Amateur Naturalist: Carvings In Stone … Who Made Them?

Los Alamos

The historic artifacts that are seen the most often are on a large or small scale. The cliff dwellings in Bandelier National Monument are an example of large-scale artifacts.

Pottery shards are at the other end of scale, particularly when they have an artistic carving or painting on them. However, there are artifacts that are in the mid-scale range. These also are of interest but are not as common.

We had discussed boulders previously that are in the high country. They represent artifacts in the mid-range. They are about two to three feet across with distinctive circular holes in them. These holes may have been the result of grinding seed or part of a mountain shrine. Natural erosion is another possibility.

We will now consider a second type of carving made into boulders. These boulders are at a lower elevation rather than toward mountain tops and can be seen here in Los Alamos. A person just needs to watch the ground underfoot carefully while hiking along a trail.

Petroglyphs are shallow carvings on the surface of a rock and often represent animals or people.  However, the carvings being considered here are very different. They are carved two to three inches deep. They are based on distinctive curves and rectangular box shapes. There is a debate whether Paleo-Indians or Hispanic sheepherders carved the boulders in the high country. A similar debate occurs with these boulders that have deep cuts.

The boys attending the Los Alamos Ranch School may have been possible stone carvers. The boys at the school could have found the boulders while on short hikes. The straight lines and curves of the carvings are suggestive of students applying the geometry they learned in class. The boys also may have had access to stone cutting tools from the staff who were involved in the construction of homes and campus buildings.

Picture A: Is this a geometric carving by Ranch School boys or a map of a Paleo-Indian community? Photo by Robert Dryja

Picture A shows a boulder that has distinctive straight groves adjacent to rectangular boxes.

Several of the homes along Bathtub row are built with cut stone. The Oppenheimer home, the Arts and Crafts home and the Power house are examples. The spacing between carved stones in the Oppenheimer living room is approximately the same width as the cuttings into the boulders.  Is this only a coincidence?  Or did the cut stone in the homes set an example for the boys planning to cut boulders?  

One of the Ranch School teachers after World War II said that “… models were carved from tufa just after World War I by a group of young students. The sculptures represented their ideas of ruins of pueblos and plans of pueblos, as they had observed them on field trips in the area.” However, a former student said that the carvings were not made by students. Further, the head of the school would not have condoned such carving. The Ranch School was in operation for 25 years. Do these differing comments reflect differing times at the Ranch School?

An alternative possibility is that the carving in Picture A represents a map of a Paleo-Indian community.  The homes of Paleo-Indians were rectangular in shape and in straight rows, similar to what is seen the carvings. Indeed, the ruins of one such a community can be seen not far from this carving at the Los Alamos Ranch School campus.

Picture B: An ellipse circles a set of straight cuttings. Photo by Robert Dryja

Something different appears when a second nearby boulder is considered. The boulder in Picture B includes a curve that encircles a set of rectangular boxes. The curve may represent the edge of a community, just as occurs at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon as shown in Picture C.

The curve in Picture B is so geometric that it looks as if some sort of tool was used to guide the cutting of the stone. Could a Paleo-Indian have carved such a symmetrical ellipse by hand? Further, the cuttings into the stone show little erosion. If carved several hundred years ago, why has not more erosion occurred? Again, the quality of the stone work done at Pueblo Bonito indicates this is possible. Pueblo Bonito has crisp, square stone carvings that are centuries old.

Picture C: Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon is inside an ellipse. The parallel terraces on the canyon top
are similar to the terraces shown in Picture D below. Photo by Adriel Heisey

A third nearby boulder further complicates things. Picture C shows the canyon top above and behind Pueblo Bonito. The canyon top has a set of parallel rock croppings that look similar to the terraces carved in the boulder. Perhaps the Paleo Indians in Los Alamos had been inspired after a visit to Pueblo Bonito.

Pictures D shows a boulder with terraces carved in parallel, one above another. But what are the terraces supposed to represent?

And so a mystery remains, the same as occurs for the circular holes in the boulders in the high country.
Which group of people did the carvings and when?

Picture D: Each terrace involves a set of straight cuttings that follow a curve. Photo by Robert Dryja