Three Rivers Petroglyphs Site

May 09, 2018



Photographer: Rick Stankiewicz 
Summary Author: Rick Stankiewicz 

In the Tularosa Basin of south-central New Mexico, 30 miles (48 km) north of Alamogordo, is a gem of a site for ancient rock art. The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, managed by the U. S. Bureau of Land Management, is opened to the public year around. Trails are self-guided but easy to follow, however; good-quality footwear is recommended. The main trail is about one-half mile (0.8 km) each way and will take you near many of the most interesting petroglyphs (rock carvings). In warmer weather, you'll need to watch for rattlesnakes, but when my wife and I visited (last winter), reptiles were in hibernation.

Approximately 21,400 petroglyphs have been found at this site. It's estimated that these glyphs are from 600 to a 1,000 years old and originate from the prehistoric Jornada Mogollon (hor-NAH-da muggy-OWN) culture. This collection and concentration of petroglyphs is one of the largest and most interesting rock art sites in the American Southwest. The main site is on a basaltic ridge that rises above the valley floor and gives a nice view of the surrounding mountain ranges. These rock carvings were produced by either scratching or pecking at the dark patina that covers the rock surfaces. The patina is formed through oxidation between the air and the minerals at the surface of the rock. Older carvings will start to re-patinate and will become less distinct over time.

Many designs and images are depicted. Some surfaces have but one image and others have dozens. Animal images like bighorn sheep, mountain lions and birds abound, and some even depict animals pierced by arrows. In addition, animal tracks, like wild turkey or roadrunners, have been carved into the rock faces. Humanlike faces or masks, along with images of rattlesnakes and thunderbirds can be found as well. Some of these unknown artists even incorporated natural surface features into their finished works, like a raised surface nodule that becomes a three-dimensional looking eye for a bighorn sheep profile.

Geometric shapes and in particular circles and dots are also major themes of the rock art here at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. Research has shown that over 10 percent of all the petroglyphs incorporate circles. No one can know for sure what the intent of each carving is or in some cases, what the carving is meant to depict. With no living ancestors of this culture and no written records, these petroglyphs must speak for themselves -- but largely remain a mystery. Photo taken on January 20, 2017.

Photo Details: Top - Canon 60D camera; Canon 18-300mm lens, 18mm; ISO 200; f/8; 1/200 sec. exposure. Bottom - Panasonic TG-860 camera; 8.1mm lens; ISO 125; f/5.2; 1/640 sec. exposure.