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Jim's Memoirs
Who Made the Petroglyphs and Why? - March 2020

I came to Albuquerque to see the petroglyphs, these designs hammered on basalt boulders around the Southwest by tribal peoples several thousand years ago. My aim was to examine them, to ponder what these ancient peoples were trying to tell us with these images of stick figures, handprints, circles and wavy lines.

The commentary and descriptions said they were expressing spiritual themes and deep cultural visions, that they were the work of the wisest minds and supreme authorities of these civilizations.

When I set out from Idaho, I accepted this theory. I accepted it because, among other things, making a petroglyph seemed to be such a difficult, challenging job. I assumed a person would have to hammer away for weeks and months with a stone hammer and stone chisel to make these designs. Surely, no one would go to all that trouble unless they were serious adults with a serious message to impart.

This assumption was challenged by an alarm bell of doubt on my way to New Mexico, when I stopped to visit my sister in Sacramento, California. There, on the street down from her house, I saw designs scratched with chalk. One of them was a set of concentric circles very similar in in style and character to the pictures of petroglyphs I had seen. But this picture was obviously made by a child—a girl I guessed, judging from the hearts and flowers scratched alongside.

In this way, an alternative hypothesis entered my brain: the petroglyphs were made by children! Now I really had to see them to make up my mind.

Neolithic tomb at Hougue Bie A spiral petroglyph at Petroglyph National Monument

Getting out to the Petroglyph National Monument on the outskirts of Albuquerque proved to be more of a challenge than I had expected. My idea had been simply to hike out there from my lodging in the Old Town section of the city. But I hadn’t realized how astonishingly large and spread-out this city is, with miles and miles of farms and horse ranches mixed between the motels and supermarkets. To get anywhere you have to have a car, and I didn’t have one.

I took my problem to the Tourist Information Office where I met Liz, the director. She agreed that the idea of walking there was nearly impossible, especially given the challenge of somehow getting across, or under, freeways. First, she studied the local bus routes, and concluded that none of them went by the petroglyphs.

"I guess you’ll have to use Uber," she said.

"But I don’t have a cell phone."

I’m sure she felt this personal choice of mine was bizarre, but she was too polite to criticize. Without hesitation she said, "Then I’ll take you there."

"Well, uh. . . that would be amazing!" We arranged it for the following day. She would drop me off at 10, and come back to pick me up at 3:30.

And that’s how it worked out, my transportation to the Rinconada Canyon trail, courtesy of the most incredibly helpful tourist information officer in America.

Hiking up the trail that sunny afternoon, I inspected the rocks carefully. There were said to be some 24,000 petroglyphs in this park, but I didn’t see anything at first. Then I saw, or thought I saw, a wavy line on the side of one rock, and, a few hundred yards further, a circle at the edge of another boulder. But you had to look closely and carefully to notice them. A relaxed hiker wouldn’t have seen anything. The casual presentation of these images seemed to be an important clue in deciding who had made them.

When adults create art, they make an effort to position it prominently so that people will notice it. The petroglyphs I was seeing were not carefully positioned. Some were tipped at odd angles, others were half hidden by other rocks, some were facing sideways along the embankment. That’s how kids would do drawings: putting them anywhere convenient for them to reach, and not worrying about whether spectators would be impressed.

So, as I paced up the trail, the child theory was becoming more plausible. The main remaining question was, could a child do the work that making a petroglyph involved. How hard was it to hammer off the natural brown glazing of these basalt rocks to expose the light gray below? If it took weeks and weeks, then it was beyond the patience of a child.

The answer to this question was dramatically provided at the end of the trail. Here, there were a considerable number of petroglyphs, both figures and geometric tracings. Among all these designs, there were two that stood out as the highest quality of all. They were larger than the others and the tracing was done more carefully than the others. As I digested what they meant for the theory of who made the petroglyphs and why, I started to laugh, harder and harder.

When I finally calmed down, another question entered my head: Why hadn’t any of the websites and official publications of the petroglyphs displayed a picture of these two petroglyphs? They were the ‘best’ of them all, and more dramatically positioned, so that no person who came to that bank of basalt rocks would miss seeing them.

Gradually, the mystery of the ‘suppression’ of these two petroglyphs became clear to me.

They were not designs or shapes. They were writing, using English capital letters and numbers, five inches high.

One read:
FEB. 22. 1919

The other read:
FEB. 22 1919

They obviously were not, as the Park Service plaque said about the other petroglyphs, “a valuable record of cultural expression,” or designs of “deep spiritual significance.” They were modern graffiti, produced, one guesses, by two teenage boys who rode up there that Saturday afternoon in 1919.

It was hard to escape the conclusion that these one-hundred-year-old petroglyphs are never mentioned by the authorities because they rather clearly demonstrate that children could make petroglyphs, and strongly suggest that the designs nearby, made a thousand years ago, were also mostly, if not entirely, the work of children!

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