Rock Art

Participants in a ritual anoint themselves with red paint. The scene is a rockshelter in the Lower Pecos as envisioned by artist Reeda Peel.
Participants in a ritual anoint themselves with red paint. The scene is a rockshelter in the Lower Pecos as envisioned by artist Reeda Peel.
Petroglyphs of various styles also occur in the Lower Pecos. This example has incised lines cut by sharp flint tools. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Petroglyphs of various styles also occur in the Lower Pecos. This example has incised lines cut by sharp flint tools. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
This rock art panel has several styles of Lower Pecos rock art. Most of the elements including the large shaman figure just to the right of the sign board are of the Pecos River style. But the smaller dark red anthropomorphic figure with down-turned arms just to the right of the shaman element is of the Red Monochrome style. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
This rock art panel has several styles of Lower Pecos rock art. Most of the elements including the large shaman figure just to the right of the sign board are of the Pecos River style. But the smaller dark red anthropomorphic figure with down-turned arms just to the right of the shaman element is of the Red Monochrome style. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Example of one of Forest Kirkland's original watercolors of pictograph panels at Painted Rock Shelter in Painted Canyon, a small side canyon of the Rio Grande near Comstock, Texas.
Example of one of Forest Kirkland's original watercolors of pictograph panels at Painted Rock Shelter in Painted Canyon, a small side canyon of the Rio Grande near Comstock, Texas. Most of these figures are of the Red Monochrome style. Kirkland made these "copies" as he called them, on July 13, 1937. As subsequent recorders have learned, copying rock art is a subjective process—what is copied depends on lighting conditions, condition of the pictographs, and the eye and skill of the beholder. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Today the Red Monochrome pictographs at Painted Rock Shelter persist despite periodic inundation and fluctuating moisture levels. Photo by Steve Black.
Today the Red Monochrome pictographs at Painted Rock Shelter persist despite periodic inundation and fluctuating moisture levels. Photo by Steve Black.
Close up of Red Linear pictographs. Photo by Steve Black.
Close up of Red Linear pictographs. Photo by Steve Black.
Pecos River style pictographs in Rattlesnake Canyon. One of the serpentine "rattlesnakes" can be seen to the left of the dark shaman figure. Photo by Steve Black.
Pecos River style pictographs in Rattlesnake Canyon. One of the serpentine "rattlesnakes" can be seen to the left of the dark shaman figure. Photo by Steve Black.
Close up of pictograph of European man, probably a Spaniard, at Vaquero Alcove. This was obviously painted by an Indian who had personally witnessed the man. This style shares strong similarities with the Plains Bibliographic style. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Close up of pictograph of European man, probably a Spaniard, at Vaquero Alcove. This was obviously painted by an Indian who had personally witnessed the man. This style shares strong similarities with the Plains Bibliographic style. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.

 

The painted images adorning the walls of hundreds of rockshelters and minor overhangs uniquely define the Lower Pecos archeological region. The striking and inspiring rock art is celebrated, photographed, illustrated, recorded, and studied by hundreds of enthusiasts across the country and a much smaller number of dedicated researchers. Typing "Lower Pecos Rock Art" into your favorite search engine will yield dozens of web pages, many with beautiful images and some with useful information. (See Credits & Sources for select links, including several elsewhere on this website.)

Here we will simply provide some examples illustrating the diversity of the imagery and the kinds of physical contexts within which Lower Pecos rock art occurs. A few quick points:

"Rock art" includes more than just pictographs—painted images. Petroglyphs—carved, pecked, or incised images—also occur in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. So do various kinds of mobile art including painted pebbles.

Pictographs are the most numerous and best known rock art images in the Lower Pecos. Four main styles were defined by W.W. Newcomb. From oldest to most recent these are: Pecos River, Red Linear, Red Monochrome, and Historic. The oldest, the Pecos River style, is also the most common, most complex, and most carefully studied.

Many of the Pecos River pictographs are widely regarded as expressions of shamanistic ritual. As summarized by Carolyn Boyd and Phil Dering in a 1996 article:

Shamans are found primarily within Native American societies that rely heavily on hunting and gathering or fishing … In these societies, the shaman serves a crucial role as diviner, seer, magician, healer of bodily and spiritual ills, keeper of traditions, and artist. Acting as the guardian of the physical and psychic equilibrium of the society, the shaman, through altered states of consciousness, journeys to the spirit world where he will personally confront the supernatural forces on behalf of his group.… Access to the spirit or Otherworld can be achieved through such methods as the use of hallucinogenic or psychoactive plants, fasting, thirsting, blood-letting, self-hypnosis and various types of rhythmic activities ….

