Saturday, February 7, 2015


Bighorn maze, Three-Rivers Petroglyph Site, New Mexico.
Photograph: December 1988, Jack and Esther Faris.

This intriguing petroglyph is from the great Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico. More than 21,000 glyphs of birds, humans, animals, fish, insects and plants, as well as numerous geometric and abstract designs are scattered over 50 acres of New Mexico's northern Chihuahuan Desert. The petroglyphs at Three Rivers, dating back to between about 900 and 1400 AD, were created by Jornada Mogollon people.

It shows a complicated design of desert bighorn sheep heads at the ends of lines. These are often referred to in the literature as Bighorn staffs (like a walking stick). One problem with the identification as staffs is that the lines are not straight; after extending a short distance below the bighorn head they bend off at an extreme angle, even shooting straight up. Also, as far as I can tell, Mogollon artifacts recovered to date do not include bighorn-sheep-headed staffs (although I do not pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of Mogollon collections on museum shelves). So they are probably not staffs. This design has also been referred to as a bighorn maze which might make a little more sense, but, of course, we have no real idea as to its intention. No-one can seemingly come up with a suggestion as to why they felt the need to create a maze with bighorn sheep heads on it – other than the catchall “for ritualistic purposes” which we all too often fall back on when we don’t really have an idea at all.

Mimbres bowl, cover photo from Brody, J. J., Catherine J. Scott,
and Steven A. LeBlanc,1983, Mimbres Pottery: Ancient Art of the
American Southwest, Hudson Hills Press, New York. 

My fascination with this design is partly founded in its resemblance to the design on a classic Mimbres pottery bowl from the Mattocks site, now in the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, The University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. The bowl measures H. 4 ⅛ in. (10.5 cm), diam. 9 ¼ in. (23.5 cm). (Brody et al. 1983:15) Mimbres pottery dates from a period of about six hundred years (AD 550 – 1150). “ Gila River  Rio Grande Valley and it western tributaries in southwest New Mexico. Differentiation between the Mimbres branch and other areas of the Mogollon culture area is most apparent during the Three Circle (AD 825-1000 roughly) and Classic Mimbres (AD 1000-1150) phases, when architectural construction and black and white painted pottery assume locally distinctive forms and styles” (Wikipedia). The design on this bowl has two mountain sheep heads on the ends of lines, which take off at angles much like the design of the petroglyph. I find the resemblance striking.

General Mogollon culture area. Three Rivers Petroglyph
Site is the star at the upper right, and the bowl came
from roughly the location of the star on the left.

So, is there any real connection, or just a coincidence? Mimbres pottery was produced within a portion of the Mogollon cultural area so geographically we can say they may be connected. Thematically they are obviously similar. The dates of Classic Mimbres pottery (AD 1000 – 1150) fall easily within the span of the production of petroglyphs at Three Rivers. Although I still have to admit that I do not know the significance of the design of the bighorn sheep head on the end of lines like this I do think that both the Mimbres bowl in question, and the petroglyph at Three Rivers, may well have some motivation in common, perhaps they refer to a commonly held belief, or a material item generally recognized throughout the Mogollon territory, so yes, I say they are certainly connected - at least in my mind. What do you think?


Brody, J. J., Catherine J. Scott, and Steven A. LeBlanc
1983    Mimbres Pottery: Ancient Art of the American Southwest, Hudson Hills Press, New York.


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