Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, New Mexico


Jornada Mogollon petroglyph at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, New Mexico

I am thrilled to have the “panther with a rattlesnake tail” petroglyph from the Three Rivers Petroglyph site open National Geographic’s Storied Rock article. To me that image speaks to many concepts in ancient art and my love of photographing it.

There are over 21,000 petroglyphs at the 4-acre Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. The images span cultures and centuries. Many things were on my mind when photographed the panther, one of the sites most prominent artworks.

The panther petroglyph is big, nearly the size of the actual animal and high on ridge but hidden from the land below.

The miracle of art is that it lets people from the past speak to us. Images endure on the landscape telling us what people of the past felt was important enough to engrave onto stone. The artworks are markers in time.

The Three Rivers site itself is witness to a fantastic breadth of human history.

The miracle of art is that it lets people from the past speak to us

To the south, Three Rivers overlooks White Sands National Park where archaeologists recently uncovered 23,000-year-old human footprints. Theses are commonly accepted as the oldest concrete evidence of humans in North America. The footprints sometimes follow along side of long extinct giant sloth tracks. In another trackway a child walks alongside and adult only to be lifted off the ground and carried, the adult's footprints growing deeper with the added weight.

Northwest of Three Rivers is the Trinty site. On July 16, 1945, the United States exploded the first atomic bomb there, creating one of the permanent markers of the Anthropocene. Like the artwork at Three Rivers, those marks will be read for thousands of years albeit in a very different way.

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A bighorn sheep pierced by 3 arrows, one of 21,000 individual petroglyphs at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, New Mexico.

It’s a lot, but I was thinking of those ancient footprints and the birth of the atomic era when I chose to shoot at night.

When I look into the night sky I am looking backward into time. Starlight is old, sometimes very old. The light  from the Andromeda Galaxy (visible in the panther photograph) traveled 2.5 million years to reach us. Seeing the stars is seeing into deep time.

Another reason I chose night is that the people who made the panther image had a very different relationship with the night sky than we do. Electricity lets us banish darkness in an instant. Dark skies are a rarity in the modern world. But the people who engraved sites like Three Rivers spent half their lives in the dark. The night sky must have been completely familiar, the cycle of stars and planets as obvious as the cycle of seasons. The artists were intimately connected with the natural world in a way that is difficult for a modern viewer to grasp. We may have lost that familiarity, but I wanted to evoke something that might make us feel like artists felt centuries ago.

The people who made artwork on the landscape were telling us who they were and what was important to them. Places like Three Rivers, covered in a myriad of creations from these artists, remind us that the connection with deep time, the night sky, and even other humans, can still exist.

Stephen Alvarez

April, 2024