As the article documents, there is clear evidence of hallucinogenic plants including peyote, mountain laurel beans (seeds), and datura (jimson weed) in the rock art and cave deposits of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands.

Controversy has arisen concerning the specter of prehistoric "drug" use, despite ample evidence of the ritual and medicinal importance of such psychoactive plants in many Indian cultures in the New World. Politically correct or not, the use of these plants was part and parcel of shamanistic ritual in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands as elsewhere in the hunter-gatherer world. While ingesting psychoactive plants can be very dangerous and even fatal, they obviously played a critical role in certain of the rituals depicted in the Lower Pecos rock art. The ritual use of peyote continues today by members of the Native American Church, a traditional religious practice that has been ruled constitutionally protected by the United States Supreme Court.

The rock art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands dates to at least 4,500 years ago and possibly considerably earlier. Within the past decade or so, chemist Marvin Rowe at Texas A&M and researchers at other institutions have devised clever ways of directly dating elements of the paint. As this research matures, dating will become an important tool in understanding the evolution and meaning of rock art in the region.

The most comprehensive catalogue of Lower Pecos rock art is still the work of Dallas artist Forest Kirkland who with his wife and partner, Lula, visited dozens of rock art localities across the western half of Texas in the 1930s. His watercolor renditions of what they observed are often the sole surviving record of images that have since been destroyed by time, "progress," and thoughtless vandals. Shortly after Kirkland first laid eyes on Indian pictographs in the summer of 1933 at Paint Rock near San Angelo, he dedicated almost every available moment to saving these fragile, disappearing images for posterity. Until he died in 1941, the Kirklands took extended camping and working vacation trips each summer to remote places in different parts of Texas where rock art was known to occur, including the Lower Pecos Canyonlands.

The Kirklands took a systematic approach to their work, capturing each grouping of paintings they could make out on panels of high quality English linen mounted on heavy cardboard plates. All drawings were done to scale and were considered "copies" as faithful to the original as possible. The story of the Kirklands' work and most of his drawings appear in the 1967 book The Rock Art of Texas Indians (text by W.W. Newcomb), reissued in 1996 by UT Press. You learn more about Kirkland's work and see many examples of his renderings elsewhere on this website—see On the Trail to Lower Pecos Rock Art.

The two leading researchers who study Lower Pecos rock art today are Dr. Solveig Turpin and Dr. Carolyn Boyd. Their approaches and interpretations vary considerably.

Turpin, an archeologist by training and former Associate Director of TARL, has been at it for a lot longer and takes a more traditional approach to her work. She has published numerous scholarly articles and book chapters documenting and interpreting many different aspects of Lower Pecos rock art including work in northern Coahuila. She also co-authored and edited several rock art volumes including a beautifully illustrated coffee-table book entitled Pecos River Rock Art (with Jim Zintgraff, the leading rock art photographer of the region). Turpin and Zintgraff are co-founders of the Rock Art Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to the preservation and study of rock art.

Boyd, an artist and anthropologist by training and has pioneered what she calls an ethnographic approach to Lower Pecos rock art interpretation. She argues that many rock art panels represent coherent mural-like compositions rather than randomly added elements as many have assumed. She sees many parallels between the Pecos River style symbolism and that expressed in the mythology and belief systems of many living and historically known cultures in Mexico and the Southwest. Boyd has published several scholarly articles and book chapters on her work and has just finished a book that has been published by Texas A&M Press. She is the Executive Director of the Shumla School, a non-profit educational and research center located on the lower Pecos River. Today Boyd and her collaborators and students continue studying and documenting the rock art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands.

Another important group actively involved in research is the Rock Art Recording Task Force of the Texas Archeological Society. The Task Force is devoted to documenting the rock art of Texas. Each year they concentrate on different localities and thoroughly record rock art imagery through photography, mapping, tracing, and illustration, carrying on the work started by the Kirklands.


