The Petroglyphs: Rock Art of the Past in Albuquerque, New Mexico

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

I am tacking a break from my blogs on the Baltic Sea cruise. The last stop on the cruise is a memorable three days in Copenhagen, Denmark. Well worth a blog or two. But I like to vary the blogs between international travel and local travel. Since my hometown is the interesting and diverse city of Albuquerque, and my state of New Mexico is full of fascinating sites, I will write several new blogs on local destinations, often a short drive from my home.

Dormant volcanoes, West Albuquerque

Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, is home to many distinctive cultural, geographical, and topographical features. One of these interesting features stretches along the western edge of Albuquerque, where rising above the flat grasslands is a low, barren, volcanic plateau (West Mesa) that reaches skyward 200 feet and extends for over 15 miles.

Piercing the western landscape are five long-extinct volcanic cones and a 17-mile basalt escarpment or cliff. It emerged about 200,000 years ago when lava gushed from a large crack in the Earth’s crust. A series of subsequent eruptions formed what is now called the West Mesa.

Lava rocks from extinct volcanoes, photo Denise Ames

Layer upon layer of lava flowed over and around existing landforms. Over time, softer sediments on the mesa’s eastern edge chipped away from the escarpment; freed basalt boulders tumbled downward, providing an ideal material for carving Puebloan and Spanish petroglyphs that we see today. 

A petroglyph at the Rincanado Canyon site

A petroglyph is a rock carving made by pecking directly on the rock surface using a stone chisel and a hammerstone. When the desert varnish (or patina) on the surface of the rock is chipped off, the lighter rock underneath is exposed, creating a petroglyph. Petroglyphs are found worldwide, and are often associated with nonliterate peoples.

Since petroglyphs are to be found in my own backyard, less than 10 miles away, I would like to share with you my pictures, explorations, and experiences of this ancient form of art.

The petroglyphs are preserved in the Petroglyph National Monument located on the westside of Albuquerque. Authorized June 27, 1990, the 7,236 acre (29.28 km2) monument is cooperatively managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque. The western boundary of the monument includes a chain of five dormant fissure volcanoes. Along with a visitor’s center, there are three sites of the petroglyphs: Rinconada Canyon, Boca Negra Canyon, and Pedras Marcadas Canyon. I visited all three of them at the end of February and early March of 2021. I have visited them before, but I wanted to see them again with fresh eyes, as I focused on conveying my impressions in this blog.

Archeologists estimate that most of the approximately 24,000 petroglyphs, date from the Ancestral Pueblo period of 1300 to 1600 AD. But some images may even be 2,000 t0 3,000 years old. Beginning in the 1600s Hispanic heirs to the Atrisco Land Grant carved crosses and livestock brands into the rocks. Therefore, a mixture of Native and Hispanic cultures is evident on these rocks.

The petroglyphs were made by chipping away the dark, weathered surface of the lava to reveal the light-colored rock underneath. The carvings have a huge variety of designs, some very complex, including animals, hunting scenes, people, masks, geometric patterns and abstract shapes, and in many places occur in dense groups with dozens on a single boulder. Their meaning was, possibly, understood only by the carver.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 9 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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