In 1992 Katherine Wells and her partner, Lloyd, were looking for property in New Mexico. The vast skies, open vistas and peacefulness of New Mexico appealed to them. Katherine had a pre-existing fascination with petroglyphs, easily casting herself into the past, finding both inspiration and solace in the images etched by unknown strangers centuries earlier. Like many people relocating from California, they started their search in Santa Fe, weighing the pros and cons of building vs. buying a home. The latter was deemed a more cost effective and comfortable proposition, but the easy course was not meant to be.
Their realtor mentioned a lot available north of Española. It was a larger piece of property than what they had intended to buy, but the realtor mentioned seeing petroglyphs at the site, which immediately piqued Katherine’s interest. When they drove up the rocky dirt road to the lot, Katherine immediately noticed a petroglyph, and then another, and another. Any possibility of Lloyd talking her into buying a house rather than this lot dissipated with each image spotted.
Within a year of moving in and hiking the boulder strewn expanse of acreage, she realized that there were petroglyphs everywhere. Thickets of flutists, scores of shields, hordes of human figures, an abundance of animals, clusters of crosses and arrays of arrows adorned the basalt boulders strewn across the property. Though many of the glyphs had faded over the centuries, thousands of them are clear and vibrant, leaping off the rock as if they had been pecked recently. Upon closer inspection she realized there were faint, earlier images, the abstract designs of the Archaic people that preceded the Ancestral Puebloans. Cumulatively the boulders around her house serve as stone tablets with images depicting millenia of the Rio Grande valley’s history.
The Taos Plateau volcanic field is the second largest volcanic field in the Rio Grande Rift, sprawling over 2700 square miles (7,000 km2). Within the volcanic field there are examples of sheet flows, cinder cones, and shield volcanoes. Most of the volcanic vents and lava flows are estimated to be between 1.8 - 4 million years old; however, a few of the vents are 22 million years old. The lava varies, composed primarily of basalt or rhyolite.
About 3.3 million years ago, a fissure near Pilar vented molten lava which flowed about 25 miles south on top of the river-cobble and sand, created by erosion from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Venting doesn’t involve an explosion. Lava oozes, flowing in rivers or sheets. When the hot lava cooled, it formed a hard canoe-shaped layer of basalt. When the Rio Grande river began to flow, about 440,000 years ago, it eroded the softer landscape around the basalt, eventually leaving the protected mesa cap towering 1000 feet above the river basin.
Mesa Prieta, meaning ‘dark mesa’, is a 36 square mile mesa north of Española, New Mexico. The east side runs adjacent to the Rio Grande river and the western side has a large expanse of habitable land, with prime agricultural land between the base of the mesa and the nearby drainage.
This part of the Rio Grande has been inhabited for a long time. The dense forest of cottonwoods that line the river are a haven and water source for wildlife. That attracted ancient hunters. Folsom points have been found, confirming at least 10,000 years of human presence in the area. Waterways were invaluable to ancient inhabitants, more so as the Ancestral Puebloans started to cultivate crops in the 1300s to supplement hunting and foraging.
About 7500 years ago, Archaic people began utilizing the basalt boulders on Mesa Prieta as stone canvases. The Archaic images are distinct from the images left by the Ancestral Puebloans, who arrived much later. The Archaic people typically pecked abstract geometric glyphs, with an occasional human or animal footprint.
Realism, with recognizable images and figures, arrived with the Ancestral Puebloans. They arrived around 1300 AD. It is believed that a large number of Puebloan people migrated into the Rio Grande and Chama River valleys from Mesa Verde. They picked up where their predecessors had left off, creating a vast tableau of images and symbols, strewn across the mesa.
In 1598 the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Southwest, San Gabriel del Yunque, was established by Don Juan de Oñate near the confluence of the Chama and Rio Grande rivers. It served as the first provincial capital, the pivotal source of Spanish influence in the area, until 1610 when a subsequent governor moved the capital further south to Santa Fe.
A total of 55,000 petroglyphs and cultural landscape features have been recorded, representing 10,000 years of human use of Mesa Prieta.
There are as many as 100,000 petroglyphs on Mesa Prieta, including the largest number of Historic Petroglyphs in New Mexico. Historic images include Spanish lions, lots of crosses, wagons, inscriptions, dates, names, initials, churches and humans.
Mesa Prieta has the most animal flute players in the world (as far as we know).
MESA PRIETA PETROGLYPHS
Petroglyphs are images created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, pecking, carving, or abrading the stone. They are associated with prehistoric peoples and can be found worldwide. The word was coined by the French as pétroglyphe. It is derived from the Greek word petro-, meaning "stone", and the Latin word glyphein meaning "to carve."
