Updated: Apr 29
Discussion with Katherine Wells, Founder of the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project
What a gift to have this opportunity to meet with Katherine Wells, founder of the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project in Velarde, New Mexico and author of Life on the Rocks: One Woman's Adventures in Petroglyph Preservation. One of my very favorite places to visit, Mesa Prieta has the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the state of New Mexico. Mesa Prieta literally means "dark mesa", and is a 36-square-mile mesa outside Espanola, about 35 minutes from Abiquiú.
We are so appreciative of Katherine, who works tirelessly to protect these national treasures. We are excited to share this story - how an artist and writer, who left California to escape the crowds and noise and enjoy a simpler life - became a leader, an educator, and the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award for achievement in archaeology from the State of New Mexico Historic Preservation Division.
Discover Abiquiu: Welcome, Katherine! Thank you for taking time to share your story about the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project - “a project to protect a place” - and the Wells Petroglyph Preserve. I became aware of this amazing place when I visited and took a guided tour through the land…and bought your book. I have been amazed and full of wonder ever since. Meeting with you is a blessing.
Before we start, I’d like to let our readers know that everyone can – in post COVID times – visit the Wells Petroglyph Preserve by making a docent-led tour reservation. They can also support Katherine’s work in various other ways, including special fund-raising events. For information about tours on the Wells Petroglyph Preserve and other associated activities, please see related links at the end of this blog.
Katherine, we are both from California, originally. New Mexico sure offers a different lifestyle! Let’s back up to those earlier days. A multimedia artist and author, how is it you ended up here, in northern New Mexico?
Katherine Wells: I grew up in the Midwest, but lived in California for 30 years. I had three different careers – a teacher, small business owner, and full-time artist. I was married and divorced. I have a son who still lives in California. I had had a long romance with the Southwest and New Mexico in particular. My art work never fit California. It always had a Southwest flavor. So, when my kid finished high school I decided I didn’t have to live in California any more. My partner was of a like mind so we came here and started looking for property.
DA: It just so happens that the property you and your partner found was filled with historical artifacts in the form of petroglyphs - prehistoric art carvings. Thousands and thousands of petroglyphs. Let’s start by discussing how a petroglyph is made.
KW: Petroglyphs are mostly made by using a small, sharp stone as a chisel and a larger stone as a hammer and pecking into the basalt rocks to make images. Basalt is very hard, so it takes a fair amount of work. The basalt is covered with what is called “desert varnish” which makes it very dark brown. Pecking through that surface reveals its lighter, original color and makes a striking contrast.
DA: When you first discovered your land, did you know what you had purchased – in terms of the cultural significance? How this purchase would alter your journey?
KW: Actually, I was a petroglyph person before New Mexico. A friend and I had discovered some in Utah and became kind of obsessed by them. We spent a lot of time scouring the California deserts looking for them. So, when my partner and I found a piece of land that had petroglyphs on it, I was sold, but I had not the slightest idea what it might lead to.
When I bought this property, I had no idea how many petroglyphs there might be or who made them or much else about the place. I continue to be astonished on a daily basis at how many there are – more than 10,000 just on the land we bought and at least 100,000 on the whole mesa.
DA: Your land plays such a rich part of the cultural history of our area. Have the petroglyphs been identified?
KW: Petroglyphs in New Mexico range in age from ten thousand years ago to yesterday. The earliest ones that we have identified on Mesa Prieta were made about 7,500 years ago by hunter and gatherer people who roamed the mesa hunting everything from rabbits to mammoths during the Archaic period. They made thousands of distinct images that are totally non-representational. Many motifs are repeated over and over. They clearly have meaning, but we have no idea what it might be.
This is the biggest petroglyph site in the state and represents not only Archaic and Pueblo period history, but also that of the Spanish.
DA: Did the Spanish also create petroglyphs? How can we tell the difference between Puebloan and Spanish treasures?
KW: I like to say, “Everybody’s history is on the rocks.”
In addition to thousands of crosses, there are lots of images of horses, people from colonial times and even Spanish heraldic lions, some of which are magnificent. The subject matter, patination and style of a glyph usually tells us which time period it is from. About ten per cent of all the images on the mesa represent Spanish history and culture.
DA: With 10% of the petroglyph images representing Spanish history, your land truly tells a story about the history of northern New Mexico. Tell us more about the petroglyphs here on Mesa Prieta - using the basalt rocks as their canvas, what are they communicating to us?
KW: Most of the petroglyphs on Mesa Prieta were made by the Tewa, or Pueblo people who came into the area around 1300 A. D. They made tens of thousands of images of everything from geometrics and celestial images to very refined images of humans like shield bearers and animals playing flutes. The site is known for them. We don’t know the exact meaning of any one glyph, but some things are generally known or can be inferred. Serpents with horns are a common image. They are mythical rather than real world beings and are symbolic of rain. Living in the parched Southwest we can readily understand these ancient people’s constant preoccupation with rain. They had rich ceremonial lives and their efforts were often directed toward rain making. That includes making petroglyphs.
DA: So the mesa has both non-representational glyphs made in the Archaic period, and more realistic and representational figures and images made by the Puebloans. Can these petroglyphs be accurately dated?
KW: Petroglyphs cannot be dated precisely, only relatively. As a general rule, the older the image the darker it is. Subject matter also helps with dating. If you see a horse image, you know it made after 1598. Scientists are working on more precise dating methods. But we know that the images generally date to three periods in New Mexico history: Archaic, Puebloan and Historic. Most of the petroglyphs here were made between 1300 and 1600 AD.
