Mesa Verde’s 1,000 Year Old Petroglyphs [Slideshow]

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For decades I’ve hiked and photographed extensively on ancient lands in America’s West and Southwest. In those travels I occasionally happen upon rock art created by early Native American people. And each time, I stand in awe at their ability to create these works by hand, at the complex symbolism woven into the designs, and for the honor of witnessing firsthand, artwork created over a thousand or more years ago.

     Mesa Verde National Park contains many examples of Ancestral Puebloan rock art. Rock art is divided into two categories; pictographs which are images painted onto rock and petroglyphs that are images carved into rock. The most elaborate rock art in Mesa Verde is a large panel of petroglyph images found at Pictograph Point. (Note: When the panel was first discovered in the late 1800′s little was known about rock art and it was mistakenly labelled with the incorrect term.)

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The Petroglyph Panel at Pictograph Point
(Click for an Enlarged View)

     The petroglyph panel is found along a 3 mile trail leading from the park’s museum area. The individuals who created these petroglyphs carved each symbol through a thin dark layer of surface rock into the lighter color sandstone layer beneath. These symbols documented their history, identified family groups and told stories. Each symbol had a specific meaning, only a few of which are still known today. The animal-shape on the far left side of the panel for example represents animal spirits who protected the people while the spiral-shape symbol near the top center represents the place where the Pueblo people first emerged from the earth.

     The images below include 8 sepia toned photographs containing close-ups of selected petroglyphs. I’ve placed them into a slideshow so you can view them more easily and in a larger size. Click on the image above to begin the slideshow. Once it starts, you can either click on a specific photo to view it in a larger size, or navigate from one photo to the next.
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The Petroglyphs of Pictograph Point
(Click Any Image Below to Start the Slideshow)

To convey the most historic look in these petroglyph photographs I used a process called sepia toning. A sepia toned image is a brown or reddish brown color photograph most commonly associated with 19th and early 20th century photos. The process of sepia toning was originally developed to make photographs longer lasting.

     Sepia prints can be made from film negatives, in a darkroom, or with digital color images using photo editing software. In a darkroom, the black and white print is first soaked in bleach to lighten its gray/black details, then soaked in a sepia color toner and allowed to dry. For digital color images, most photo editing programs like Photoshop, PhotoShop Elements, Lightroom or Aperture offer a feature (usually a single command or ‘filter’) for converting color images to sepia.

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  1. July 3, 2012 at 11:39 am | #1

    Image #7, two hands – above the right hand, an open box. Any idea what it means?

    • rickbraveheart
      July 3, 2012 at 1:06 pm | #2

      Great question! In 1942 some Hopi viewed the panel and shared what they knew of the “glyph” symbols. Although much of the oral history of specific symbols was lost over time but some are still known. Many of glyphs on this panel represent specific groups of people (clans) that lived here, like the Eagle Clan, Mountain Sheep Clan, Mountain Lion Clan. Their symbols on the panel look much like the animal in the clans name. Hand symbols like the two you asked about usually symbolize the presence of man/woman on the earth. (Although none appear in this panel, hand symbols sometimes contain a swirl pattern in the palm that symbolizes people’s spiritual side.) As for the two interlocking boxes, no one in that group knew for certain. Thanks for the question.

  2. July 3, 2012 at 12:14 pm | #3

    I wonder what the drawings meant. When I was a child, I once asked my grandmother (a Blackfoot) why Indians raised their hands and said “How”. She told me Blackfeet had no formal greeting to strangers other than “Oki” and did not say “How”.
    Then she said something that only many years later I would question.
    She told me that her grandfathers would raise their hand from a distance to show the placement of their thumb on their hand. By doing this, it would identify them as people of the earth or those from the sky. “Those that are from the sky are evil. Their thumbs are long and stick out from their wrist. those you stay away from.” It makes one wonder…

    • rickbraveheart
      July 3, 2012 at 2:52 pm | #4

      Sadly the meaning for many of those symbols has been lost over generations spent telling and retelling their meaning as part of an oral tradition. And, I suspect, occasionally the meaning gets changed as part of that cycle of passing it on.

