Petroglyph National Monument stretches 17 miles along Albuquerque, New Mexico's West Mesa, a volcanic basalt escarpment that dominates the city’s western horizon. Five dormant volcanic cones and a seventeen-mile basalt escarpment show how a series of eruptions over 100,000 years ago formed the West Mesa. The basalt boulders that tumbled down to the escarpment's edge later provided an ideal material for carving Puebloan and Spanish petroglyphs.
The first human activity in this region goes back 12,000 years, but most of the 17,0000 petroglyphs originated between AD 1300 and 1650. In content, complexity and style of execution, these petroglyphs are referred to as the Rio Grande style of rock art. Many of the designs are still used by contemporary Pueblo Indians, such as Kokopelli, the hump-backed flute player.
The monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archaeological sites and an estimated 24,000 images carved by Ancestral Pueblo peoples and early Spanish settlers. Many of the images are recognizable as animals, people, brands and crosses; others are more complex. Their meaning was, possibly, understood only by the carver. These images are the cultural heritage of a people who have long since moved into other areas and moved on through history for many reasons.
The basalt rocks' geologic nature allows for the creation of the petroglyphs on their surface. The rocks contain high concentrations of iron, manganese and calcium. Over thousands of years of exposure to the desert's rough environment, a "desert varnish" forms on the surface. The varnish is formed from the oxidization, or rusting, of the manganese and iron when mixed with oxygen in the air and water from rain; this varnish is dark, almost-black and glossy in appearance.
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