University of Texas at Austin wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home
Plateaus and Canyonlands Main
Prehistoric Texas Main

Rockshelters

A family group approaches Fate Bell Shelter as envisioned by artist Reeda Peel. Archeologists believe that most of the time the prehistoric peoples of the Lower Pecos lived in relatively small family groups that joined up with other kin folk during times of plenty.
A family group approaches Fate Bell Shelter in a scene envisioned by artist and archeologist Reeda Peel. Archeologists believe that most of the time the prehistoric peoples of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands lived in relatively small family groups and joined up with other kin folk during times of plenty.

In this section:

This is small rockshelter is 41VV1—the first formally recorded archeological site in Val Verde County. It is one of hundreds of small shelters that dot the Lower Pecos landscape. Prehistoric peoples found these protected places useful for many different purposes. This one is too small to have been lived in for long. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
This small rockshelter is 41VV1—the first formally recorded archeological site in Val Verde County. It is one of hundreds of small shelters that dot the Lower Pecos landscape. Prehistoric peoples found these protected places useful for many different purposes. This one is too small to have been lived in for long. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.

As you read this, new rockshelters are forming ever so slowly and old ones are crumbling. But most take thousands of years to form, so you might not want to wait around to watch.

This series of small rockshelters occur near the top of a high cliff overlooking the Devils River.
This series of small rockshelters occur near the top of a high cliff overlooking the Devils River. The shelters have small, steeply sloping floors and they face west, making these shelters unsuitable for habitation. But they were used as rock art galleries. If you look close in the center of the picture you can see an archeologist standing in front of an impressive rock art panel featuring a panther with a curly tail. As you might guess, this site is known as "Curly-Tailed Panther." Its unusual and precarious location suggests that this place was the scene of special rituals perhaps including "vision quests" or similar phenomena. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Hanging Cave, so named because it seems to hang over this narrow channe, is also known as No Goat Cave because it is one of few rockshelters in the region that goats can't enterl. This shelter is larger than it looks and contains occupational debris and several pictographs. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Hanging Cave, so named because it seems to hang over this narrow channel, is also known as No Goat Cave because it is one of few rockshelters in the region that goats can't enter. This shelter is larger than it looks and contains occupational debris and several pictographs. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Early morning excavations get underway at Baker Cave, a large rockshelter located in a side canyon of the Devils River. Archeologists gingerly make their way down the steep rocky slope to the relative safety of the cave. Photo by Tom Hester.
Early morning excavations get underway at Baker Cave, a large rockshelter located in a side canyon of the Devils River. Archeologists gingerly make their way down the steep rocky slope to the relative safety of the cave. Photo by Tom Hester.
Eagle Cave, near Langtry, contains thick deposits of occupational materials especially cooking debris - burned rocks, charcoal and, ash. Photo by Steve Black.
Eagle Cave, near Langtry, contains thick deposits of occupational materials especially cooking debris—burned rocks, charcoal, and ash. Photo by Steve Black.
The lower Devils River valley as viewed from the high cliff housing rockshelters with pictographs. Photo by Steve Black.
The lower Devils River valley as viewed from the high cliff housing rockshelters with pictographs. Photo by Steve Black.
Man stands in "sotol pit" in Fate Bell Shelter, 1932. This large rock-strewn depression is a roasting pit where sotol, lechuguilla, and probably other plants were baked. There were several such pits visible in the shelter when the archeologists arrived. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Man stands in "sotol pit" in Fate Bell Shelter, 1932. This large rock-strewn depression is a roasting pit where sotol, lechuguilla, and probably other plants were baked. There were several such pits visible in the shelter when the archeologists arrived. Photo from TARL Archives.
Excavations in progress at Baker Cave, 1984. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Excavations in progress at Baker Cave, 1984. Photo from TARL Archives.
Archeologist Mark Parsons stands in one of the many looter holes that left the interior of Fate Bell Shelter looking like a WW I trench warfare scene.
Archeologist Mark Parsons stands in one of the many looter holes that left the interior of Fate Bell Shelter looking like a World War I trench warfare scene. The brown layers and patches are plant fiber deposits of no interest to artifact collectors but very informative for archeologists. The back of the shelter is blackened by countless fires and also covered in pictographs, so many that they were often painted on top of one another. In fact, archeologists began to determine the relative ages of different styles of rock art by noting which style was covered by another. Photo from TARL Archives.