 
Pecos River style pictographs near the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon, a side canyon of the Rio Grande. Photo by Steve Black.
Photographer examines Historic style pictographs at Vaquero Alcove. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Painted pebbles such as this one are common in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands but are also known from south and central Texas. They are almost always made on smooth, flat, rounded river pebbles. Although they share some elements in common with pictographs, they are usually less elaborate and painted in black. From the ANRA-NPS collections at TARL.
Four painted pebbles and a handful of Mountain Laurel beans rest on a mat in front of two men in a painted cave in a scene envisioned by artist Reeda Peel.
Four painted pebbles and a handful of Mountain Laurel beans rest on a mat in front of two men in a painted cave in a scene envisioned by artist Reeda Peel.
Close up of Red Monochrome pictograph. Photo by Steve Black.
Close up of Red Monochrome pictograph. Photo by Steve Black.
Several of the Red Monochrome figures at Painted Rock Shelter as they appeared in 1958. Only 20 years after Kirkland, the deterioration of the images is evident. This shelter is at the bottom of a canyon just above a spring-fed pool of water. As you can also see, direct sunlight adds to the problem. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Several of the Red Monochrome figures at Painted Rock Shelter as they appeared in 1958. Only 20 years after Kirkland, the deterioration of the images is evident. This shelter is at the bottom of a canyon just above a spring-fed pool of water. As you can also see, direct sunlight adds to the problem. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
The dark band obscuring some of the Red Monochrome pictographs at Painted Rock Shelter is the high-water mark left by repeated, though infrequent floods. Photo by Steve Black.
The dark band obscuring some of the Red Monochrome pictographs at Painted Rock Shelter is the high-water mark left by repeated, though infrequent floods. Photo by Steve Black.
Close up of an animal figure, perhaps representing a deer. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Close up of an animal figure, perhaps representing a deer. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Art history researcher Penny Lindsey traces Pecos River style pictographs onto a clear sheet of acetate in 1963. Direct tracing is thought by some to be the most accurate, albeit cumbersome, method of copying pictographs. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Art history researcher Penny Lindsey traces Pecos River style pictographs onto a clear sheet of acetate in 1963. Direct tracing is thought by some to be the most accurate, albeit cumbersome, method of copying pictographs. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Vaquero Alcove is known for its Historic style pictographs depicting a Christian church and a man dressed in European-style clothing. These were painted on the curving canyon wall protected only by shallow overhang. Being near the canyon bottom, the rock art panel is periodically covered by flash floods. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Vaquero Alcove is known for its Historic style pictographs depicting a Christian church and a man dressed in European-style clothing. These were painted on the curving canyon wall protected only by shallow overhang. Being near the canyon bottom, the rock art panel is periodically covered by flash floods. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.

Introducing Lower Pecos Rock Art

Native peoples—Indians or Native Americans—came into what is now Texas by at least 13,500 years ago and never left. The 13,000-year prehistoric legacy they left behind represents over 500 human generations, but most of this legacy is recorded in bits and pieces of broken things, layers of dirt, and scattered campsites. Easy enough to find, but hard to decipher. In contrast, the vivid art native peoples left behind on protected rock walls are haunting and evocative reminders of their presence. These pictographs and petroglyphs help us understand how native peoples viewed their physical and supernatural worlds.

Though Indian peoples left their marks on the walls of hundreds of sites in the western half of Texas, the largest and most distinctive collection of rock art comes from the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, where the Pecos and the Devils Rivers flow into the Rio Grande. For a more comprehensive introduction to the area, check out the extensive Lower Pecos exhibit elsewhere on this website.

Hunting and gathering societies inhabited the Lower Pecos area for 13,000 years, finding everything they needed for survival within the canyons and across the sheltering uplands. They often visited and stayed in the many natural rockshelters (overhangs) and shallow caves found within the canyons. Because of the arid climate (today the area gets an average of only 14-18” of rain per year), the dry rockshelters preserve evidence of everyday life as well as their art.The evocative images left behind by Lower Pecos peoples provide us with a connection to their lives and experiences.

Cross cultural studies have shown that the world’s hunting and gathering peoples often believe that everything has a "cosmic soul" or is alive. Animals and people are equal. Plants and stones are also thought to have spirits. The peoples of the Lower Pecos may have believed that nothing could be taken without some kind of payment; relationships were reciprocal.

They practiced shamanism, a type of “primitive” religion shared by most hunting and gathering peoples the world over. Shamans were individuals with a special calling who acted as spiritual leaders, doctors, historians, scientists, and teachers for their people. They functioned as go betweens for the people and the spirit world. By entering trance-like states of conscious, shamans were thought to be able to transform themselves temporarily into part human and part animal beings. To visit the other world they became flying birds, swimming fish, or prowling cats.

