TWO by two, the dozen or so people in my tour group took turns lying on our backs, hands at our sides, and slowly sliding ourselves into a narrow crevice under a rocky overhang, like mechanics sliding under a car. “Don’t touch the ceiling!” our guide implored.
“It’s better if you just wriggle and scooch yourself in,” someone said helpfully as one pair tried the maneuver.
A moment later a voice from inside called out, “Oh my God, amazing!” and another yelled, “Woooowww! Incredible drawings.”
We were in Hueco Tanks State Historic Site near El Paso, Tex., and the tiny dome-shaped niche was called Umbrella Cave. Inside, we gazed upward at centuries-old images that render it a sort of miniature New World Sistine Chapel — rust-colored, graceful, haunting outlines of human and animal forms, painted on the rock as much as 800 years ago or even more.
About 2,000 rock paintings, called pictographs, are scattered over the 860 rugged acres of Hueco Tanks, offering the visitor an experience of archaeology combined with adventure that conjures up Indiana Jones. Ancient artists, working with colored paints, hid the pictures in cavities, cracks and crevices. Seeing even a small part of this abundance requires clambering over rocky mounds, crab-walking down steep slopes, sliding into irregular niches and squeezing through narrow passages.
Whether the painters planned it or not, the locations they chose served to preserve their work, protecting it from centuries of sunlight, wind and rain. As if caught in a curious cultural slipstream, many of these images remain clear and bright, offering a vivid glimpse into the psyches of people long gone.
The park’s name comes from the bowl- and hot-tub-sized craters, called huecos (Spanish for hollows or recesses) strewn over its hillsides. Partly because the huecos are natural water catchments — or “tanks,” in Texas usage — and can hold water for weeks or months, they have attracted people living or traveling in this dry climate for at least 10,000 years. Hunters and gatherers were followed by early farmers and, more recently, Mescalero Apaches, colonial Spaniards and 19th-century settlers heading west.
Hueco Tanks park, well known to rock climbers, attracts thousands of boulderers and their ilk each year, but most concentrate on their journey over the terrain without paying much attention to the pictographs hidden in it. A smaller number of travelers come with the opposite intent — ready to tackle the rocks to see the art.
On my recent trip, my group, including travelers from New Mexico, California, New Jersey and Alberta, climbed and crawled up, down and around protruding rocks, eager to see the artifacts. Our guide was Ed Woten, a volunteer who lives in Cloudcroft, N.M.
A typical guided hike (made by reservation, as the number of visitors allowed in the park, rock climbers or archaeology buffs, is limited) can last two to four hours, depending on the group’s enthusiasm. Some spots, like a rock wall at Comanche Cave, are chockablock with paintings, while others harbor a single image.
WHILE no one is certain about the type of tools used to create the arts, it’s possible that paintbrushes were made from yucca leaves or human or animal hair. Minerals served as pigments: hematite, an iron oxide, for shades of red, for example; white clay and gypsum to produce white. Binders for the paints may have been water, animal fat, egg yolk or plant juices.
However it was done, the effect is pure magic, whether it’s the expressive splendor of a starry-eyed man as he gazes down at you with greenish-blue eyes outlined in reddish brown, a conga line of chalky-white figures with arms raised in dancelike poses, or a black-and-white figure of Tlaloc, the wide- eyed Mesoamerican rain deity, with his intricate geometric-patterned torso.
“I have seen rock art before, but this is more than I’ve ever seen in one place — layers upon layers,” said Susan Doering, of Auberry, Calif., a violinist who was in the El Paso area to play several concerts with the El Paso Opera. “And, so much of it looks so fresh and bright like it was painted yesterday. It’s unbelievable.” For her, the athletic demands of the tour were a plus. “It’s great actually,” she laughed, “because I need the exercise.”
Hueco Tanks is notable not only for its sheer numbers of pictographs but also for its abundance of painted mask art designs, about 200 in all, thought to be the largest concentration of these stylized facial images in North America. At Cave Kiva, located on North Mountain, the visitor must slither like a snake over cool, smooth rock for several feet before gaining entry into the chamber. Inside, eight exquisitely painted masks, in reds and yellows, decorate the high ceiling.
“That one looks like a motorcycle guy — I love him,” someone said, pointing to a mustard-colored visage made up of thick and thin bands of paint.
“The real thing to think about is what were they thinking,” Susana Mincks of San Lorenzo, N.M., said in a hushed voice. “Were they enshrining deities, or just having a good time?”
