Voices from a Sacred Place

Friends of Petroglyph National Monument, 1998

Edited by Verne Huser

A call to preserve America’s only National Monument devoted to prehistoric rock art, with contributions from writers throughout the region, including John Nichols, Steven Trimble, Polly Schaafsma, Kate Horsely, Gregory McNamee, and Susan Tweit.

From my essay, “Of Cathedrals and Petroglyphs”:

“Sitting on a wooden chair in the soaring nave of Chartres Cathedral, I’m thinking about petroglyphs. In front of me, cathedral expert Malcolm Miller is telling our attentive group about this gothic masterpiece, the sixth known cathedral to occupy this site. Miller draws our attention upwards to the cathedral’s glory, its original thirteenth-century stained-glass windows, which glow like jewels even in the subdued light of this dark January day. The windows, he says, amount to a medieval library, a storehouse of the knowledge of the day; their pictures recount parables readable by all, literate or not. 

It is Chartres; stained-glass windows, glowing in rich shades of sapphire, ruby, emerald, and gold, that remind me of the petroglyphs etched on a wild-blown volcanic escarpment half a world away, west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like the medieval windows, the estimated seventeen thousand petroglyphs protected within Petroglyph National Monument are the pictorial record of a people’s spiritual and cultural beliefs; in fact, the earliest petroglyphs in the Monument date from 3000 to 5000 years before the present, long before the first house of worship was built on the small hill at Chartres. Like the windows at Chartres, they too, record beliefs still worshipped and taught today. Pueblo religious leaders say that the petroglyphs and the whole escarpment of West Mesa are sacred, a place of ritual and prayer, a shrine to their cultural and spiritual heritage. Pueblo people come to this mesa to pray and perform sacred rituals, much as modern-day worshippers attend masses at Chartres Cathedral. …

Why is it, I wonder as I watch a moment of fitful January sun pour through the stained-glass windows high over head, that we can so easily perceive the importance of a cathedral like Chartres, yet fail to see the same sacred qualities of the petroglyphs–human and animal figures, masks, and geometric designs–painstakingly chiseled into the dark rocks of West Mesa at Petroglyph National Monument? …. “