You really either have to be a resident, a relative of a resident, or a close friend of a resident of Virden, New Mexico to even know about the petroglyphs, and even then, to know how to get to them is another story. Without a sign pointing the way there, or a marked trail other than the faint imprint of side by side ATV tires made by locals visiting the site, the petroglyphs, made by ancient peoples etching artistic designs and figures into rocks, is something like a closely held community secret, and for good reason.
“We’re really fortunate that there hasn’t been a lot of destruction to the petroglyphs,” Norman Adams, a resident of Virden, said, “It’s actually been pretty well preserved. I think people have really done a very good job of not trying to disturb what’s there.”
What is there are beautiful glimpses into the ancient world. Zigzagging lines etched deep into ochre rocks, cross hatched geometric patterns that face the sun and awe inspiring human like figures that seem to radiate off the rock, all, it seems, left largely unmolested by the various peoples who came to the area since the petroglyphs were made.
“In the back of my mind I think, what were these people doing? What were they thinking about? Why create these artistic features? It really appears to me that maybe this place was very spiritual to Native Americans. Maybe they went up there to do some kind of worshiping, or something along the spiritual lines,” Adams said, “What was going through their minds when they were creating them?”
Adams, whose family has lived in Virden since the 1920’s, said he recalled his mother telling him stories about seeing the petroglyphs when she was young. Adams himself has visited the petroglyphs numerous times since he was a kid, and he’s taken both his children and grandchildren to see them as well, but nobody he knows of in the community is aware of who, or what group of people made the petroglyphs, and why.
After seeing pictures of the petroglyphs taken by the Courier, Aaron Wright, preservation anthropologist at Archeology Southwest, a Tucson-based archeological preservation nonprofit, said that the meaning behind the petroglyphs, or what purpose they had to the people who made them, “probably don’t have English analogies. But in my opinion, these were probably very important places for people.”
Wright estimated some of the petroglyphs were probably made by an archaic, pre-agricultural, nomadic group of people some 1,500 to 3,000 years ago. Wright estimated some of the other petroglyphs at the site were then added on later by Mogollon Native American groups.
Without the ability to carbon date rocks, Wright said the main way archaeologists determine the origins and dates of the petroglyphs is by comparing the style and images of the petroglyphs to other examples of petroglyphs, pottery, and the proximity of the petroglyphs to villages and other artifacts. The images depicted on the petroglyphs outside of Virden are similar to other petroglyphs around the southwest.
Wright estimated the zigzagging lines petroglyph is probably one of the oldest ones at the site, probably created by the nomadic groups, while the humanoid figure is probably a newer petroglyph added on by Mogollon groups because etchings of animals and human like figures show up more commonly in areas near Mogollon sites, and not older, archaic cultures in the area.
Wright also identified the cross hatched checkerboard like petroglyph as probably depicting corn kernels.
Ultimately though, Wright is adamant about not trying to interpret the meanings of the petroglyphs, but instead letting Native American groups interpret and find meaning in them.
Wright said petroglyphs themselves were not commonly made or randomly created and scattered around an area, instead, he compared them to monuments, or even shared communal memories tied to specific landscapes that drew people to them for centuries for religious ceremonies and other spiritual activities. Based on photos, Wright believes the zigzag line etching itself was probably traced over and refurbished by Mogollon groups long after the nomadic groups that originally made them were there. Other petroglyphs at the site were probably etched above or next to the original petroglyphs by Mogollon groups, implying that it probably was a sacred site, or site of religious significance for some time.
Adams said the community of Virden understands the importance of the site, and that the community, without assistance from any federal, tribal, state, county, or nonprofit agency, tries to keep the area free of any kind of graffiti or defacement, although he has seen a rock with the letters “BSA” etched into it, but that’s the only graffiti he could recall ever seeing.
“I think people take care of it because the people that go there are mostly local, or people that know someone that’s local.”
After seeing pictures, Wright was amazed at the pristine condition the petroglyphs are in, adding petroglyphs located on private land often are preserved better than petroglyphs located on public land, because the ones located on private land are often less available for public viewing, and less easily accessible to people who would choose to deface the petroglyphs.
“It’s about striking the appropriate balance,” Wright said, “Petroglyphs draw a lot of attention from the public, and there’s a human tendency to add to that. It’s a common response, whether that’s defacing, or adding graffiti as a way to connect to the place. It’s really rare to not see vandalism at petroglyph sites.”
Adams said word about the petroglyphs has been slipping out to the wider world for some time, and he doesn’t necessarily mind people wanting to see them.
“As I said, it is a little bit of a town secret, but word gets out, and I think that it should be shared with anyone that would like to see it,” Adam said, “but if I know someone is going up there I’ll ask them to please help preserve its natural state.”