Petroglyph Point of Lava Beds National Monument… A Very Sacred Place


Photo by Curtis Mekemson

Sheer cliffs announce Petroglyph Point. The fence here protects Native American rock art that has been carved into the light-colored tuff rock.


It is easy to understand why the Modoc Indians of the Tule Lake Basin and earlier peoples that lived in the area would have considered Petroglyph Point a holy place. High cliffs shoot up from the ground producing a mesa-like structure that once stood as an island in Tule Lake. The island-mesa was created when lava flowed into the lake from a vent beneath the surface. When the red-hot rock met the cool water, it caused a massive explosion that sent volcanic ash shooting into the sky. Returning to the surface, the ash settled into layer upon layer of tuff, a soft volcanic rock that was ideal for carving. Early natives would climb into boats made of reeds and row out to the cliffs where they would use rocks and sticks to carve their messages.

Petroglyph point

Once surrounded by water, Petroglyph Point is today surrounded by farmland. The dark shadow is caused by the cliffs where the rock art is located. (Google Map)

Setting for Petroglyph Point P

Another view of the cliffs. Other peaks are shown in the distance. This is arid land and the extensive farming depends upon irrigation. There is an ongoing battle over water rights between the farmers and the Native Americans. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Photo by Curt Mekemson.

Looking up. Numerous birds nest in the cliffs.

Photograph of swallow nests at Petroglyph Point by Curtis Mekemson.

Such as these cliff swallows.

When Peggy and I traveled to Petroglyph Point this summer as part of our visit to Lava Beds National Monument, it was no longer an island. Farmers had reclaimed the land by draining much of the lake. It was still impressive, however, as was the rock art left behind by the hundreds of generations of Native Americans who had rowed out to the island on a sacred quest. Some of the 5,000 petroglyphs may be up to 6,000 years old. Sheer numbers make this one of the most extensive collections of Native American rock art in North America. It’s definitely worth a visit. 

Rock Art of Petroglyph Point P1

This photo by Peggy gives an idea on just how many petroglyphs are located along the tuff wall. The rock art was basically as high as the Modoc Indians could reach from their boats.

Rock art of Petroglyph Point 1

A close up of the above panel.

Rock Art of Petroglyph Point

While much of the rock art features geometric forms, this is definitely an insect, complete with feelers. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Photograph of centipede rock art at Petroglyph Point by Curtis Mekemson.

And another insect!

Rock art at Petroglyph Point photographed by Curtis Mekemson.

There are numerous examples of what appears to be counting along the wall. I assume that this had to do with keeping track of time, but who knows.

Photograph of human figure petroglyph at Petroglyph Point by Curtis Mekemson.

Several of the petroglyphs made us smile. I quickly designated this as Mr. Arrowhead.

Rock art photo in Lava Beds National Monument by Curtis Mekemson.

I also found this running fellow humorous, although it might have been two streams running into a lake, or… Interpretation is often up to the viewer.

Rock Art of Petroglyph Point 3

And what do you make of the square, bug-eyed alien? Note another bug off to the left.

Rock Art of Petroglyph Point P6

I really liked this scenic portrait of the sun and the mountains. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Rock Art of Petroglyph Point 6

This seemed totally at odds with the other petroglyphs, leading me to wondering if it’s a modern contribution.


A Bonus: When I was going through our photos of Petroglyph Point, I came upon this photo I took of Peggy in one of the lava tube caves I featured in my last post.

Peggy Mekemson in lava tube at Lava Beds National Monument

Lava tube 1

Plus another photo from inside the lava tube. Magical.


NEXT POST: Sticking with the petroglyph theme, I will feature Native American rock art from Arches  and Canyonlands National Parks.


This Post Is for the Birds… The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site of New Mexico: Part 4

A rather strange turkey you might note, with claws out, coming at you. It isn’t so strange if you’ve experienced it, as I did. I was taking close-ups of a hen’s chicks when she decided to discourage me by flying at me with claws aimed. She succeeded.