      Also, how great your grandmother was Blackfoot. I hope you got to spend some time with her because the Blackfoot stories are well known and rich in tradition, meaning and lessons to be learned. Even though I am Iroquois, I know and treasure a great many of their stories. In fact, a post I wrote just a few days (click here if you missed it) featured one of my favorite Blackfoot stories about Naapi. As always, it’s great to hear from you.

      • July 3, 2012 at 9:32 pm | #5

        I do remember many of her stories. My grandfather was a quiet man, They called him ,Trap. He was the last mountain man in Idaho who worked for the Hudson Bay company. He became a farmer when he married my grandmother. He was a mix of Nez Perce, French and if I can believe him, Danish! My grandmother would remind us boys of something when we didn’t listen to her. She would say, “You know what Blackfeet were famous for?” She’d give us the evil eye and say, “Torture! Now do what I say!”
        She would laugh afterward.

      • rickbraveheart
        July 4, 2012 at 12:17 pm | #6

        I’m so very pleased you got to know both your grandparents, not just for what elders can teach kids and how they can influence us (my grandparents were the most important folks in my life growing up, but also for you, that they could share some of the native values, traditions and stories that could have been lost forever if they didn’t pass them on. Your grandmother sounds like a real treasure.

      • July 4, 2012 at 12:34 pm | #7

        She was. I pass along the stories to my own children, both of my youth in Idaho and those of my ancestors. I am gathering info on the whole hand thing, both in petroglyph and greetings. Wouldn’t it be something if they were connected? I’ll let you know what ever I find :)

      • rickbraveheart
        July 4, 2012 at 3:17 pm | #8

        I’d love to hear what you discover and somehow don’t think you or I would be too surprised to find out they are!

  3. July 4, 2012 at 2:40 am | #9

    Interesting comment, Campfireshadow. Because what struck me while looking at the images was one hand with a too big thumb. Being a mother of a child who loves to draw, I am quick to think it is a charming mistake, but now that I’ve read your commentary I think that it done deliberately.
    I’m in Europe and I’ve seen a cave with prehistoric art in France. The images in this post and the French have the hand-prints in common and the wild animals.
    Cave and rock art is just fascinating. Just when you think you have read all there is on European prehistoric cave art, you will find out about African and American rock art. It sure keeps us busy and enchanted.

    • rickbraveheart
      July 4, 2012 at 1:50 pm | #10

      Paula, I remember feeling in awe of the cave paintings at Lascaux (Is that the place you were referring to in France?) I recall not only the hand symbols but also horse paintings which I’ve also seen in petroglyphs and pictographs here in the US. Even though the people who created the cave paintings in France and the ones at Mesa Verde in the US were separated by thousands of miles/km and had no way to see what the other created, to me there is a wonderful and universal perfection in how similar these people saw and depicted their life and their art. As I just mentioned to Campfireshadows, you might find it equally as interesting to check out a photo series of human and animal shaped rock formations titled Standing With the Ancient Ones. I’ve seen similar formations like this in some parts of Europe. Here is the link for those 4 blog posts

  4. July 5, 2012 at 3:13 am | #11

    I didn’t visit Lascaux, because Lascaux is closed for the public. Its replica cave is open for tourists but I preferred a much smaller cave with only a few very tiny paintings, also in the Dordogne. Your photos of the human and animal shaped rock formations are awesome. And yes, I do remember seeing a few in France too. In the Netherlands there isn’t much rock, but it might not surprise you that when you mindful look at trees you can find amazing shapes. I remember a deer head on a tree trunk. Every year when we made that walk I would look for it and find it. The tree grew older over the years and so did the deer head. I always wondered if the tree started to grow near a dead body of a deer, or that a deer had knocked its head to that tree so violently (and died) so that in a very unscientifically way (sorry for that) the tree sort of adopted it forming energy and started to resemble that deer. I have seen much more than a deer. It is really amazing what shapes your find near graveyards: I have seen wonderful body parts, beautifully shaped legs, chests and arms in tree trunks. Coincidence? Maybe… maybe not. But you have to really look to find these visual marvels…and who really looks these days in which we are all so busy?

