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Three Rivers Petroglyphs Site — 21,000 Carvings

By Jim Reed

Last updated on Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Rocks at Three River Petroglyphs.  Photo by the Author.
Rocks at Three River Petroglyphs.  Photo by the Author. 

If you arrive at Three Rivers Petroglyphs Site on a Friday, Saturday or Monday, you will be greeted by Bureau of Land Management volunteer Mr. Daniel Potter of Tularosa, New Mexico. Potter, several times retired from the normal working world and still active well into his eighties, holds a wealth of knowledge accumulated while serving the public during the past six years at Three Rivers. Even more than his knowledge, you will remember Mr. Potter — his outgoing personality, friendly smile, firm handshake and eagerness to provide information of the puzzling prehistoric collection of Native American graffiti.

After Mr. Potter checks to see if you have paid the obligatory two dollar entrance fee, he will open a small mailbox behind you and hand you a sixteen section information pamphlet — a complete information resource of the petroglyphs, history of the Tularosa Basin, and a detailed tour guide for your upcoming one mile walk into an area containing over 21,000 rock carvings.

Once Potter opens the chain link gate, you are on your way up a small hill wondering how a concentration of 21,000 carvings can be found in such a small area. It will take about an hour to navigate the course, longer if you stop to take pictures and read each noted explanation in your guide pamphlet. At the first carvings I discovered, I bent down to closely examine how they were made. The black outer surface of oxidized rock had been removed — sometimes only a thin coating was removed by scratching, but others are much deeper, requiring the use of primitive stone chisels and hammers and the artist's dedicated effort.

Daniel Potter.  Photo by the Author.
Daniel Potter.  Photo by the Author. 

The themes of the sometimes crude and other times painstakingly detailed petroglyphs are simple:  "This is what we found and used and did while living here. We left artistic symbols of animals, agriculture and our admiration for nature. We observed, had imagination and we were creative."

The Native Americans who lived here 1,000 years ago left for reasons unknown, to places unknown and created their historic graffiti for reasons not completely known or understood. They did leave a certain number of clues in the ruins of their nearby village and insight into their daily life in the rock carvings, but speculations abound among scholars as to who they were, why they left and why they created so many unique petroglyphs.

Apart from the amazing display of historic graffiti, the hill's peak offers stunning panoramic views of the Tularosa Basin:  the shining white gypsum of White Sands National Monument to the southeast, a stunning multi-colored earth tone scene of chaparral leading gradually upward to the Sacramento Mountains to the east, and dimly seen eastward, the San Andreas Mountains and Malpais lava flows.

Prior to a visit to any historic sight you either have done your homework and seek specific items or come totally unprepared. The latter, I find, is usually the best method - you look first, ask questions of knowledgeable persons such as Mr. Potter, scribble notes, take photos and study later. In the case of Three Rivers Petroglyphs, several days later I have more questions than I care to admit. A future journey will be necessary to satisfy not only my craving for carvings, but to explore the fascinating surroundings of the Tularosa Basin.

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