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New Mexico State University project attempts to record, comprehend ancient petroglyphs

A New Mexico State University anthropology professor and a team of students are mapping and cataloging petroglyphs at a site north of Deming, N.M., to learn more about them and to record them before they are further damaged by weather and vandalism.

New Mexico State University undergraduate students Yasha Calbazana, Vanessa Steward and Ryan Powell catalog petroglyphs at Pony Hills, a Bureau of Land Management site north of Deming, N.M.. The images, which date as far back as A.D. 900, were made by members of the Mimbres culture. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Funded by a grant from the university's Southwest and Border Cultures Institute, Assistant Professor Monte McCrossin, several graduate students and teams of undergraduate volunteers are using cutting-edge techniques to study the petroglyphs on a piece of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property known as Pony Hills.

Petroglyphs are images pecked into the surfaces of rocks. Researchers think most of the images at Pony Hills were made by people of the Mimbres culture between A.D. 900 and A.D. 1150.

Although they have the potential to tell us about the beliefs of the people who made them, most petroglyphs remain open to interpretation because no written or oral description of the people survives, McCrossin said.

Anthropology graduate student Terry Moody, who specializes in petroglyphs, said she is very careful about how she discusses them.

"I will describe an image as 'a vertical line with a curved top,' rather than as 'an arrow.' If you say 'arrow,' you go to the site with a preconceived notion. Some people try to interpret petroglyphs. I don't do that, because I think you would have to know a lot more about the people than I do. I'm there just to get them on record," she said.

But, while no direct evidence about petroglyphs' meaning exists, scientists may be able to learn more about them through comparison and inference, McCrossin said.

Moody plans to look for "unique figures" at Pony Hills, figures that do not appear elsewhere in that particular form. She then will try to classify them and compare them to similar figures at other sites, she said.

Lora Jackson, who recently completed an anthropology master's degree at New Mexico State and who is interested in the pottery of the Mimbres culture, said she will try to compare figures at Pony Hills with figures found on the pottery.

Besides looking at individual figures, the researchers will look at how they relate to each other and how they are arranged in groups or "panels," McCrossin said.

Graduate student Martin Goetz will plot each petroglyph at the site using the Global Positioning System. Once they are plotted, he will look at how they are arranged in relation to each other and to geological features of the landscape. He also will look at how different sites in the region are arranged to see if there is a pattern.

Dave Brown, another graduate student, is making a systematic survey of the site. Having marked a central reference point or "datum," he is using a survey tool called a "theodolite" to take both horizontal and vertical measurements of each petroglyph. Once he has obtained all the data, he will feed it into a computer to create a three-dimensional map of Pony Hills.

Despite how little we know about the figures' context, McCrossin said, some of them seem to make tantalizing reference to recorded events.

"One of the compositions at Pony Hills depicts an anthropomorphic figure frowning at a distinctive spiral-shaped image. It seems quite possible that the spiral is the Crab Nebula supernova of A.D.1054. Images of that nebula have been identified in rock art at several other places in the western United States. To my knowledge, this would be the first documented example of a Crab Nebula supernova depiction in southern New Mexico," he said.

"This is interesting because the date of the supernova coincides very nicely with the A.D. 1000 to 1100 time range of the classic black-on-white pottery of the Mimbres people. It was a time when this culture reached its zenith before collapsing in the next century," he added.

During a recent work day at the site, undergraduate volunteers huddled around the petroglyphs, taking photographs and cataloging each figure according to its height, width, orientation, distance from the datum and appearance.

"I've always been interested in rock art and I'm planning to go into archeology. This is good preparation for graduate school," said Vanessa Stewart, a senior anthropology major.

Besides the data it will provide, cataloging and mapping the figures will serve as a record of the petroglyphs' existence and condition. The documentation could even be used as evidence if looters or vandals are brought to trial, Moody said.

"In any archeological site, the reason you map is because of loss," said Brown. "At some sites digging creates loss. That's why you map them before you start to dig. Here we're not digging, but this site is being lost to the elements and to vandalism."

A BLM sign several yards away gives mute support to his charge.

"Enjoy, but do not destroy your American heritage," the sign reads, but the word "destroy" has been obliterated by a cluster of bullet holes. A few feet to the rear, the rock is defaced by dime-sized chips.

McCrossin, who noted that his group's work is being done under a permit from the BLM, said that in other places at Pony Hills pot hunters have chiseled out whole petroglyphs.

"Preservation for the future is a big reason I'm doing this," said Maria Luna, a senior anthropology student. "There've been a lot of things eradicated and we've lost a lot of history. This is my chance to contribute to preserving some things. As a woman and a person of multicultural heritage, I think that's important."