Peggy and I are on our way home from North Carolina today. We flew back to surprise our son, Tony, who was promoted to Lieutenant Commander for the Coast Guard in Charleston, South Carolina. While he teaches at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut overseeing cadets who want to fly for the Coastguard, he was visiting his In-laws in South Carolina and the Coast Guard arranged for the appointment ceremony to take place in Charleston.  

Today’s blog is for the birds, so to speak. I am featuring petroglyphs of birds we found at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico. They ranged from eagles to turkeys.

It’s no wonder that the Jornada were impressed with eagles. I am. I took this photo of a Bald Eagle in Oregon.

Here’s his look-alike petroglyph at the Three Rivers’ Site.

The mighty eagle may have ruled the skies of southern New Mexico, but it was the Thunderbird that ruled the heavens. A flap of its wings would gather clouds and send thunder bouncing off the far mountains. Lightning would shoot out of its eyes. The Thunderbird existed in numerous Native American and First Nation cultures. Peggy and I have found images from New Mexico to Alaska.

This petroglyph of a Thunderbird is one of the most powerful petroglyphs I have seen.

Peggy and I found this totem pole Thunderbird on Vancouver Island, British Colombia. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Another example from Three Rivers.

It wasn’t surprising that we found a roadrunner petroglyph, the superfast, long-legged bird of the Southwest that is common in the desert and eats rattlesnakes for breakfast. Did you ever watch the Roadrunner-Coyote cartoons? I was addicted to it at UC Berkeley in the mid-60s. Cartoon time was mandatory break time! My fellow dorm residents and I would gather around the lone TV in our dormitory and cheer as Road Runner once again foiled Wile E. Coyote.

A roadrunner with its snake breakfast. I am also intrigued with the upside down animal above the roadrunner. I think it might be a peccary.

This sophisticated petroglyph looks a lot like a goose or duck to me. Note how the artist has used the contour of the rock to give body to the goose.

We also found petroglyphs of wild turkeys, the bird that Benjamin Franklin preferred over the eagle as a national symbol for America. These characters provide us with endless entertainment as they roar around in our backyard, chase each other, show off, and search for food. I suspect that the Jornada regarded them as a source of food.

Possibly a turkey head.

And a stick figure turkey!

I’ll finish today with this tom turkey strutting his stuff in our back yard. We’re always amused that the hens totally ignore the guys when they put on their shows, almost appearing bored. We’ve decided that the shows are to impress the competition.

NEXT POST: The slithery serpents of Three Rivers. Last week I blogged about my encounter with a Diamondback Rattler. This time I will focus on how the Jornada perceived snakes and lizards. There is even a rattlesnake!


Nice Kitty, But Why Is Your Tail Over Your Back… The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site: Part 3

There are several mountain lion petroglyphs at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. Each one has his tail bent up over his back. I don’t have a clue why. And what’s with the arrow?


Peggy and I are still out wandering. So this is my third post revisiting the Three Rivers’s Petroglyph Site in southern New Mexico.

Hunting wild animals for meat provided an essential source of food for the majority of mankind’s existence. While the Jornada Mogollon people at the Three Rivers’ Petroglyph site cultivated corn, hunting remained a vital activity.

Arrows can often be found sticking out of Big Horn Mountain Sheep in petroglyphs. They were a major source of food in the South West.

The Big Horn Sheep petroglyphs at Three Rivers were some of the most sophisticated I’ve seen. It’s rare to see bodies filled in.

A Big Horn head with geometric patterns.

I took this picture of a Big Horn ram in Nevada. He was wondering if he should object to his photo being taken.

Success meant learning as much as they could about the animals that inhabited their desert world: where they lived, what they ate, where they drank, and what trails they used were all important.  The Jornada were excellent trackers, able to read in a few scuffed tracks the story of who had wandered down a trail and what they were doing.

