Drawing Petroglyphs in Chaco Canyon

Chaco's smaller kivas numbered around 100, eac...

Chaco’s smaller kivas numbered around 100, each hosting rituals for 50–100 worshippers; the 15 much larger “Great Kivas” each held up to 400. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chaco Canyon is one of the most amazing places on Earth. Hidden away in a remote area of the New Mexico desert, at the end of a long and bumpy washboard of a road, the scale of the ancient Native American ruins is awe-inspiring.

Even from the visitors’ centre, the size of it sneaks up on you. It’s not until you get up onto a vantage point looking out over Pueblo Bonito that the scale of building in Chaco Canyon is apparent. A collection of ‘great houses’ inhabited by the Anasazi from 850 to 1250 AD, it’s a prehistoric civilization on a massive scale.

And in the midst of these enormous communal buildings, there is ancient art on a smaller scale too: there are petroglyphs in Chaco Canyon, carved into the flatter panels dotted around the cliff walls. Petroglyphs are drawings and symbols made by chiselling, pecking or scratching into the dark ‘desert varnish’ that forms as a coating on some of the rocks in this area. The scratching or chiselling reveals the lighter rock underneath to create line drawings or patterns of dotted lines.

The petroglyph trails make a nice contrasting activity along with exploring the enormous ruined buildings. The small size and hiddenness of the petroglyphs makes it fun for children to find them, like a treasure hunt, and then guess and look up their meanings. And children can relate to drawing more easily than building a kiva: we could imagine the Anasazi drawing the petroglyphs, and wonder what they meant.

Petroglyphs Sign

Petroglyphs Sign

The first set of petroglyphs as we entered the park near the visitors’ centre is up the hill from the first great house, Una Vida.

It was a steep and narrow path, but I’m glad we went up there: the petroglyphs in this area are much clearer and easier to see than most of the panels on the more accessible and signposted official Petroglyph Trail.

Here is a photo of some petroglyphs from Una Vida:

Una Vida Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs at Una Vida

Brothers Petroglyph

Brothers Petroglyph?

The boys were especially taken with this one that we looked up in our field guide, which suggested it might mean ‘brothers':

Petroglyph Trail Sign

The Petroglyph Trail!

Later on, after visiting the amazing Pueblo Bonito, we finally made it to the official petroglyph trail. We were very excited, but to be honest we were hard pressed to find a lot of the petroglyphs that were described in the trail tour booklet. But eventually we found a nice clear panel, where we sat down and did some drawing:

Petroglyph panel on the Petroglyph Trail in Chaco Canyon

Petroglyph panel on the official Petroglyph Trail in Chaco Canyon

I picked a mixture of symbols to draw, and I know it’s entirely possible that what I’ve drawn could be like half a map, half a diagram, the beginning of a story and the top half of somebody’s name!

At Mesa Verde, which we visited a couple of days later, there is another petroglyph panel that depicts an interesting migration story, as explained in the booklet.

And at the Four Corners monument, there is a Native American man at one of the shops who sells replicas of petroglyphs he has made himself, from another site in Utah, and he can tell visitors what they all mean. (Note to that man: I think you could sell more if you put some of them for sale on little display stands or in box frames. Seriously, it just makes it easier to imagine where they could go in your house, without having to take longer than you’ve got while stopping your kids running into things to think of that :) And note to interested visitors: try to think of that ahead of time, because those little petroglyphs he makes are really nice!)

But I sat there with my little boys, to draw, and by drawing, try to imagine and get a feeling for the lives of the people who had been there so long ago. Why did they draw those things there? Were they messages, stories, pictures, graffiti? The spirals can have many different meanings, according to the guide book, and they are one of the most common symbols.

Drawings of Petroglyphs

Drawings of Petroglyphs in Chaco Canyon

It was an interesting experience in many ways. We had learned from our visit to Aztec Ruins the day before that although archaeologists and historians puzzle over the mystery of why the ancient Native Americans left their settlements at Aztec Ruins, Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, the Native Americans today don’t see it as a mystery at all. Instead, they see those as stages in their migration story, and they feel that their ancestors are still there.

And I also felt that their ancestors were there, impressionable person that I am. And as I sat there, redrawing their petroglyphs and wondering what their lives were like, I felt like perhaps they would have preferred a visitor from today to be one of their own. As far as I know I have no connection with the Native Americans (beyond the common humanity that we all share), although I loved what their ancestors had built so much. Their world seemed to work on a much more human scale, and still it was amazing, spectacular and impressive.

My oldest son was not in the mood to be so whimsical. He drew a few things quickly and went on to see more ruins:

Petroglyphs drawing, Chaco Canyon

Petroglyphs drawing

“Oh look it’s Chetro Ketl”…

Kiva ruins at Chetro Ketl

Kiva ruins at Chetro Ketl

My seven year old approached it differently again: carefully and methodically, using the field guide to add a key!

Petroglyph drawings

Petroglyph drawings

More petroglyph drawings

More petroglyph drawings

Petroglyphs: a key!

Petroglyphs: a key!

We sat there, companionably drawing, for some time, wondering about the ancient Native Americans, and the lives they led.

Chaco Canyon does not seem to have been an everyday kind of settlement, but rather somewhere where people gathered for trading and ceremonial purposes. Perhaps family members and friends from different settlements in the local area would come together here to celebrate special occasions and rites of passage like weddings, markets, summer festivals and so on.

Not to sound too much like Candice Marie in ‘Nuts in May’, but I would love to have seen this place full of its original people – it must have been amazing. I’m sure their modern day descendants, the Hopi, the Navajo, and the Pueblo Indian peoples of the Four Corners area, must be very proud of their history and culture. I wish they would build a replica of one of the great houses, perhaps New Pueblo Bonito, where people could go to experience living history, educational trips, spiritual and health retreats, weddings and other celebrations, seasonal festivals, and perhaps even art and craft holidays with big big markets on the last day :)

Also I hope the Indians get free admission at least!

It made me want to go and see more of the ancient buildings and monuments of my own ancestors too, and I wondered if any of them ever made it here, when the world was so much harder to travel.

Later on, we looked around Pueblo del Arroyo, and saw the great gap in the horizon where the visitors used to arrive, and we imagined ourselves travelling to Chaco Canyon in its heyday, arriving at Pueblo del Arroyo from far away across the desert.

Pueblo del Arroyo

Pueblo del Arroyo, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

Could we have visited the Chaco people in ancient times, and traded something they might have liked as much as parrots or seashells? I think seashells probably are what we could have brought :) Perhaps they’d be exotic to them too, being from so far away.


National Parks: Chaco Canyon

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