Saturday, October 29, 2011


Petroglyph of a River Monster along the Cimarron River
in Northeastern New Mexico. Photo: Bill McGlone.

This remarkable photo was taken by Bill McGlone a couple of decades ago along the Cimarron River in northeastern New Mexico.  It appears to be a portrayal of the head and foreparts of a large creature and incorporates considerable work as well as an example of incorporating a natural projection of the cliff face for the head. My first reaction upon seeing this image was that it is a portrayal of the Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. It certainly bears what appears to be a ruff of feathers on top of the head. What might represent a fin can be seen projecting downward from behind the head.
Drawing of the river monster petroglyph, Cimarron
River, New Mexico. Drawn by Peter Faris.

Virtually all of the peoples of the American Great Plains believed in underwater monsters living in the lakes and rivers. I have written elsewhere that I assume that such beliefs were originally inspired by the erosion of the large bones of prehistoric mammals (mammoths, mastodons, etc.) out of the river banks during the spring runoff. Given the location of this large, complex petroglyph near the Cimarron River in northeastern New Mexico I believe we are justified in assuming that it represents one of these great underwater monsters.
Of the people who occupied that area during prehistoric and protohistoric times, we can identify the Southern Cheyenne, the Comanche, and the Kiowa. The area that the Kiowa claimed as their homeland lay in the southwestern plains adjacent to the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado and western Kansas and the Red River drainage of the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma.
Zemoguani, painted lodge, collected by James Mooney,
1891-1904. National Anthropological Archives.

The Kiowa version of the great underwater monster was the zemoguani. Portrayals of zemoguani were collected by the anthropologist James Mooney in 1904 from the Kiowa. These include a painted model tipi with zemoguani on its side and a hide painting of a Kiowa camp circle showing the painted zemoguani tipi erected in its place in the camp circle.

Kiowa Model Painted Tipi with Zemoguani, National Cowboy
& Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK.

As I said above the first reaction of many viewers to this remarkable petroglyph is that it is Quetzalcoatl, but given the location of the image on the cliff in the area claimed by the Kiowa, and given its resemblance to zemoguani, I personally feel that this identification is more reasonable.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Tool sharpening grooves in a boulder.
Freezeout Canyon, Baca County,
Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, 1996.

There are certain types of rock markings that really should not be called rock art. One of these is the tool sharpening groove. These are created by the act of sharpening a bone or antler-tine awl on the rock surface. As the tool is sharpened it also wears away the surface of the rock. As the point becomes sharper the groove it wears is also narrower, eventually becoming a “v-shaped” groove abraded into the rock.  Another type of tool mark on the surface of the rock is a wider, shallow smoothed area that is created by sharpening the edge of a stone tool such as an axe.  Many examples of these can be seen in the illustration of the site from the Picketwire Canyonlands. Another example often lumped in with rock art (or at least recorded with the rock art at a site) is the bedrock metate, a shallow hollow in a horizontal rock surface that was used for grinding plant materials with a hand held stone called a mano.

Tool sharpening grooves in cliff,
Picketwire Canyon, Bent County,
CO. Photo: Peter Faris, 1997.

Linea Sundstrom has pointed out that tool grooves can be helpful in roughly estimating dates. Tool sharpening grooves essentially ceased being made when trade with Anglos, whether European or American, began to trade goods for furs, because among early essential items for such trade were metal awls and needles. This suggests that any rock markings that can be identified as tool grooves were basically prehistoric. The presence of tool grooves also suggests either a habitation site or, at least, a site where preparations for domestic chores were conducted. I believe we got into the habit of including these indications of industrial practices in with rock art because when rock art is being recorded it is considered important to record all features on the surface of the rock, including tool grooves, axe sharpening hollows, and bedrock mutates.
Some examples can be found where tool-sharpening grooves have been incorporated into rock art images.  I have seen tool sharpening grooves that had been turned into lizards by the addition of four legs paired on both sides of the groove by pecking or abrasion.
If the tool groove is somehow incorporated into a rock art image as in the lizards mentioned above, then I would classify the modified tool groove as rock art. If the tool groove, however, is not modified, or demonstrably incorporated into rock art elements, I will have to classify it as another element of the rock surface that needs to be recorded, but not as rock art.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Katherine Wells with rock art panel.
Photo: Peter Faris, September 2011.