Curious to learn more about the people who made the paintings, I paid a visit to Polly Schaafsma, an archaeologist who has studied American Indian rock art for more than 40 years and who wrote the textbook “Indian Rock Art of the Southwest” (1980). She and her husband, Curtis Schaafsma, an archaeologist, and their two dogs, Tiwa and Tewa (named for two American Indian languages) live about an hour north of Albuquerque near the rural town of Cerrillos. Both Schaafsmas are affiliated with the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe.
Different groups of Indians spanning a variety of periods and cultures left artwork at Hueco Tanks, Ms. Schaafsma told me, but a good deal of it, including the masks, is believed to have been created between A.D. 1200 and 1400 by the Jornada Mogollon (hor-NAH-da mo- goy-OWN) people.
In general, when it comes to rock art, it’s hard to know exactly why they did it. “It’s like a big puzzle, and you try and figure it out and sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t,” Ms. Schaafsma said. But at some sites researchers can identify clues.
The Jornada Mogollon were maize farmers dependent on rain for their crops, and it is believed that in their worldview, all water, rain and moisture came from underground, where deities or supernaturals lived. For these people, the overhangs, caves and catchments at Hueco Tanks would have had symbolic, religious significance.
“The fact that many pictographs were painted in secret spots is no accident,” Ms. Schaafsma said. “A lot of them are symbolically situated as communicating with the underworld.”
Much can also be gleaned from the motifs themselves. Many contain what appear to be references to clouds and lightning. And the presence of the rain god Tlaloc — when considered in the light of what is known about Kachinas, the masked supernaturals associated with contemporary Hopi and Zuni tribes — helps to bolster the notion that the mask icons were most likely prayers, perhaps petitions for rain.
Theorizing aside, Ms. Schaafsma took a moment to talk about her admiration of the masks. “I am still really astounded by their abstract sophistication,” she said. “Many people think they are stenciled, but they are not. They are very precisely painted.”
For those who don’t get enough at Hueco Tanks, about two hours north of El Paso lies another trove of ancient art, the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site not far from Alamogordo, N.M. The site contains an astonishing number of rock carvings — more than 20,000 — largely attributed to the Jornada Mogollon. Unlike the art at Hueco Tanks, these are not paintings, but were formed by scratching or pecking through the dark weathered surface to expose a lighter inner layer of rock, and they are not hidden but out in the open, decorating rock faces of all shapes and sizes. Wander off the beaten path (which is encouraged) and who knows what you’ll come across: fantastical animals, curious faces, a trail of footprints or intricate geometric patterns.
Petroglyphs like these are more common in the Southwest than painted pictographs like those at Hueco Tanks. Nevertheless, they are enchanting.
On the weekday I visited, a small crew of students and a few teachers from Colorado Springs School in Colorado were spread out along the ridge, on a two-week field trip concentrating on rock art and the cultures that created it. Part of the students’ assignment was sketching the petroglyphs.
“There are definitely some very cool ones,” said Alex Dragten, 15. “I enjoyed one of a buffalo with two arrows in its back.”
The group had been at Hueco Tanks the weekend before, and all agreed that Cave Kiva was a favorite spot. “I think the kids enjoyed Cave Kiva the most not only for the masks that were inside but for the adventure of getting there,” said their teacher Jennifer Hedden.
At Three Rivers, the experience was the opposite — a profusion of petroglyphs, readily accessible. “Rock art is just everywhere here,” she said, looking around. “It was so fun to come up the main trail this morning and hear the kids saying, ‘Look at that one’ and ‘Come over here and see this.’ ”
IF YOU GO
Hueco Tanks State Historic Site (6900 Hueco Tanks Road No. 1; 915-849-6684; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/hueco_tanks) is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday to Sunday May through September; 8 to 6 daily October through April. Admission is $5, and picnic and camping facilities are available.
Guided pictograph tours — there are three tours, varying in difficulty — are offered at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Because the number of visitors is limited to protect the site, reservations are strongly advised. The areas West Mountain, East Mountain and East Spur are open only to those with guides; North Mountain offers limited self-guided access. All first-time visitors are required to watch a 15-minute orientation video.
For reservations made 24 hours or more in advance, call the Austin Service Center at 512-389-8900. For next-day reservations, camping or tours call the Hueco Tanks office directly at 915-849-6684.
Three Rivers Petroglyph Site (www.blm.gov/nm/st/en/prog/recreation/las_cruces/three_rivers.html) is about 24 miles north of Alamogordo, N.M. on U.S. 54. Turn east onto County Road B30 and drive five miles following signs. The site is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is $2 a vehicle. A camp host is on the site. Information: Las Cruces District Office of the Bureau of Land Management at 575-525-4300