The School for Advanced Research is taking 20 field-trippers to the Wells Petroglyph Preserve on Mesa Prieta, 50 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, on April 28. The group will explore an estimated 100,000 petroglyphs carved over thousands of years into basalt boulders tucked away on a 1,000-foot high, 12-mile-long mesa. The School for Advanced Research, which is celebrating its centenary this year, was established to study the archaeology and ethnology of the American Southwest, and has devised a series of guided field-trips to share the fruits of those studies.
Richard I. Ford, Arthur F. Thurman Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Botany in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, who will lead the field trip for SAR, will lecture on the bus ride about the mesa, which was formed after the volcanic field opened on top of the Taos plateau four to six million years ago. He will also provide information about the three groups of people who’ve made petroglyphs on the mesa over time, commencing about 5,000 years ago with the people known as the Archaics (a term used in professional archaeology as a designation for humans who lived in the Americas from around 8000 to 2000 B.C.), followed by the Puebloan people around 1200 A.D., and those from the so-called Historic Period, which colonial historians mark as beginning on the mesa in 1598 when the Spanish arrived and established their capital at nearby Ohkay Owingeh.
“There are quadrupeds with insect bodies and long tails, snake dancers, anatomically correct vulva images, and solar markers for equinoxes,” said Katherine Wells, who in 2007 donated the 156 acres which comprise the Wells Petroglyph Preserve to the Archaeological Conservancy, a national non-Native organization that identifies, acquires, and preserves significant archaeological sites in the United States. There are “ungulates, bear claws, flags and armadillos.”
In 1999, eight years prior to the transfer of the land, Wells, who is not herself Native, established the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project to record the petroglyphs on the mesa, to educate the archaeology community and visitors about the mesa’s treasure trove of petroglyphs, and to protect and preserve them. Porter Swentzell, an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Liberal Studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts, from Santa Clara Pueblo, and Dr. Matthew Martinez, the Director of the Northern Pueblos Institute and Assistant Professor of Pueblo Indian Studies at Northern New Mexico College, from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, serve on its 11-member board.
While many of the petroglyphs seem to be saying something, they cannot be interpreted. “No one but the people who were there know what they mean, but we can offer some ideas and cultural information,” Wells said. “For instance, we know they weren’t made as art.”
"Indigenous peoples have always written history,” explained Matthew Martinez, Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project board member. “We continue to be shaped by texts in pottery, weavings, and petroglyphs documenting migration patterns and seasonal rotations. Often not fully knowing or understanding this history, in dance and ceremony we continue to call on it for guidance.”
What we do know is that the carvings were made using a two-handed technique called “pecking,” in which a sharper smaller rock, is hit by a rounded cobble stone used as a hammer stone to chisel away at the rock’s surface.
“A small superficial image takes about an hour to peck, but some of the more elaborate ones are very time-consuming,” Wells said.
“Several million years ago, the rock was a light tan; it developed a dark patina from microorganisms that fixed iron oxides on the surface,” explained Ford. “Petroglyph makers would peck it off with a cobble, and expose the brown color which is lighter than the matrix in which they’re set.”
The Archaic peoples, like the Folsoms who inhabited the mesa before them (but did not make petroglyphs), had no agriculture, no pottery, and survived by hunting animals, or by gathering pinon nuts and juniper berries.
Archaeological evidence reveals that by around 1200 A.D., large numbers of the Puebloans migrated into the Rio Grande Valley from the four corners area (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona), bringing agriculture and the influence of a whole new pantheon with them.
“They grew corn, gourds and small pumpkins. Pottery in northern New Mexico would soon follow, but in the meantime bags were made from yucca fibers and animal skins, and containers from the hard shell of the pumpkin,” Ford said.
The petroglyphs continued to be made by the Puebloans in the same way as the Archaics, but their imagery grew more expansive—abstract images were replaced by representations of recognizable figures of suns, serpents, coyotes and foxes, even parrots.
Imagery changed again dramatically during the Pueblo revolt period, reflecting the realities of armed conflict and the need for protection.
“Axes and shields become prevalent,” Ford said. “With exposure to Catholicism, crosses and six-pointed stars appear, and later with literacy, names like Jose or Felipe were found in places where they may have been herding animals.”
Along with the Spanish came sheep and goats. Some speculate that Jose and Felipe may have been shepherds or goatherders who pecked their names on the rocks to pass the time while tending their flocks.
Anthony Moquino, a longtime Ohkay Owingeh tribal councilman, remembers the awe he felt upon his first tour of the Mesa Prieta petroglyphs.
“It was meaningful to me to see that our people were not just farmers, but very intellectual beings,” he said. “I was amazed that some images showed figures with headdresses very similar to our present day deer dancers.”
He was also struck by the abundance of arrows pointing this way and that. “Those symbols marked our migration, they delineated our area. I remember feeling these ancestors were communicating with me, and saying—’this is our story.’”
“We are a people of stories,” added Martinez, “and our dance rhythms and motions tell stories within stories. Through story, life is created, and petroglyphs were made as reminders of all things living."
Ford, whose long-ago dissertation was on the cultural ecology of Ohkay Owingeh, will also explain the inventive water-conserving food growing practices such as gravel-mulching that have sustained Pueblo life for over a millennium.
Brenda Fender, from San Ildefonso Pueblo, will prepare a traditional meal, and after lunch her husband Erik Fender, a potter known for his inspired contemporary interpretations of petroglyphs, will talk about his own fascination with the wonders of Mesa Prieta.