Aztec man publishes Crow Canyon trail guide

Hannah Grover
Retired Aztec High School teacher David Casey talks on Friday at his home in Aztec about his recently completed trail guide to Crow Canyon.
  • A retired Aztec High School history teacher has published a trail guide to Crow Canyon rock art.
  • The guide, which looks at many sites south of Blanco, will be presented to the public on Tuesday.
  • Both Navajo and ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs can be found at Crow Canyon sites.

AZTEC — An interest in archaeology took hold of David Casey at an early age.

As a child, the Aztec resident recalls exploring a creek in a northern Illinois park. There, he found sherds, or broken pieces, of Native American pottery that he and his friends pieced together until they had three complete pots. He doesn’t know for sure what happened to the reconstructed pots but believes they may now be at a museum.

This passion for the past continued into adulthood. When Casey arrived in New Mexico in 1982 to teach world history and geography at Aztec High School, he accompanied a Farmington High School teacher to Split Rock Ruin south of Blanco. The site is one of several Dinétah defensive sites used by the Navajo in the late 17th and early 18th century.

The four-room on top of a large boulder on the edge of a cliff impressed Casey, but it was the nearby petroglyphs, or carved rock art, that have captured his attention for the past three decades.

So, after retiring 10 years ago, Casey dedicated himself to learning more about the petroglyphs.

“I figured maybe it’s time to try to figure out what all of that stuff is about,” he said in an interview last week.

Casey has published his findings in a small trail guide he plans to present to the public on Tuesday at the Aztec Public Library.

The 15-page guide includes a map of Crow Canyon and representations of the rock art symbols.

The front cover features the unstrung, sinew-backed bow Casey relates with the figure of Nayenezgani, or Monster Slayer, the older of the Hero Twins in Navajo tradition. Below seven of these bows, the cover includes a series of hourglass-shaped scalp knots Casey believes represents the younger twin, To’badzistsini, or Child of the Water.

Retired Aztec High School teacher David Casey talks on Friday at his home in Aztec about his recently completed trail guide to Crow Canyon.

Crow Canyon rock art represents three cultures who have lived in the canyons south of Blanco.

In the guide, Casey includes an example of an ancestral Puebloan sun, which has four lines representing each of the cardinal directions. He interprets the symbol as Puebloan because it has been found at known Puebloan sites, such as Wijiji in Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Below the Puebloan sun is a representation of the Navajo sun. Both the ancestral Puebloan and Navajo suns appear in rock art at Crow Canyon.

That’s not unusual. Much of Navajo and ancestral Puebloan rock art is intermingled, said Larry Baker, the director of Salmon Ruins, which acts as a steward to Crow Canyon.

After Casey saw the rock art panel and defensive sites, he said he wanted to share them with his classes, so he started bringing students to the sites.

“You got to appreciate this stuff because of its art,” Casey said. “If you like Sherlock Holmes, you like a good mystery. ... You want to eventually tell your students you’ve found it out.”

David Casey talks about petroglyphs he has documented at Crow Canyon during an interview at his home in Aztec on Friday. Casey recently published a trail guide to the rock art at Crow Canyon.

After retiring, he started to unravel some of those mysteries at a small library at Salmon Ruins.

There, he found sources like former San Juan Museum Association President Harry Hadlock, who described the sites while installing nearby wells in the 1950s for El Paso Natural Gas Co. While he didn’t create a trail guide, the amateur archaeologist described the art he found at the sites.

Later, archaeologist Polly Schaafsma created a classification system for rock art that Casey used to create his trail guide.

Other sources, such as Washington Matthews and Franc Newcomb, helped Casey piece together the rock art in connection to Navajo ceremonies. Matthews detailed Navajo ceremonies like the Night Chant, and Newcomb wrote about Navajo symbolism used in sand paintings.

“The main thing that they wanted to show in the rock art was these were living things,” Casey said.

He said the Navajo took special care in adding details, including exaggerating the calf muscles on the figures.

Casey said Crow Canyon is important both because of the sheer number of petroglyphs there and because it is believed to be where the Navajo settled and developed their culture.

“It’s not often you get to study the creation of a new culture,” he said.

Baker compares Crow Canyon’s rock art to stained glass panels that can found in European cathedrals.

“I sort of see that area as iconography bringing a developing Navajo cosmology to life,” Baker said.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

In this undated courtesy photo, retired Aztec High School teacher David Casey points to a petroglyph of Yabaada, a female god figure, on a cliff in Jesus Canyon east of Farmington.

If you go

What: Presentation of the trail guide to Crow Canyon petroglyphs

When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday 

Where: Aztec Public Library, 319 S. Ash St.

A closer look

When visiting: Because of its remote location, visitors to Crow Canyon should be aware of the weather. Storms can cause the road to become impassible. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended, but, if the roads are dry, a two-wheel drive vehicle can make it to the sites. 

Site etiquette: The sites are hundreds of years old and extremely fragile. The Bureau of Land Management asks visitors not to touch the rock art and to refrain from climbing on archaeological sites.

How to get there: From Blanco, head east on U.S. Highway 64 until its junction with County Road 4450. Turn right onto the county road and follow it south for about 19 miles. There are signs that show the way across Largo Wash. After crossing the wash, turn north and drive approximately one mile to the mouth of Crow Canyon. 

More information: To learn more about the Dinetah defensive sites and Crow Canyon petroglyphs, contact Salmon Ruins at 505-632-2013. Maps and brochures can be found at blm.gov/nm.

Read more about the sites

As time and weather erodes the surfaces, the Crow Canyon petroglyphs are slowly fading away.

"We're seeing deterioration of cliff faces," said Larry Baker, the director of Salmon Ruins.

He said this is "essentially obliterating the panels."

Baker believes that at some time in the future, visitors will no longer be able to enjoy the rock art.

However, one Bloomfield couple is working to preserve the images for future generations. They are selling a DVD with high-resolution photos of the rock art. Read more about their quest to preserve the past at daily-times.com