to be war shields, contain a rich variety of geometric designs within them. Other common images include hump-backed human figures playing a flute – also snakes, spirals and suns.

Human figures include possible depictions of women giving birth, men holding a war shield and some that are more enigmatic. One looks like a woman feeding a goose.

Another human figure could be interpreted as clutching a rope with multiple knots, leading one to wonder if it represented the runner who brought the message to area communities about the planned Pueblo Revolt in 1680, said Jenison.

War clubs and one-pole ladders appear, as well as random peckings on rock faces that could represent stars or rain or – who knows? Many animals decorate the basalt boulders, including four-legged critters that could be dogs, coyotes, mountain lions or something else, turtles or frogs, and birds that may be real or mythic.

You can find grinding surfaces, along with tiny, cup-like depressions carved into rocks. Such cups are found around the world, MacKenzie said, but their purpose isn’t always known. In some places, it’s thought that “rock flour” from the depressions was used in poultices or healing drinks, she added.

At this point, the advocates aren’t calling for a particular form of protection for the petroglyphs, noting that many of them along the mesa are on private land. But they do want people to start thinking about what they have here and what should be done to preserve it.

“Only the federal government has the resources to protect (the petroglyphs) and remediate erosion problems,” Wells said.

“We see ourselves as documenting and making available information on what we have here. I think the consensus of everyone is that this is a very important site,” Jenison said, adding that it needs to be managed to protect the cultural and historic images. “Something needs to happen,” he said.