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Petroglyph National Monument

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Crosses in Rinconada Canyon, carved by early Spanish sheephearders

Crosses in Rinconada Canyon, carved by early Spanish sheephearders
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Approximately 130,000 years ago, west of Albuquerque in present day New Mexico, lava poured from a crack in the earth. As it cooled, this lava created a 25,000-foot thick sheet of rock. Later volcanoes and other forces shaped the rock into a long ridgeline. Here, groups of American Indians and Spanish settlers carved messages and religious symbols into the ancient volcanic rock. These images reflect the historic presence of American Indians and Spanish settlers, their cultural heritage, and the blending of cultures in the New Mexico area. On a network of trails, visitors to Petroglyph National Monument can explore this land with its volcanoes, archeological sites, and some 24,000 carvings of animals, people, brands, crosses, and other images that still carry meaning for people today.

Trails for moderate to strenuous hikes, at Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon, and Piedras Marcadas Canyon, offer views of the petroglyphs. The volcanoes area in the park shows more of the natural features of the park. A visitor center provides information about the trails and special activities within the park. The visitor center is in the adobe-style former home of Dr. Sophie Aberle, an early anthropologist.

The petroglyphs are carved directly into the surface of the rock, chipped off by chisel and other stones. The ancient Puebloans created most of the petroglyphs. These ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians lived in the area around the Rio Grande for more than 1,500 years. Around 1300 AD, the population of the Puebloans increased and they formed new settlements to accommodate this growth. As the population expanded throughout the Southwest, some groups settled on the lands that are included within the park where they, the Apache, and the Navajo appear to have created most of the petroglyphs between 1300 and the 1680s. The earliest petroglyphs are considerably older, dating from 2000 BC.
Some American Indians tribes hold the lands within Petroglyph National Monument to be sacred and continue to practice religious ceremonies there.
Some American Indians tribes hold the lands within Petroglyph National Monument to be sacred and continue to practice religious ceremonies there.
Courtesy of Mhohimer through Flickr's Creative Commons

These petroglyphs are not just reminders of the heritage of American Indian peoples in the American Southwest, but also have contemporary religious and ceremonial meaning for some tribes. The orientation of a symbol relative to other symbols, parts of the landscape, and the horizon are significant, just as is the petroglyph itself. Some petroglyphs record important events for a family group or a tribe, while others have much more personal, private meanings.

American Indian tribes consider the images and the land within Petroglyph National Monument to be a sacred space. Visitors to the park are encouraged to observe the petroglyphs, but not to touch them; touching the carvings or other surfaces of the rocks is forbidden, as this will disturb their patina. Once this happens, the original petroglyph can be eroded and lost. A patina, or coating, forms on the surface of the rocks over time. Those who carved the petroglyphs chipped away at this patina, also called desert varnish, to create the images we see today.

The Ancient Puebloans were not the only ones who carved images and symbols into the rocks of the desert around Albuquerque. Spanish settlers who arrived in the area beginning in the 1540s also created petroglyphs. The settlers entered New Mexico by the El Camino Real, also known as “The King’s Highway” or “The Royal Road,” one of the oldest and most historic roads in the United States. The earliest Spanish were not settlers, but explorers looking for land suitable for future settlements, agriculture, and grazing purposes on behalf of the King of Spain. As they moved north on El Camino Real, they gave names to areas of land that are still in use today, such as Belen, Bernalillo, and Isleta. Having found acceptable land along the Rio Grande, these explorers provided reports back to Spain that encouraged others to come and settle. For roughly 80 years, between 1600 and 1680, Spanish explorers, soldiers, colonists, missionaries, and merchants moved into the area via El Camino Real, creating a farm and ranch system along the Rio Grande. El Camino Real was in constant use, except during the Pueblo Revolt, until 1881 when the Santa Fe Railroad connected Albuquerque, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.

Outdoor ovens called hornos.

Outdoor ovens called hornos.
Courtesy of Asmythie through Flickr's Creative Commons

During the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, the native Puebloans in the area rebelled against the forced labor and the Catholicism the Spanish imposed on them. For 12 years, American Indians again controlled a large amount of land in present-day New Mexico before Spanish forces retook the land. Don Diego de Vargas, who succeeded in reoccupying New Mexico for the Spanish, recognized the contributions of one man who fought for the Spanish, Don Fernando Duran y Chaves II, by giving him more than 80,000 acres west of the Rio Grande. This land became known as the Atrisco Land Grant in 1692. The Spanish land tenure grant system was a practice Spain brought to institute economic development and settlement in New Mexico. Spanish settlement in the area of the park resumed and settlers began to move to the village of Atrisco in 1703. Within the area of the grant, the Spanish settlers carved petroglyphs just as the Puebloans had. The Spanish petroglyphs were usually Christian symbols, replicas of livestock brands, or a set of initials.

By 1760, more than 200 people had settled in Atrisco and the valley was becoming crowded. Thus in 1768, the amount of land given to Don Fernando increased through additional grants. These land grants included the Alameda grant to the north, the Elena Gallegos and Carnuel grants to the east, the Parajito grant to the south, as well as others along the Rio Grande Valley. In 1848, New Mexico became part of the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war between the Mexican-American War. The treaty secured land grants and resulted in increased economic opportunity for the people of Atrisco. Atrisco, a proud part of Spanish heritage in New Mexico, continues to be one of the oldest existing land grants in the United States and one of very few Spanish colonial grants still currently owned by the heirs of the original Spanish settlers.

The American Indian and Spanish carvings are a part of the American story. The social and cultural roots of Petroglyph National Monument are much older than the United States, though. The park protects the land, the sites, and the petroglyphs and makes them accessible to those who value them today.
Plan your visit

Petroglyph National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located in Albuquerque, NM. The visitor center is open daily from 8am to 5pm and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. More information and directions to the trails mentioned above may be found here. For more information, visit the National Park Service Petroglyph National Monument website or call 505-899-0205.

Petroglyph National Monument is also featured in the Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary. While in Albuquerque, visitors may also explore historic Route 66 featured in the National Park Service Route 66 Travel Itinerary.

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