Petroglyph Site

Summary of the Big Bird Petroglyph Site

Petrogylph: Photo courtesy Joe Crane
Petrogylph: Photo courtesy Joe Crane

Rio Grande National Forest

This site was initially recorded in 1984 on the Rio Grande National Forest on the west side of the San Luis Valley. It consists of two petroglyph panels in a rock shelter bounded by the remains of a dry laid rock wall. Surface artifacts identified within or near the shelter included grinding stones, projectile points and other stone tools. A limited test excavation determined that the site contained the presence of diagnostic (datable) artifacts, identifiable floral (plant) and faunal (animal) and hearth (fire) features. The “big bird” petroglyph is thought to be a rendition of a Sandhill or whooping crane based on its large size and the length of its neck.

Dates and Possible Cultural Affiliation

  • Sources indicate that some of the petroglyphs stylistically resemble a style termed the “Archaic Curvilinear” dating from about 3000 BP to 1500 BP (Before Present). Archaic rock art is often found pecked onto lava boulders or outcrops with the design being generally abstract or geometric in nature. Zoomorphs (animal figures) also occur occasionally. The circle is the common element of the curvilinear style as is the curvilinear meander. Two projectile points found at the shelter likley date to the Archaic Armijo Phase 3500 BP, though a surface find nearby dates to the later Ute Culture (700-135 BP).
  • The main petroglyph of the site is a zoomorph figure resembling a “bird in flight”, 6 ft. x 2 ft. in size. Beneath the neck/head of the “bird” are concentric circles, a possible zoomorph of a deer figure, a cross hatched rectangular figure, and a “V” shaped figure. The figures are located on the wall and ceiling of the shelter with the neck of the “bird figure” following a natural bulge in the rock. The petroglyphs found also possess artistic values rarely found in rock art of the region.
  • The rock art and the projectile points suggest the Big Bird site dates to the Late Archaic period. However, nearby Ute artifacts and an historic encampment could suggest Ute affiliation. Some have also suggested an Ancestral Puebloan affiliation. Charcoal and bone specimens from the test excavation will need to be dated to secure a more accurate site chronology.

Site Function and Seasonality

  • Activities inferred from cultural material present include the preparation of foodstuffs, indicated by the presence of groundstone, utilized flakes, and a bifacial tool. A mano (grinding stone) with red ochre stain and the presence of red ochre fragments indicate the processing of mineral pigment at the site. Possible uses of red ochre are as a pottery pigment, pigment for pictograph production, and pigment for body decoration associated with ceremonial activites. The presence of petroglyphs at the site may be indicative of ceremonial activities.
  • Site function based on site features, artifacts, and other material found indicates the site was a sheltered habitation site with evidence of domestic activity. The relatively immobile groundstone tool types found, the presence of prepared tools, and the evidence of fire is seen as being indicative of habitation and attendant food processing. The small size of the shelter would limit the number of people involved.

Because of its significance, rarity and vulnerability to vandalism, the Rio Grande National Forest does not share the location of this site with the public. Moreover, vehicular access is largely blocked by private lands.