“If we find a petroglyph matching one of these trail markers, we’ll know where we are,” I said, pulling a crumpled map out of my pocket. “Good luck!”, Greg laughed staring at a tumble of basalt boulders filled with carved handprints, symbols, and animals. “What are we looking for?” I showed him the map. “Hah! I just took a picture of this one. It’s over here!”
What a fun way to explore the Piedras Marcadas Canyon (“canyon of marked rocks”) in Petroglyph National Monument. Co-managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Monument contains over 20,000 documented images along its 17-mile escarpment. Experts believe about 90% of the images were chiseled into the black rock surfaces by ancestral Puebloans 400 to 700 years ago.
Like treasure hunters, we followed the sandy path searching for each trail marker’s insignia and celebrating our finds. Sections of untouched boulders, “desert varnish” (patina) gleaming black in the sunshine added to the anticipation of our next discovery. The petroglyphs appeared in the distance looking like collages with images grouped together.
Native Americans today explain that each symbol was placed intentionally, not randomly, and needs to be viewed in context with surrounding images. Still, mystery surrounds the meaning of these valued cultural symbols. Some designate tribal or clan affiliations. Others are rooted in spiritual beliefs. Many are unknown. The National Park Service describes it best: “Petroglyphs still have contemporary meaning, while the meaning of others is no longer known, but are respected for belonging to those who came before.”
After readily identifying five of the six petroglyphs, I donned my “explorer extraordinaire” hat and got stumped. The last, marker #1, seemed to be missing. Time passed and Greg and I regretfully headed towards the trailhead. As we stepped away from the boulder wall, it appeared!
It seemed a stark contrast to walk the path of the ancients surrounded by suburbia. A young man heading out on the path asked for directions. I showed him my crumpled map and explained the petroglyph trail markers. He pulled out his I-phone and asked if he could take a photo of the map. A stark contrast indeed!