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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 and archeologist 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.
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.
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 region 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.
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.