Tracking was a vital skill of Native Americans in hunting, or in being hunted. This was probably the track of a mountain lion.

Definitely human!

There was a close, almost sacred, relationship between the hunter and the hunted. Clans assumed animal names and young people went on vision quests to discover which animal might serve as personal guides. Shamans put on animal cloaks and assumed animal personalities. The gods and the spirits of animals were both honored. (It helped assure they would be around at dinner time.)

Not surprisingly, the petroglyphs found at Three Rivers reflect the importance of the various animals in the life of the Jornada. We discovered numerous bighorn sheep and an unexpected number of cougars. There were also horses, rabbits and coyotes. Horses provided a radical new form of transportation; coyotes were known for their trickery; and rabbits provided an easy food supply.

I featured this cougar in my last post. Again, note the tail over the back.

Another big cat with proud tail.

This cougar came up to sniff us at a wildlife sanctuary in southern Oregon. He looked quite friendly but it was one of those instances I was glad I was on the other side of the fence.

I suspect he would have liked to have had this rabbit in the enclosure with him. Everyone, it seems, likes to eat rabbits. They would have been another important food source for the Jornada.

These two long-eared Jack Rabbits (hares) stopped by our house for a visit a couple of weeks ago. They wanted to know if we had a coyote free zone. I couldn’t make any promises so they moved on.

The arrival of the Spaniards to the New World in the 1500s meant that the Jornada had a dramatic new form of transportation available.

I’ll finish up with this happy songster. (Or maybe it’s not so happy. That could be an arrow.) My next post on Three Rivers is for the birds.








Strange Gods… The Rock Art of Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Petroglyph in Three Rivers Petroglyph site of southern New Mexico.

This is one of my favorite glyphs from the Three Rivers Petroglyph site in Southern New Mexico– but what does it mean? I’ll go out on the proverbial limb. My guess is it represents a drug induced shamanistic vision. There is some thought that the circle with dots represents Datura, a powerful hallucinogen (and also a favorite flower subject of Georgia O’Keeffe).

A lot of guessing takes place in determining the meaning of rock art. Present day Native American myths and rituals provide some clues. Others can be deduced from the petroglyph itself. An antelope filled full of arrows relates to hunting, but is it a record of an actual event or a hopeful prediction of the future?

Today I am featuring petroglyphs from the Three Rivers site that represent humans and gods. Some can seem quite strange while the one below seems… quite human.

A realistic portrayal of a human found at the Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

This is the most realistic portrayal of a human we found among the Three River Petroglyphs. Note the ear rings.

Petroglyph at Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

I also found this triangular face fascinating. Many of the petroglyphs at Three Rivers take advantage of the rocks natural features. This one uses the ridge to set off the nose and eyes, and cracks to outline the chin.

Petroglyph at Three Rivers Petroglyph site in Southern New Mexico.

According to Alex Patterson in his book, Rock Art Symbols, this is either the Mother of Animals or a woman waiting for her honey. It could be she is having a baby. Check out her expression. Two different versions are below.

Petroglyph at Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

Another possible version of Mother of Animals at Three Rivers Petroglyph site.

Petroglyph at Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

And a third.

Three Rivers Petroglyph.

I introduced a close up of this character in my last blog. Here he is located in his rock setting. I am thinking “boo!”

Petroglyph from Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

Talk about scary, this guy qualifies. Big eyes and big, sharp teeth

Three Rivers petroglyph.

Petroglyphs can be quite graphic in their portrayals…

Petroglyph from Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

…And abstract. Geometric patterns are often included.

You can tell your god or someone's status in society by the headdress he or she wears. The plant on the left may be corn.

You can tell your god by the headdress he or she wears. The plant may be corn.

Petroglyph from Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

I’ll conclude this blog with this spiky haired character who appears to be waving bye-bye.

NEXT BLOG: We will enter into the petroglyph animal kingdom of Three Rivers.

