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. They transported her into the past. She  finds both inspiration and solace in the images etched by unknown strangers centuries ago. Like many people relocating from California, Katherine and Lloyd started their search in Santa Fe. They weighed the pros and cons of building vs. buying a home. Ultimately, they decided buying was a more cost effective and comfortable proposition. That didn’t happen.

Their realtor mentioned a lot that was available north of Española. It was larger than what they had intended to buy, but the realtor mentioned seeing petroglyphs at the site. That revelation immediately piqued Katherine’s interest. When they drove up the rocky dirt road, Katherine noticed a petroglyph, and then another, and another. With every image she spotted, Lloyd’s prospects of talking her into buying a house dissipated.

Mesa Prieta petroglyphsWithin a year of moving in and hiking the boulder strewn expanse of acreage, Katherine 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 of the property. Some glyphs fade over the centuries. Yet, thousands of them remain clear and vibrant, leaping off the rock as if they had been created yesterday. Furthermore, Katherine realized that some of the faint images were abstract designs left by Archaic people that preceded the Ancestral Puebloans. Cumulatively, the images left on the boulders represent more than a 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 2,700 square miles. There are examples of sheet flows, cinder cones, and shield volcanoes within the flow. Geologists estimate that most of the volcanic vents and lava are between 1.8 to 4 million years old; however, a few of the older vents are more than 22 million years old. The composition of the volcanic rock varies, but most of it is basalt or rhyolite.

About 3.3 million years ago, a fissure near Pilar, south of Taos, vented molten lava. The lava flowed about 25 miles south, covering river-cobble and sand deposited by erosion from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Venting didn’t involve an explosion. The lava seeped, flowing in rivers or sheets. As the lava cooled, it formed a hard canoe-shaped layer of basalt. When the Rio Grande river began to flow about 440,000 years ago, the water eroded the softer stone around the basalt. The river eventually washed away the softer sediment, leaving the basalt mesa cap towering one thousand feet above the river basin.

Mesa Prieta, meaning ‘dark mesa’, is a 36 square mile stone monolith towering over Española, New Mexico. The east side runs adjacent to the Rio Grande river, but the west side has a large expanse of habitable land. The prime agricultural real estate is between the base of the mesa and the nearby drainage.

Mesa Prieta petroglyphs

Humans Arrive

Humans moved into the Rio Grande valley a long time ago. The dense forest of cottonwoods that line the river are a haven for wildlife. The abundance of wildlife 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, particularly as the Ancestral Puebloans started to cultivate crops.

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 a rare depiction of a human or an animal footprint.

Realism, with recognizable images and figures, arrived with the Ancestral Puebloans. They dominated the region by 1100 AD. Archaeologists believe that a large number of Puebloan people migrated into the Rio Grande and Chama River valleys from Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. They picked up where their predecessors had left off, creating a vast tableau of images and symbols on 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, which is Española today. The settlement served as the first provincial capital and it remained the pivotal source of Spanish influence in the area until 1610 when Oñate’s successor moved the capital south to Santa Fe.

Mesa Prieta petroglyphs

Mesa Prieta Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs are images created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, pecking, carving, or abrading the stone. The images were created long ago by prehistoric people worldwide.

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. Project volunteers have recorded over 55,000 petroglyphs and cultural landscape features thus far. They represent 10,000 years of human habitation around Mesa Prieta in the area.


Archaic glyph at Mesa PrietaArchaic period images are scattered throughout the site. Archaeologists estimate that they are at least 5000 years old. The archaic images are often difficult to discern and easy to miss. Many have eroded or repatinated over the millennia. The images are similar to archaic sites around the world. They are usually abstract: meandering lines, one-pole ladders, grids, etc., with an occasional human or animal hand or footprints. The largest category of glyphs catalogued from this period fall into the “unidentified” category, resembling nothing we recognize from the physical world.

Ancestral Puebloan

Representational images of humans, animals, plants and other objects arrived with the Shield at Mesa PrietaPuebloans in 1200 AD. Thus far, as many as 75% of the petroglyphs at Mesa Prieta were created during the Pueblo IV period.
Some people had more artistic skill than others. There are images that are rudimentary or lightly pecked. Others are complex, detailed, precise, deeply etched masterpieces. There are stones covered with small glyphs and there are enormous images that cover entire boulders.

