Pictographs and Petroglyphs

Pictographs are one of the most important aspects of the park.  A pictograph is a painting on the rocks.  It is called a pictograph rather than “art” because this kind of painting was a form of communication for people who had no written language.  Pictographs are connected to spirituality (examples of this are Tlalocs, rain altars, and masks), and to other forms of communication.  For example, there are numerous depictions of snakes in the park.  In the context of this park, snakes always point to water.  Pictographs were also used as calendars and to chronicle events (an example of this is the Kiowa Siege Panel on East Mountain.  The park also has some examples of petroglyphs, carvings into the rocks.  Some of the historical graffiti fall into this category.

Most of the pictographs in the park can be seen only when on guided tours.  However, there are several areas where some are accessible to those who have North Mountain privileges.

The closest pictographs are in a cave just to the right of the Interpretive Center.  These paintings are mostly from the Desert Archaic period.  During this period the paintings were mostly geometric in nature.


Another site on North Mountain with wonderful pictographs is Cave Kiva, where you will find eight masks painted by the Jornada Mogollon.  The photo above is of one of those masks, which is affectionately referred to as 'Harley Man’.  You can pick up a map at the office to guide you to the cave.  They do ask that you leave your drivers license with them to insure that you return the map to them.

Also on North Mountain is Site 17, which has two levels.  The trail to the left of the Interpretive Center leads to a sign pointing toward Site 17. The trail indicated leads to Newspaper Cave (which is lower Site 17).  Newspaper Cave is well named.  In terms of the quantity of what is painted on the rock wall, it is by far the busiest place in the park.  The painting spans the time of the Desert Archaic people to modern graffiti.

In 1858-1859 the Butterfield Stage had a stop very close to this cave, and there are many historical inscriptions on the wall from people who passed through at that time, in the 1860’s, and in the 1880’s.  Some of these historical markings are painted; others are etched into the rock.  Newspaper Cave is an excellent place to learn how to tell the general age of some of the different paintings.  It is also an excellent place to ponder the difference between pictographs and graffiti.

There is an upper level to Site 17, which can be accessed by continuing over the big, slanted rock that has the bedrock mortars in it.  You reach the upper level by climbing up, using huecos as hand- and foot-holds.  This can feel treacherous if you are not comfortable with rock climbing, but there is an easier way to get up there.  You can access upper Site 17 by using the chain trail (the first right off the main trail when you leave the Interpretive Center).  Follow the chain to the first place where there is a path to the left.  Follow that until you come to a clearing.  Upper Site 17 is down to your left.  Once there you will find huecos, bedrock mortars, and pictographs on the ceiling of the first of the three caves that make up that part of the site.  In that cave you must lie on your back to see the Tlaloc pictographs.  The floor is very slippery.  From this level, out at the edge, you can see the original pictograph of the collared jaguar. A painting of it is hanging in the park office.  The jaguar and the Tlaloc (storm god) paintings are from the Jornada Mogollon people.  There is also much beauty from nature in this area, as well as the remains of an old dam.


Once you are at the upper level, you can get back down to ground level by either path.  The chain trail is probably the easier path down.

If you go all the way to the top of the chain trail (near the top of North Mountain) and continue on to your left, you will come to a place with a no climbing sign.  Below that sign is a beautiful red and yellow mask, along with some other, fainter pictographs.

The last site that you can visit on your own to see pictographs is known as the Kiowa Siege Panel.  This is a large panel of paintings done to commemorate a raiding party that turned into a battle/siege with the Mexican Army (20 Kiowas surrounded by 100 or more soldiers) from which all but two of the Kiowas made it home.  There were some definite miracles involved here, and the incident was so significant to the tribe that some tribesmen came back to the site to paint the story.  This is a place where people unfortunately put graffiti over the painting, and even more unfortunately, the process of removing the graffiti involved sand blasting.This removed the graffiti but also a significant section of the painting.  Fortunately there is a pre-graffiti photograph of the site hanging in the Interpretive Center and a painting of the panel on a nearby sign.

To get to the siege panel, follow the main trail toward Mescalero Canyon.  Just before you get to the waterless restroom, tun left, go down the stairs, across the bridge, and continue following the path to the left until you get to the siege site.  In the spring and summer you will want to watch out for the bees that have a hive high near the panel.

Also in the area, to the right of the siege panel, is a rain altar painting with a couple of small figures, which are from the Jornada Mogollon.

There is an amazing variety of other paintings at other sites in the restricted portions of the park.  Some of these are now very fragile and starting to disappear due to flaking off of the rock surface.  The most well-known of the paintings in the guided area, which fortunately is in good condition, is the Starry Eyed Man.


There is a lot of symbolism in the park that we do not understand.  However, there is one symbol whose meaning is very clear:  the snake.  Any time you see a snake painted on the rocks, if you follow the direction in which the snake is pointing you will find water.  The largest single pictograph in the park is the 19 foot long snake in Newspaper Cave.  If you follow the direction it is pointing and go up to Upper Site 17 you will find several huecos.  These will not always have water, but they definitely do when it rains.  Comanche Cave also has a couple of snakes painted on the wall, which point to the huge cistern mentioned in a previous section.

The photo album for this section includes a view of Upper Site 17 from below, other photos of pictographs, and a pair of photos that shows how special software can enhance paintings that are difficult to see when looking directly at the rocks.


© Susan L. Stone 2015                   rovingstones@me.com