Monday, November 13, 2017

Images from the Past

Petroglyph at Boca Negra Canyon
On the outskirts of Albuquerque, just beyond a residential housing development, you can find messages left from an older civilization. Here in the high desert there are hundreds of petroglyphs left by ancestors of the native people that live here today.

This desert lizard is pretty easy to identify but why is it holding a paddle?
This land was formed by volcanic lava flows that have eroded over time. Five cinder cones dominate the landscape which is covered with boulders broken off from the lava caprock. The basalt boulders are covered in desert varnish, a thin dark coating of oxidized iron and other minerals deposited over time. This layer varies in color from orange to black and is only about 1 micrometer in depth..
Petroglyphs were created by chipping away that desert varnish layer to reveal the stone’s natural gray color. The work was done with primitive stone tools. Large areas of images were made by striking the boulder with a stone in a hammer-like manner. Finer lines and detailed portions of the petroglyph were made by using 2 stones similar to a hammer and chisel. It took planning,  time and patience to produce a lasting image.

There is a story here but I can't decipher it.
Some of the figures are easy to identify. Snakes, dragonflies and lizards appear frequently. Other images such as geometric designs are not so easy to interpret. Even the native people that consider this a sacred area are not sure of the meanings.

Archeologists have determined that some of the images may be as much as 3000 years old. Most were created between 400-700 years ago.

In addition to petroglyphs carved by native people you can see pictures of crosses and cattle brands that were left by Hispanic sheep and cattle herders.

There is evidence of vandalism here. Images have been scratched over and used for target practice. The petroglyphs have lasted a long time but they are fragile. Once damaged there is no way to restore them.

There were many perfect spirals pictured.

New Mexico created a State Park at Boca Negra Canyon to protect the images in the 1970’s. The Petroglyph area was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and by 1990 Petroglyph National Monument was created.

We stopped at the Visitor Center to get an overview of the Monument, watched a short film and spoke for a while with the Ranger and volunteers that manned the information desk. The national park service area covers 17 miles of escarpment and the 5 volcanoes. There are 3 established trails that allow you access to the petroglyphs. We chose Boca Negra Canyon where a series of paved trails and one rustic uphill climb allowed us get up close to the images. Petroglyph National Monument has been high on my list of desired places to see since we started our journey and I wanted to get as close as possible to the images.

We climbed to the top of the escarpment first on a narrow steep path more suited to mountain goats than humans. There were petroglyphs on so many surfaces. We soon realized that most of them were on smooth vertical rocks facing South. Knowing where to look made them easier to spot.
The view from the top out over the city was pretty spectacular.

The high desert environment is still foreign to us. The sharp rocks and wide open spaces devoid of trees and shrubbery are a constant source of wonder. We are enjoying getting out into it every chance we get.

Petroglyph National Monument
Unser Blvd NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico


  1. We were surprised at how green the desert looked to us after being in it for awhile. Not the green us easterners are used to, but green nonetheless. :)

    1. Right. Us too. We were expecting sand but not the amount of plant life that is there when you really look. Rascal is not too pleased with the quality of the grass though.