Pueblo IV Petroglyphs

Archaeologists think most of the Pueblo IV glyphs were created in conjunction with a ritual or ceremony. The land, including Tsikw’aye, aka Mesa Prieta, is a sacred place to many people in northern New Mexico. The mesa is well known for the number of shields, shield bearers and flute players. It is the largest flute player site in New Mexico, including numerous animal flute players, which is unusual.
There are numerous depictions of the Tewa serpent deity, Awanyu. Awanyu is the guardian of water, either depicted free flowing, like a river or zig-zagging, like lightning. Other snake images have rattles on their tails or they resemble lightning.

There are also a variety of animals, symbols, geometric designs, human hand and foot prints, and animal footprints. Animal images include deer, elk, dogs, birds, mountain lions, bears, bison, turtles, dragonflies, and a plethora of “your guess is as good as mine.” Research identified several solar calendars and markers among the images. The ancient stone works left images of human dancers, shamans, hunters, flute players, women giving birth, and warriors.


The third major time period for petroglyphs on the mesa is the Historic era. The Historic era began around 1600 AD with the arrival of Don Juan de Oñate. Historic petroglyphs include Christian crosses, horses, churches and heraldic lions. A heraldic lion is distinctly different from a mountain lion petroglyph. The lions are in a variety of upright poses, resembling the lions depicted on a Spanish Coat of Arms. There are also several depictions of horses, solo and mounted by riders. The most common historic glyph, by far, is the Christian cross. Sheepherders and others etched hundreds of crosses on the boulders.

Mesa Prieta petroglyphsMesa Prieta Petroglyph Project

The availability of water made Mesa Prieta an enticing locale. Locals have found Folsom points in the area, which confirms at least 10,000 years of human presence. The huge, dark basalt boulders are ideal for rock graphics. 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? Who created the glyphs? What their life was like? When did they perch on a boulder and etch a lasting masterpiece in stone?


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 sections with the most human traffic.

Some concentrated areas of glyphs are on steep slopes, which have seriously eroded due to centuries of overgrazing by sheep. A lack of ground cover, coupled with torrential monsoon rains, causes rock slides.

Katherine Wells recognized the value of the petroglyphs from the moment she set foot on the land. Her appreciation for the history and culture embodied in the images led to a long 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. She has incrementally expanded 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. Jay and Helen became instrumental in the effort to protect the petroglyphs.

Researchers have found shrines, water control systems, check dams, lithic scatters, ceramics, field houses, and other archaeological features so far. They have documented grid gardens and trails, both ancient and historic. For some reason the ancient illustrators tagged the prehistoric trails 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). They provide educational opportunities to local schools, and the community, about the importance of the site culturally and historically. It took three years for the organization to set up the infrastructure and logistics. They gathered maps, obtained permission to record on several parcels of private land, recruited and trained volunteers, raised funds, and developed recording forms. The group began work in the field in 2002 and they’ve documented over 55,000 petroglyphs since the project began.

The Archaeological Conservancy

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. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties.

The Archaeological Conservancy added an additional 25 acres to the Wells Petroglyph Preserve in December, 2014. It encompasses 181 acres. 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 created 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. Program leaders train students from the nearby pueblos and Hispano communities to document the images left by their ancestors. The students work side by side with archaeologists.

Mesa Prieta Petroglyph ProjectThe Archaeological Conservancy
PO Box 407
Velarde, NM 87582
(505) 852-1351

Mesa Prieta petroglyph

The project conducts petroglyph recording training for adults every spring. About 35 volunteers currently work as petroglyph recorders and surveyors. It isn’t an easy job. Attention to detail is vital to having accurate records and recorders must be able to hike up to a mile in rugged, steep terrain. Project leaders provide a full day of classroom instruction to new volunteers, followed by two field training days. Then, they assign volunteers to work with a team in the field. Mentors work with each trainee for at least two additional days. Trainees learn how to use the GPS units and digital cameras, how to take metric measurements and compass readings, and they become proficient in the drawing skills needed to document images.


The Wells Petroglyph Preserve is a private preserve. Docents lead the tours. Arrange tours in advance through the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project. If you are interested, please visit the tours page for more information or to book.

To stay informed about special tour dates and upcoming events you can sign up for the mailing list or check the Mesa Prieta events web page. Signed copies of the book are available for purchase on the website.

Please visit the website for more information about workshops, events, public tours, educational curriculum and volunteer opportunities.

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