Shamans and shamanistic scenes dominate the pictographs and murals painted on the protected rock walls of the Lower Pecos. Intricate, colorful paintings depict the shaman's trip and the physical and supernatural worlds.

Research on these paintings offers fertile ground for archeologists and ethnologists as can be seen in the work of contemporary researchers. Of those active today, Carolyn Boyd and Solveig Turpin are the leading interpreters of Lower Pecos rock art and both have written books and articles explaining their views.

Here are some basic facts about Lower Pecos rock art.

  • The art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands consists of:
    1. Pictographs- drawings or paintings on rock.
    2. Painted Pebbles- portable art painted on smooth oval pebbles.
    3. Petroglyphs- carvings or inscriptions on rock.
  • The paints were made of natural minerals such as iron oxide (hematite) that was ground into a red paint pigment with stone wooden tools. To liquefy the pigment, binders like animal fat and emulsifiers such as soapy yucca root sap were added.
  • The colors were shades of red, black, yellow, orange, and white.
  • The leaves of desert plants like sotol and lechuguilla provided fiber for brushes. Sometimes crayons were also used. These were molded from dry pigment. (One 14-inch yellow crayon was found.) Sometimes finger painting and spattering were used.
  • River claim shells and thin stone tablets served as palettes.
  • The artists, probably shamans, created some incredibly large pictographs that could only have been done by using special equipment. At Panther Cave, one panther is nine feet across and the top of a shaman figure is 12 feet above the shelter floor. Some murals are 30 feet wide. These heights indicate that the artists used wooden ladders and scaffolds.
 

photo of sandstone manos

One of the many watercolor paintings created by artist Forrest Kirkland, this image is a rendering of rock art he came across in Seminole Canyon. Kirkland was struck by the distinctive appearance of the panther image on the cave wall and named the site Panther Cave.

Pecos River

The Pecos River gives the Lower Pecos region its name and provided natural shelter in hundreds of rockshelters along its canyon walls and those of its many side canyons. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.

photo of chipped stone tool assemblage

In addition to his mural depictions, Forrest Kirkland reproduced painted pebbles he found in the Lower Pecos region. The painted pebble are almost always made on smooth, flat, naturally rounded river pebbles. Although they share some elements in common with pictographs, they are usually less elaborate and painted in black. (from Plate 68)>

photo of chipped stone tool assemblage

Forrest Kirkland saw this partially preserved scene in a long shallow shelter high on the west bank of the Pecos River. The blank space below the two cats is bare limestone where the rock art painting had weathered away. (from Plate 33)

photo of chipped stone tool assemblage

In this shamanistic image, a winged shaman with a horned headdress appears, suggesting a deer in flight. (from Plate 12)

photo of chipped stone tool assemblage

A large shaman hovers over a group of diminutive deer. The bodies of the deer are composed of stripes and crosshatching. Many of them are pierced by atlatl darts or spears. Feather-like objects radiate to the right from the shaman and point toward a human form. These features can be seen in other rock art images belonging to the same period. (from Plate 23)

photo of chipped stone tool assemblage

These petroglyph images, reproduced by Forrest Kirkland at Tardy Draw Shelter, are composed of scratching and carving done on the rock wall surfaces with a sharp instrument such as a flint (chert) flake. Some of the forms resemble Perdiz arrow points, which are found at some Late Prehistoric archeological sites in the Lower Pecos region. (from Plate 50)

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The Rock Art Pages

Pecos River Style Rock Art

These few photos illustrate the distinct style of pictography found near the confluence of the Pecos River on the Rio Grande. 
Notice the second photo's depiction of the spear throwers.  The repetition may represent an attempt to convey motion.
The sites shown below include Fate Bell Shelter, Panther Cave, and another cave, Black Cave in Pressa Canyon, all inside the boundaries of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park.
Panther Cave Pictograph, 215 x 144 pixels, 40 K.Panther Cave pictograph, 138 x 216 pixels, 40 K.
Fate Belle Shelter pictograph panel, 234 x 383 pixels, 49 K.

Fate Belle Shelter pictograph panel detail, 351 x 212 pixels, 45 K.Panter Cave Pictograph, 440 x 226 pixels, 58 K.

 

Presa Cave pictograph panel, 318 x 249 pixels, 48 K.

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