In addition to recording the rock art and working for its preservation the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project has a major focus on educational programming. One facet of this is providing docent-led tours of rock art, including tours for a 4th grade level curriculum they have developed for local public and Pueblo schools as a adjunct to the study of New Mexico history in the 4th grade social studies curriculum. These classes complete at least six classroom activities before visiting the Wells Petroglyph Preserve on Mesa Prieta for a field work day. In the field these students participate with adult volunteer docents in discovery hikes and identify petroglyph themes and elements and compare relative patina or rock varnish to estimate relative age.  Such field trips give the students a real sense of the history and cultural significance of the rock art. Many of these students are descendants of the people who created the images centuries ago and they can experience a personal identification with the imagery and what they have learned about its creators.
In addition to helping these children develop a sense of identity with the creators of the rock art it is very hard to imagine that any of these students in later years will participate in vandalism against rock art sites. Such a program seems like a win-win situation for all concerned and could serve as a model for other rock art sites. It certainly deserves support and encouragement.
Donations may be mailed to:  Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project, P.O. Box 407, Velarde, NM, 87582.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Eagle head, Three Rivers, New Mexico. Photo
November 1988, John and Esther Faris.
One category of images commonly seen in rock art in almost all areas of North America represents sky themes. This is especially true in the American Southwest where climatic conditions are generally dry and desert-like, and people relied upon regular rain for their food supplies. In the southwest numerous petroglyphs and pictographs of birds (especially eagles who are the beast deities of above) can be found, and one is a kachina figure seen in Puebloan Kachina dance rituals representing Kwahu, the eagle kachina. The eagle ruled the sky, and was thus in charge of the source of the rain needed for crops. Eagle petroglyphs are particularly common in areas near the region of the upper Rio Grande where dense populations of Pueblo peoples relied heavily on agriculture for subsistence.
The first illustration (above) is a grand naturalistic eagle head from the large petroglyph site at Three Rivers, New Mexico.

Eagle, star, and lightning. Galisteo dike,
New Mexico. Photo: Peter Faris.
The petroglyph of the eagle with a star and lightning is from Galisteo dike. This combination of sky themes in one composition covers all the bases toward the source of rain. The mixture of eagle and star themes is very common in Galisteo, and also at Petroglyph Park west of Albuquerque. Adding the lightning in this example reinforces the water connection as lightning usually occurs in conjunction with rain.
As a kachina, Kwahu wears a case mask painted blue-green although older examples were sometimes brown. It possesses an eagle-shaped beak with a black inverted “V” or chevron above it. Occasionally, in one of the night ceremonies in March or during the Powamu, one may have the satisfaction of seeing a performance of the Eagle Kachina. Usually the performer imitates the step or motion and cry of the eagle to absolute perfection. Eagle Kachinas will sometimes appear with Mudheads at night ceremonies in March.

Eagle (Kwahu) kachina mask, Three Rivers,
New Mexico. Photo: Peter Faris.
This petroglyph from Three Rivers, New Mexico, appears to represent an eagle mask seen from the side. It shows the hooked beak of the eagle pointing to the left, with a large eye, and a double diagonal line beneath the eye like the common tear motif which can be related to the inverted “V” or chevron seen above the beak of the eagle kachina illustrated. Given the location of Three Rivers there are basically three birds that have this natural marking and that this petroglyph might represent. The three are Prairie Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, and the American Kestral, all of which can be seen in the area and which have the natural “tear marking” below their eye as seen in the petroglyph. This feature is, however, also an attribute of the mask representing Kwahu, and has probably become a generic symbol for the raptors in general, thus its use on the Eagle kachina.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


This photograph was provided by Vecinos del Rio.

In August, 2011, we traveled to northern New Mexico to visit friends Jeanne and Bill in Los Alamos and see as much rock art and as many adobe churches as possible. The rock art part was easy, they just took us back to Black Mesa (aka Mesa Prieta).

Mesa Prieta covers 36 square miles and has an estimated 20,000 petroglyphs. Most of the land is privately owned and not open to unrestricted public access. There is, however, a way to possibly earn access.  A tax-exempt non-profit organization, the Vecinos del Rio Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project records petroglyphs, has educational programs about them, and works to preserve rock art on the mesa. All recorded information is being put into a GIS database.  For those who are lucky enough to live in the area they need volunteer docents (I understand that they will also accept cash donations, and as they are a 501(c)3 such donations are tax-deductible).

To receive information about the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project and Vecinos del Rio contact them at:
Vecinos del Rio
P.O. Box 407
Velarde, NM  87582