Mountain lion petroglyph at Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

I check out a mountain lion petroglyph.

New Mexico’s Three Rivers Petroglyph Site… Where Art Rocks

Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico.

A layer of clouds stretching along the Sacramento Mountains adds beauty and mystery to the Three Rivers Petroglyph site. It is easy to understand why Native Americans chose the area for their rock art.

This marks the beginning of a new series where we leave the beautiful but crowded cities of Europe to visit the lonely, wide-open spaces of the American and Canadian west. Our journey will take us from New Mexico’s northern Chihuahuan desert to Alaska’s remote Kodiak Islands.

For the next three weeks we will explore the mystical world of Native American rock art found in the Three Rivers Petroglyph site of southern New Mexico. Afterwards Peggy and I will spend six weeks travelling up the Alaska Highway through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory to Alaska and back.  We will finish off our summer at the celebration known as Burning Man held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

Peggy and I have been visiting rock art sites throughout the Southwestern United States for the past 15 years. The Three Rivers’ site is one of our favorites. Some 21,000 petroglyphs featuring everything from people to bugs are spread out over 50 acres. Created by the Jornada Mogollon people of the Chihuahuan Desert, the glyphs were pecked into rock using stone tools for a period of over 500 years starting in 900 AD.

This is wide-open country set off by dramatic mountains. Within a hundred miles of Three Rivers, Billy the Kid fought in the Lincoln County Wars, Smokey the Bear was found hidden in a tree avoiding a forest fire, bug eyed aliens became synonymous with Roswell, and history was forever changed with the explosion of the world’s first atomic bomb.

I rode through the area on my bicycle as part of my ten thousand mile trek around North America. It’s a long way between pit stops.

Mountains and deserts of Southern new Mexico

What southern New Mexico looks like from a bicycle.

Native Americans often chose special sites for their rock art and it is immediately apparent that the Three Rivers site is special. The words “raw beauty” come to mind. Set on a ridge, the site provides commanding views of the surrounding desert and mountains. Today’s blog will explore the natural beauty of the region. In my next blogs I will feature petroglyphs of people, animals, birds, geometric designs, animal tracks, reptiles, bugs and anything else that caught the fancy of the Jornada people– including a whale and a mysterious ship.

Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

Another photo featuring the Sacramento Mountains and clouds from the perspective of the Three Rivers Petroglyph site.

Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico with Sacramento Mountains providing the backdrop.

Native Americans often chose cliff areas such as those on the left for their rock art.

Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

Our van, Quivera, provides a perspective on the region. We took this photo from the ridge where the majority of petroglyphs are located. We pretty much had the site to ourselves during the two days we were there.

Peggy stands on the ridge next to a rock likely to hold petroglyphs. Some glyphs are immediately obvious while others are hidden. Sharp eyes are required.

Peggy stands on the ridge next to a rock likely to hold petroglyphs. Some glyphs are immediately obvious while others are hidden. Sharp eyes are required.

Petroglyphs at Three Rivers Petroglyph site in southern New Mexico.

Faded bear and what may be badger prints are shown on these rocks. Petroglyphs are made by using a stone to peck away the outer layer of rock varnish (a layer of minerals that attaches to the rock over time).

Lichen on rock at Three Rivers Petroglyph site in Southern New Mexico.

We also found the lichens to be quite attractive.

Lizard glyph at Three Rivers Petroglyph site in Southern New Mexico.

Many rocks at Three Rivers are covered with petroglyphs. In addition to the prominent lizard,we found circles, geometric designs, and a possible map on the various faces of this rock.

Evening clouds over the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico.

Sunset lights up the Sacramento Mountains. I found the contrast created by the cloud layer quite interesting.

NEXT BLOG: I will look at glyphs that feature the Jornada Mogollon people and their gods.

Petroglyph at Three Rivers Petroglyph site in Southern New Mexico

One of the many strange beings we found lurking among the rocks.