The Petroglyph National Monument – New Mexico’s Good Graffiti

Posted on October 24, 2014


Graffiti has developed a bad rap over the last 2,000 years or so.

Historically, scratching a design into a surface produced a work of art called ‘graffiti’ – like the inscriptions, figures and drawings found on the walls of ancient sepulchers or ruins.

Then along came the spray paint can, and the definition of ‘graffiti’ soon became associated with the boxcar and urban wall decoration that some consider art – and some consider vandalism.

DSCN1169The Petroglyph National Monument contains over 20,000 images scratched into stone – a sort of graffiti scrapbook of the stages of New Mexico’s history. Some are recognizable as animals, people, and crosses, while others are more mysterious.

A large portion of West Mesa at the edge of Albuquerque is part of the monument. It’s an elevated landmass lying west of the Rio Grande stretching northward to Bernalillo. The West Mesa emerged about 200,000 years ago when lava flowed from a large crack in the earth’s crust. Over time, softer sediments eroded, leaving a jagged-edged escarpment strewn with basalt boulders.DSCN1153

Long ago people discovered that scratching through the rock’s thin desert varnish revealed a lighter gray beneath, and left a lasting mark.

American Indians believe these images are as old as time. Archeologists estimate that most of the images were made 400 to 700 years ago, though some may be 2,000 to 3,000 years old.

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led the earliest major expedition to the area we know as New Mexico, beginning in 1540, 80 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

In 1692, sections of West Mesa became part of the Atrisco Land Grant, presented to selected colonists by the Spanish crown. These settlers carved crosses and livestock brands into the rocks.

Other American settlers moving west in the 1800s chiseled their names and dates into the boulders.

DSCN1164Why were the earliest images created? What do they mean?

Though it is assumed many had religious significance, only the carvers knew for sure the meaning of these intriguing images.