Petroglyphs & Rock Art



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The inevitable question that arises whenever anyone views petroglyphs or other rock art is:  What do these symbols mean?  So simple as this question appears at face value, it is a volatile question to many.  Sparking controversy and often, heated conversations.  With as many answers of glyphic interpretation as there are viewers and associated opinions.

For years, I was always told that the spiral shape, eg:Back to WCP-NM.COM home page signified water.  A 1994 documentary on the Indians of the Southwest makes mention of this as fact several times throughout the film.  I for one always thought it strange that certain petroglyph sites I've visited, including the El Cerro de Los Lunas site (commonly referred to here as the Los Lunas site), and the North and South sites addressed herein, contained so many of these symbols.  When the location of the spirals themselves are located so far away from actual water sources.   For example, at the Los Lunas site, it is nearly 5 miles from the Rio Grande River to the petroglyphs.  The petroglyph site featured in this article at its closest point to water (the Rio San Jose) is still over 2 miles away.  In the greatest concentration of spiral markings ---at the South site location--- it makes the Rio San Jose about 9 miles away, and the Rio Puerco approximately 15 miles distant.  With no particular indicator symbols associated with the spirals, to point in the right direction of the water source.

But nearly every book I've read about petroglyphs, associates the spiral markings to symbols of the solstice, emergence, migrations, whirlwinds, and creatures associated with water.  Such as snails or serpents.  And these interpretations are subject to which particular era and people left the symbol (ie: style/age of petroglyph) and, what other markings or subtleties may be in context with a particular spiral symbol.

Photograph of spiral petroglyphTaking an educated guess at the meaning of this particular spiral petroglyph at the South site, it would be that the symbol supports the emergence or migration theory.  The squared "tail" may indicate the direction taken by the creator of the petroglyph or, perhaps the direction from which they came in their search for the "center."


More food for thought
In our lives today, we are bombarded with symbols and icons to graphically present information to us for various reasons.  For some future generation, thousands of years from now, will they be able to decipher these symbols that are common to us today?

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Some archaeologists or anthropologists may suggest that this is a parrot, and hence a symbol of the Bird Clan, or Clan of the Parrot.  But it looks like a dove to me.   What do you think?  (Photos of petroglyphs taken at North site.)

To tell a story
It seems to be commonly agreed that petroglyphs worldwide depict occurances or special events in the life of the rock art maker.  Perhaps the rock artist was commissioned to depict these scenes on behalf of others in their tribe.  Like modern day artists or agencies.  Scenes such as those depicting hunting parties among a herd of animals, or what may be construed as directions to good hunting grounds (ie: Houserock near Olathe, Colorado, a (Ute) scene depicts an arrow and human figures pointing towards the east and several petroglyphs of buffalo on the rock). 

Some scenes help scientists determine the antiquity of petroglyphic sites.  Such as scenes depicting Spanish conquistadors on horseback.  But what about other, more magical scenes?  Do we go along with the thoughts of some who disclaim the particular petroglyphs as hallucinatory images? or merely hoaxes?  In particular, a mention by Dennis Slifer, in his book "Signs of Life - rock art of the Upper Rio Grande," (page 144) dismisses as a hoax, "...a recent-looking petroglyph of a flying saucer and 'alien' are probably courtesy of some of the visitors attracted here by the aura of Mystery Rock."  (Mystery Rock, is more commonly known as the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone.  Found in the early part of this century at Hidden Mountain, Valencia County, New Mexico.)

Personally, from a scientific point of view, I do not have a clue.  But I will pose these questions to you, along with a couple more photographs, and let you decide.   I might add however, that I have not been fortunate enough to gain entry and witness firsthand, either the Los Lunas Decalogue, or the petroglyphs nearby it which Mr. Slifer describes in his book.  But my own discovery at my "North site" divulged the petroglyph (shown below) of what  I refer to as, the "spaceman."

Photo of petroglyph resembling spaceman
Friends that I have shown this photograph to also connotate an association to that of an angel.  But with a little help from NASA for comparison-sake, you can make your own conclusions.

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Alex Patterson; A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest; Johnson Printing Co. 1992. IBSN 1-55566-091-6

Dennis Slifer; Signs of life - Rock art of the Upper Rio Grande; Ancient City Press 1998. IBSN 1-58096-005-7

Indians of the Southwest; 1994 Camera One; Distr. by Wood Knapp Video; 5900 Wilshire Blvd.; Los Angeles, California 90036.  IBSN 1-56050-410-2

Los Lunas Decalogue

Lost Tribe or Hoax

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Copyright (c) W. C. `Bill` Porter 1999, all rights reserved.