DA: After you purchased this land, and found yourself standing in front of these rocks and boulders, what did it mean to you? What did you feel? Images speaking to you from 7,500 years ago?!
KW: I stand in front of a glyph, I always recognize what an extraordinary privilege it is to be able to live among them and to do what I can to assure their protection for future generations. That doesn’t mean that it’s been easy to do. Some petroglyphs still induce a feeling of awe in me and always will. There are equinox and solstice markers that make you feel like you are in the same mental space as the person who made them when you see them in action. It’s a thrill.
Some of the first petroglyphs I saw made me feel the presence of their makers in a sense even though I didn’t know if there were 100 petroglyphs or 100,000. I‘ve always felt a sense of responsibility to those ancient people.
DA: That sense of responsibility set you on a path to protect them. I know that hasn’t been an easy journey.
KW: I always wanted to protect them but soon realized how complicated and difficult that would be. I was able to do art, build houses and defend the petroglyphs for years, but there came a point in about 2010 when the petroglyph project that I founded overwhelmed me and my personal art languished.
I’ve been able to do what I’ve done only because I didn’t realize at the beginning what a gargantuan task I was taking on, and because I’m too stubborn to quit. Most importantly, I’ve had an enormous amount of help from many wonderful volunteers and others. They have been beyond amazing and deserve most of the credit.
But the mesa is not fully protected yet. We are working toward National Monument status for large parts of the landform. But the process is in the very beginning stages.
DA: As part of your preservation effort, you founded the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project to protect the archaeological features, environment and cultural landscape of Mesa Prieta. Can you tell us more about that?
KW: We started the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project in 1999 to record and preserve all of the petroglyphs on the site. Then, education also became a goal. Since then, we have recorded nearly 70,000 images and artifacts that are being archived for the state of NM in a complex database.
DA: You have also had such a tremendous impact on the children of our communities – developing curriculum and classes to provide education about the petroglyphs. Many of our local native and Hispanic children first see a petroglyph when they come to this land, and they gain such an important understanding of their own history and culture because of your curriculum.
KW: My motto from day one has been that “Preservation Happens Through Education.” We’ve developed wonderful education programs that have had a meaningful influence on a large number of local kids. We’ve won awards for these. No kid who has ever been through our curriculum program or our Summer Youth Program is every going to vandalize a petroglyph here or anywhere. And, kids take the information and respect they learn here back home to their families and kind of educate them through the back door.
And, since most kids here have ancestors who might have made the petroglyphs, they need to learn about it and feel pride in their history. I don’t know how many kids have been exposed to our curriculum and or visited the mesa over the last 20 years, but it has been a lot. A few thousand, maybe.
DA: How is the Project funded?
KW: MPPP is funded through grants, private donations, fundraising events, merchandise sales and everything but standing on the street with a tin cup.
DA: Would you tell us about the decision in 2007 to donate – so generously - much of your property to The Archaeological Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to acquiring and preserving archaeological sites on private lands?
KW: My partner died in 2001 and it made me think about my own mortality. I decided that I should figure out what was going to happen to the property when I died. I didn’t want to leave it to anybody else to decide. It felt like a big responsibility. I investigated The Archaeological Conservancy and their mission was in line with mine so I decided to give it to them.
I kept a few acres around my house, and donated 156 acres to the Archaeological Conservancy. This land is now known as the Wells Preserve.
The Conservancy’s reputation is part of what helps with preservation. They own hundreds of sites around the country. On a daily basis the Petroglyph Project provides a lot of protection, too, because we provide a presence that helps deter vandalism and other bad behavior.
DA: How does The Preserve protect the land and how does that influence or impact the Project?
KW: The two are separate but they work together. The Project uses the Preserve for tours, outreach and education.
DA: What about future preservation? Preservation is needed against environmental impacts, societal impacts, vandalism….a very difficult job.
KW: The Project and Preserve are dedicated to preservation. If we achieve National Monument status, that will provide federal protection for the site. And, we rely on donations and grants.
DA: Katherine, we thank you for taking the time to share your love and knowledge of these cultural treasures, and working tirelessly to protect them for all of us and future generations.
As Dr. Kurt Anschuetz, Program Director of the Rio Grande Foundation for Communities and Cultural Landscapes, said: “Based on my work both as an archaeologist and a cultural anthropologist for three decades…I find that Mesa Prieta stands among Bandelier National Monument, the Valles Caldera, Mount Taylor, the Albuquerque West Mesa, and the Zuni Salt Lake as one of the most meaningful and culturally sensitive landscapes in the State of New Mexico. This special landscape deserves our consideration and care.”
It truly does deserve all of our consideration and care.
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The Wells Petroglyph Preserve is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as the NM State Register of Cultural Properties. In 2014, the Cultural Landscapes Foundation recognized Mesa Prieta as one of the nation’s eleven most threatened and at-risk landscapes.
The Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project hosts public tours of the Wells Petroglyph Preserve, located about an hour north of Santa Fe or about 30 minutes southeast of Abiquiú.
>>Until tours re-open post COVID, you may take a virtual tour at https://www.mesaprietapetroglyphs.org/virtualtours.html.
>>You can reach the Project at 505-852-1351.
>>Follow www.facebook.com/DiscoverAbiquiu and we will update you when tours re-open.
>>Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project is a 501(c)(3) community non-profit organization. Help support Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project with a donation at: https://mesaprietapetroglyphs.square.site
>>You can purchase Katherine's book, Life on the Rocks: One Woman's Adventures in Petroglyph Preservation, at this link.