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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ancient Connections


Three Rivers Petroglyph: When we ride in search of the unique, magic rides shotgun


Three Rivers Petroglyph site, the Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico.

I’ve visited the Three Rivers Petroglyph site, a unique place in the Chihuahuan Desert, many times over the years. Less than three hours from Albuquerque, it’s one of the few Southwest locations protected (by the BLM) solely for its rock art.

Protection, though, isn’t an easy task. Over the course of years that non-Indian people have lived in the region, the petroglyphs have been seriously vandalized. These days, you pay a small fee to the site host, then walk the desert to view the 21,000 glyphs of humans, animals and abstract geometric designs made by the Jornada Mogollon people from 900 to 1400 A.D.

The Mogollon, who thrived in this region north of the Rio Grande after the Ancient Puebloan period, were precursors to the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and Pueblo Indians who followed. Whenever I look at the glyphs, I always wonder what the Jornada were thinking and feeling as they used their stone tools to scratch these designs into the dark, volcanic rock. Many books attempt to explain what the symbols mean, but most of it’s conjecture. Were the Jornada saying things like, “We lived up this canyon,” or “We took water at this spring”? Did they mark rites of passage or birthing events?

No one really knows.

I see these petroglyphs as living realities, staring at us out of time. They tie me to the land because I sense how these people connected themselves to the natural world, even if I can’t know for sure the meaning of their symbols. I do know they had to deal with the natural world directly. Their landscape was right there.

During one visit years ago, I noticed a round volcanic boulder, half-buried in desert sand, with a simple mask-like face etched into rock all those cycles of time past. I thought, why not connect with it at night? Because the long reach of time itself feels like night to me, and using the blackness of night is a way I try to express time metaphorically in my work. Photographing at night helps me avoid showing mundane details—creosote bushes, sandy soil and hazy sky—and really hone in on the subject I feel.

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