Hundreds of Pueblo culture petroglyphs discovered

Rock art

High above the rock dwellings of the Pueblo culture, archaeologists have discovered previously unrecognized rock art. © Palonka et al./Jagiellonian University

The Pueblo dwellings in Mesa Verde, built into rocky cliffs, are world-famous. Archaeologists have now discovered a large number of previously unrecognized rock paintings there. The petroglyphs, which are up to 1,700 years old, lie around 800 meters above the rock dwellings and extend over four kilometers along the edge of the cliff. The spirals, notches and other geometric patterns apparently served as an astronomical calendar for the people of the Pueblo culture, as archaeologists report.

The Pueblo culture of the American Southwest developed more than 3,000 years ago in an area on the border of what are now the US states of Colorado and Utah. In the landscape interspersed with steep rocky cliffs and high plateaus, the indigenous people first began to build villages and residential buildings embedded in the earth on the plains. They later moved into the canyons and built dwellings directly into the rock walls. “The farming Pueblo communities developed one of the most advanced pre-Columbian cultures in North America,” explains Radosław Palonka from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. “They perfected the art of building multi-story stone houses that resembled medieval townhouses or even modern tenements.”

Search for rock art

But the Pueblo culture didn't just leave behind its famous rock dwellings: "These people are also famous for their rock art, finely chased jewelry and ceramics with a variety of motifs painted with black pigment on a white background," says Palonka. In recent years, he and his team have primarily searched for still unknown rock art, so-called petroglyphs. To do this, they surveyed the rock walls in three canyons populated by the Pueblo culture, Sand Canyon, Graveyard Canyon and Rock Creek Canyon, and also worked closely with the descendants of the people who lived here during the Pueblo culture era who still live in the area together.

“I always thought that we had already fully explored this area, with extensive excavations, geophysical methods and digitization,” reports Palonka. “But I had some indications from older members of the local community that there was more to discover in the higher, less accessible lines of the canyons.” So the archaeologists explored these areas using, among other things, drones, but also through daring climbs.

Rock art
This image shows some of the oldest newly discovered petroglyphs from the Mesa Verde area. © Palonka et al./Jagiellonian University

Spirals, lines and complex patterns

The archaeological team actually found what they were looking for: “What we found there exceeded our wildest expectations,” says Palonka. “It turned out that there are a lot of unknown petroglyphs around 800 meters above the rock dwellings. The enormous rock art stretches for more than four kilometers around the large plateau.” Dating has shown that some of these rock art go back to the third century. They show stylized images of warriors and shamans. However, the majority of the newly discovered petroglyphs date from the 12th and 13th centuries; these rock paintings usually show complex geometric patterns.

“The Pueblo people carved spirals up to one meter large into the rock here,” reports Palonka. Nested squares and patterns consisting of many parallel lines can also be seen on the rock walls. According to archaeologists, these are not just decorations, but rock art with a very practical purpose: “The Pueblo people used these petroglyphs for astronomical observations and to determine the dates of special days in the calendar, such as the summer and winter solstices or the spring and autumn equinoxes,” explains Palonka. “These discoveries change our view of these rock settlements in many ways.”

As the archaeologists explain, the newly discovered rock art suggests that the number of people living in these cliff settlements, as well as the complexity of their religious and ritual practices, have been significantly underestimated. “Our discoveries force us to rethink our previous ideas about this area and its inhabitants,” says Palonka. The team hopes to discover more unrecognized petroglyphs as they continue exploring the Mesa Verde area.

Source: Jagiellonian University

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