The availability of water made Mesa Prieta an enticing locale. Folsom points have been found which confirm at least 10,000 years of human activity in the area. The huge, dark basalt boulders are ideal for rock graphics. Over 100,000 examples of rock images are estimated to exist on the mesa in addition to other archaeological features. Some boulders are literally covered in petroglyphs. The rock images represent three distinct time periods: Archaic, Pueblo IV, and Historic (which reflects when written history began with the arrival of the Spanish). There are thousands of all three types of glyph, a lasting testament to the proliferation of humans in the surrounding region over the past several thousand years.
No one really knows why the ancients created petroglyphs or what they intended to communicate. Though many people refer to them as ‘rock art,’ there are just as many that would argue against the use of the word ‘art.’ Were the ancients expressing their creative side? Do the glyphs convey a story, a message, a warning? We may never know, but the mysteries are what makes history appealing. We’ll never know the identity of the individuals who created the glyphs, what their life was like, or what year they perched on a boulder and etched a lasting masterpiece in stone. However, it is often easy to figure out where they needed to perch while working on an image.
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Whereas the mesa's remote location has spared it the problems of similar sites in more populated areas, like Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, vandalism, land development and erosion pose constant threats. Boulders with magnificent petroglyphs have been mined for riprap, loose stone used to form a foundation for a breakwater or other structures, like dams. Mining continues today with the threat of future mining omnipresent. Vandalism is evident in the most visited sections.
Some areas of concentrated glyphs are on steep slopes which have seriously eroded due to centuries of overgrazing by sheep. The lack of ground cover coupled with torrential monsoon rains result in accelerated erosion, with boulders at risk of toppling or being swept away in rock slides.
Katherine Wells recognized the value of the petroglyphs from the moment she stepped foot on the land. Her appreciation for the history and culture embodied in the images led to a multi-year battle to preserve, document and protect them. Fortunately, she found allies from the local community and the archaeological community. It was a relentless, exhausting battle; however, she forged lifelong friendships and accomplished her goal, incrementally expanding the scope of the project as involvement and enthusiasm increased.
In 1993 and 1994, she allowed the New Mexico Archaeological Society’s Rock Art Field School, led by Jay and Helen Crotty, to survey the property. The overwhelming number of petroglyphs and archaeological features discovered prompted additional fieldwork in subsequent years, with Jay and Helen becoming instrumental in the movement to protect the petroglyphs. Shrines, water control systems, check dams, lithic scatters, ceramics, field houses and other structures are some of the many archaeological features discovered thus far. Grid gardens and trails, both ancient and historic, have been documented. The prehistoric trails are often marked with turkey track petroglyphs.
In 1999 the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project was established to record all of the images on the mesa (and adjacent properties when possible) and to provide educational opportunities to local schools and the community about the importance of the site culturally and historically. It took three years to set up the infrastructure and logistics: maps were gathered, permission to record on several parcels of private land had to be obtained, volunteers were recruited and trained by Jay and Helen Crotty and Jerry and Jean Brody, funds were raised, recording forms developed, etc. Field work began in 2002. Approximately 55,000 petroglyphs have been documented since the project began.
In 2007 Katherine donated the property to The Archaeological Conservancy. It became known as the Wells Petroglyph Preserve. The Preserve includes the densest concentration of petroglyphs on the mesa. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties. In 2014, the Cultural Landscapes Foundation recognized Mesa Prieta as one of the nation’s eleven most threatened and at risk landscapes.
In December, 2014, an additional 25 acres was added to the Wells Petroglyph Preserve by The Archaeological Conservancy, bringing the total acreage to 181 acres. Currently the Wells Petroglyph Preserve is overseen by The Archaeological Conservancy and managed by the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project.
Protection and preservation is the central theme of the project. Education is critical, because it fosters an appreciation for the value of the historic and cultural legacy represented on the stones of Mesa Prieta.
Relationships with the local Pueblos is vital. Many of the images were undoubtedly left by their ancestors. Mesa Prieta developed a curriculum and a Summer Youth Intern Program to introduce youth from the Pueblos to the existence of the petroglyphs and to the ethics of heritage preservation and stewardship. As part of the educational outreach students from the nearby pueblos and Hispano communities are trained, working side by side with archaeologists to document the images left by their ancestors.
Adult petroglyph recording training is conducted each spring based on the needs of the project, with about 35 volunteers currently working as petroglyph recorders and surveyors. It isn’t an easy job. Attention to detail is vital to having accurate, complete records. Recorders must be able to hike up to a mile each way in rugged, steep terrain to access remote recording areas. The training consists of a full day of classroom instruction, followed by two field training days. At that point volunteers are assigned to work with a team in the field. Mentors work with each trainee at least two additional days, for a total of five days of training. Trainees learn how to use the GPS units and digital cameras. They learn how to take metric measurements and compass readings and they become proficient in the drawing skills needed to document images. In addition, they are instructed in the protocols of placing images into the categorical system developed by the Crottys and Brodys.
Please visit the website for more information about workshops, events, public tours, educational curriculum and volunteer opportunities.
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