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Pictographs, petroglyphs on rocks record beliefs of earliest Texans
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Carolyn Boyd perches under a rock overhang near the Devils River, marveling at the delicate, rust-colored painting of a human, its hand outstretched.
Ancient, random graffiti? Hardly, Boyd says.
She and other rock art experts from the Shumla School, a nonprofit education and research center that studies rock art in this region of Southwest Texas and Northern Mexico, think the pictographs found here are complex murals that tell stories about the artists' spiritual beliefs. The sites, mostly on remote, privately owned ranches, might reflect a kind of pilgrimage, the artwork intended to be seen in a specific order to pass along cultural history from one generation to the next.
"They're communicating origin stories, creator stories, information about rituals - things important to pass on," says Boyd, executive director of the school, founded 10 years ago.
She points again to the figure painted on the rock wall. "To think those fingers were put there about 4,000 years ago, and it looks like it could have been painted yesterday," she tells a dozen people gathered in rapt attention.
The onlookers are part of a weeklong educational program sponsored by the Shumla School. Most are retired; all are fascinated by archaeology. They've come here to learn more about the hunter-gatherers who once roamed this corner of the Chihuahuan Desert and valued art enough to use valuable resources to create paintings (pictographs) and carvings (petroglyphs).
Besides this campout for adults, the school hosts day camps for students on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, hoping to instill a curiosity about ancient cultures. Shumla also brings in scholars from around the world to study the trove of artwork that dots this arid landscape.
Participants in the weeklong adult program pay $1,350 to stay in safari-style canvas tents at the Shumla headquarters on 70 donated acres 45 miles west of Del Rio. Besides visiting the rock art sites with archaeologists from around the world, they learn about the people who made the paintings and petroglyphs. They get lessons in how these early people lived: starting a campfire without a match, making paint from local ingredients and cooking native plants in an earth oven.
On this October day, the group has driven down a bumpy road, past the watchful eye of a resident buffalo, and waded across the clear-as-glass Devils River to reach Mystic Shelter. A cloud of yellow and orange butterflies drifts past as Boyd lectures.
"I really think this panel is one we can get a lot of information from," she says. "This coming together of deer and feline seems to be a very dominant theme along the Devils River."
The Texas rock art is not as old as the famous cave paintings of Lascaux, in southwestern France, which date to 30,000 years ago. But these murals represent some of the oldest - and perhaps the oldest such pictographs - in the Americas. Even on the global scale, the sites in the area known as the Lower Pecos River region are considered spectacular.
"The Pecos River rock art, in hundreds of shelters on both sides of the border, is without any doubt of world status," says Jean Clottes, president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations in France. Clottes visited Shumla in 2007 and plans to return in 2009. "By its originality, deep unity and with its spectacular figures ? it is one of the great bodies of rock art ever discovered."
Jo McDonald, a rock art expert from Australia and guest scholar for this year's adult program, agrees. "The complexity and compositional intricacies seen in many of the individual panels is unrivaled - even on this world stage," she says.
Director both an artist and an anthropologist
Boyd, Shumla's executive director, was a mural artist before earning a doctorate degree in anthropology, and her background has given her a unique understanding of rock art. Where anthropologists have long seen clusters of individual pictures, she sees one broad, all-inclusive panel. She is studying it in a systematic way, identifying recurring patterns and formulating hypotheses. And she's traveled around Mexico, where she's found evidence that some of the stories depicted by the pictographs here are still told among native people.
"For a long time, rock art studies have been pure speculation, and it lacked credibility," Boyd says. "Within archaeology, archaeologists have not taken rock art seriously. They've looked at it as leisure-time activity."
At Mystic Shelter, she points to drawings of humans that appear to be transforming into animals. A huge panther arches over one side of the painting and a series of deer form a circle beneath them. Zigzag lines, serpents and humans throwing spears cover the 80-foot mural.
Boyd thinks these murals were inspired by visions the people experienced during trances brought on by the hallucinogen peyote. Some depict a warrior's journey to the "Otherworld." Some describe the hunt for the sacred peyote cactus and how the cosmos was put into place.
"The rock art panels are pictorial narratives of mytho-historical events - like putting the Old Testament creation story or Passover rituals into a visual format rather than textual," Boyd says.
The artists were hunter-gatherers, and lived in an extremely arid environment where deer were prized. Yet they used valuable fat from deer bones to make paint, illustrating the importance of the artwork in their culture, Boyd says. The murals - explosions of orange, red, yellow and black - would have jumped out from the daily landscape of brown, green and gray.
"It must have been spectacular," she says. "Can you imagine the impact that would have?
The record is still in the rock
Surviving murals are found in rock shelters throughout the Lower Pecos region, where they were protected from rain, sun and wind. According to radiocarbon dating, most, including the ones at Mystic Shelter, were made 2,950 to 4,200 years ago. More sites are still being discovered.
This rocky, cactus-covered terrain is also home to petroglyphs, which were pecked into rock and took more time and labor to create than the pictographs. A day earlier, the campers had visited nearby Lewis Canyon, also located on private property. Roughly the size of 15 football fields, it's the largest known petroglyph site in Texas, and one of the largest concentrated on bedrock in North America. Artists chiseled hundreds of designs, most of them a foot or two across, into the flat, gray limestone, where, perhaps, they believed the artwork was visible to spirits in the sky, says Elton Prewitt, an Austin-based archeologist and president of Shumla's board of directors.
"Try to be careful not to walk on the carvings," Prewitt says as the group picks its way across the rock. "You could be standing on one of the engravings and not know it. Treat them with care. This is a unique resource."
The Lewis Canyon petroglyphs were first documented in the 1930s, but more were uncovered during excavations in 1990. They have not been dated - that's nearly impossible with petroglyphs, which were not made with pigments or paints. But Boyd believes they were made about the same time as the paintings at Mystic Shelter. Motifs include bear, deer, turkey and raccoon tracks, nested curving lines, something that looks like a barbell, and human stick figures. Some are worn and eroded.
"It's not just art for art's sake," Prewitt says.
The petroglyphs might have been part of a ritual in which Native Americans visited periodically to etch stories into the rock. By studying them, Prewitt says, modern humans can learn more about past lifestyles: "What was their belief system, what was their god?" Already, science's perception of the people who made these designs has changed from simple hunter-gatherers to hunter -gatherers with complex social and belief systems.
Boyd stoops low to inspect a circle with an X chipped onto it.
"Everywhere you look, there's something," she says, practically vibrating with enthusiasm. "That's marvelous. That's very much a recurring pattern."
A recurring pattern that means something she has yet to figure out.
Other tours of rock art in Lower Pecos region
Not far from Shumla School (432-292-4848, www.shumla.org) is Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, where the nonprofit Rock Art Foundation offers rock art tours in the Fate Bell Shelter. Getting to the site involves a 1.5-mile round-trip walk over paved trails with a 250-foot change in elevation. The park also periodically offers strenuous backcountry hikes to additional rock art sites; see Web site for schedule and reservation information. The foundation also offers tours of the nearby White Shaman and other Texas sites.
When: Tours of the Fate Bell Shelter held September through May, 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; June through August, 10 a.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays.
Where: Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, 9 miles west of Comstock on U.S. 90, just east of the Pecos River.
Cost: Park fee is $3 per day for people 13 and older; Fate Bell Shelter tour fee is $5 for people 8 and older.
Other park activities: Hiking trails, camping, museum exhibits on ranching and railroad construction in the Lower Pecos region.
Information: Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic site, 432-292-4464, www.tpwd.state.tx.us; Rock Art Foundation, 888-762-5278, www.rockart.org
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