    • rickbraveheart
      July 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm | #12

      Yes, I remember hearing they closed Lascaux sometime soon after I toured it as a child. Although that was many years ago, I’ve never forgotten the beautiful images.

      Thank you for the kind words about the photos of the rock and animal shaped formations. Although I had the honor of pressing shutter, they are the real stars and deserve all the credit! Like you, I am unaware of any unusual rock formations in the Netherlands. I do know there are some interesting ones at Torghatten in Norway, El Torcal de Antequera in Spain and Cappadocia in Turkey that you might want to explore if your travels ever take you near those places.

      Finally, thank you for sharing the experiences of seeing animal and human shapes in the trees. Because it is similar to what I see in the rocks, I know the joy and excitement I’m sure you feel each time it happens. How great for you, and, how great for those trees!

  5. July 6, 2012 at 9:58 am | #13

    Paula, If my Grandmother was correct. The pairs of hands might be a sign of comparison. The ancient ones had no red circle with a diagonal line drawn through them meaning “NO” but if they did I believe more than ever that the hand on the left, has it’s thumb start much lower and would have it on it. The hand on the right is graphic in saying, this is the hand of the people, NOT the one on the left. My Grandmother believed the “Sky People” had misplaced thumbs and could be identified at a distance because of that. Thus the raising and fully exposing the hand to scrutiny in greeting a stranger. Unfortunately, with all the UFO/extraterrestrial hype today, I think any interpretation that would even slightly suggest this is now excluded in serious research. Too bad, you should hear her story about the sky people stealing blackfoot children using their flying canoes!
    We only glimpse a moment in time. We try to read the past but until we see what they saw, understand what they understood and accept that we in all our advances are not gods but people who forgot to live well with the earth, we will make fun of that which we don’t understand. There is so much more than meets the eye. JW

  6. July 8, 2012 at 12:50 am | #14

    To convey their long ago messages of art through the use of sepia tonal qualities adds an added dimension to those photographs. As I viewed them I couldn’t help but wonder of their thoughts when they were created.

    • rickbraveheart
      July 8, 2012 at 10:08 pm | #15

      Penny: For monochrome prints Sepia is a lovely balance between color and black and white that adds a historic look and also beautiful warm tones to the print. For images made with film cameras though, it is a bit more time-consuming because you first make a b&w print and then apply sepia until you get the desired tones. But the results can be pretty spectacular.

      In regards to your other comment, I’ve discovered and photographed hundreds of these amazing formations all over the Southwest US and frequently found myself wondering if the ancestors who lived there thousands of years ago constantly felt the same awe and reverence standing in their presence as I was feeling.

  7. July 29, 2012 at 11:26 am | #16


    I am really enjoying your posts on Mesa Verde. I spent a wonderful vacation in Sante Fe a few years ago and just loved it. There is something so special about the light and the landscape in that part of the country. I hope to get back out there someday. In the meantime, I can feel as though I’m there by looking at your pictures.


    • July 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm | #17

      The entire Southwest of the USA is a stunning place, Nancy, and definitely one of my most favorite places anywhere to visit, hike and photograph. The magical part for me is just the same as you pointed out — the light, both in the sky (oh my, those deep blue skies!) and on the land is something you just don’t see anywhere else. I’m pleased you’re enjoying the posts on Mesa Verde. And, if you get time, you might check out the section on the Badlands of New Mexico. It’s only a few hours drive from Santa Fe but definitely a place that seems more “out of this world” – and if you’re ever back around there, well worth a visit.

  8. January 10, 2014 at 9:03 pm | #18

    Hi Rick… Glad you decided to follow my blog. I am returning the favor. Peggy and I have wandered the west quite a bit as well and we are fasciated with rock art. I’ve done several blogs on it and will be doing more. Thanks for your Mesa Verde post. –Curt

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