Much of what we know about the ancient peoples who lived in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands comes from rockshelters, places where people sometimes lived and carried out both the mundane and the sacred aspects of life. This section presents numerous pictures of Lower Pecos rockshelters, explains rockshelter basics, and introduces some of the better-known shelters.

What are rockshelters and how do they form?

Rockshelters (or just shelters) are natural overhangs or shallow caves that form on cliff faces and other steep rocky exposures. They can form through wind erosion, water erosion, and the dissolution of soft layers of rock. Technically, rockshelters are wider than they are deep and caves are deeper than they are wide, but this distinction is frequently ignored. Many rockshelters are called caves and we tend to use whatever name has stuck. The prehistoric peoples of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands did make limited use of some true caves also, but most caves in the area are not readily accessible and are often very narrow, underground places ill suited for human occupation. Rockshelters, on the other hand, often furnished quite comfortable living quarters—big rooms with a view.

The Lower Pecos area contains hundreds of rockshelters. They are common in the region for two reasons. First, the right kind of rock—the area is part of a enormous expanse of limestone called the Edwards Plateau that extends all across the Texas Hill Country and beyond. Second, the vast network of canyons provides the vertical rock faces needed for rockshelters to form. The process of rockshelter formation can be complex and it differs from spot to spot depending on such factors as the direction the cliff faces, the prevailing wind direction, the hardness of each rock formation, the distance to the nearest stream, and so on. It is a continuous process that happens on a geological time scale. As you read this, new rockshelters are forming ever so slowly and old ones are crumbling. But most take thousands of years to form, so you might not want to wait around to watch. If you could, here is what you would see.

In the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, rockshelters often form in places where a layer of softer rock is sandwiched between two harder layers. Because the softer materials erode faster when exposed to the natural elements (wind, sun, and water), a hollow begins to form. The hard layer above becomes the roof of the rockshelter and the hard layer below becomes its floor. As the back of the shelter and its roof weathers, "spalls" or chunks of rock break off and fall to the floor of the shelter. In cold wet winter weather, the process speeds up. Moisture in cracks in the wall or roof expands when frozen and then contracts when thawed. This cycle—expand, contract, expand, contract—causes more spalls to break off from the roof and wall and the rockshelter becomes larger and deeper. Eventually, the hard layer that forms the roof becomes undercut too much by the deepening shelter and the whole layer may collapse, destroying the rockshelter.

Most of the rockshelter formation process actually occurs at a microscopic level—tiny particles of rock constantly trickle down, faster in soft rock, slower in hard rock. These tiny particles form "cave dust"—a fine off-white powder resembling unbleached flour. The spalls and cave dust fall to the floor of the rockshelter. What happens next depends on where the rockshelter is located and whether its floor is flat or sloping. Some shelters have floors that are steeply sloped outward such that anything falling on the floor quickly tumbles to the canyon floor. Other rockshelters have more or less flat floors and as roof spalls and cave dust falls, it accumulates on the floor. Unless, that is, the rockshelter is located at the base of a cliff beside a stream, where anything resting on the floor is periodically scoured out by floodwater.

Now for the part that draws the archeologist—the stuff inside the rockshelters and on the walls. Many of the occupied rockshelters in the Lower Pecos have more or less flat floors and are located high above flood level. In these places, the rockshelters slowly fill up with deposits of natural materials— roof spalls and cave dust, mixed with cultural materials—anything humans make or bring in. And people living in rockshelters hauled in plants, tools, tool-making materials, containers, food, rocks, firewood, and more. Over time, some rockshelter deposits have grown to over 30 feet thick just during the time span that humans lived in the region (the last 13,000 years or so). Archeologists get excited when we excavate rockshelters because we often find well-preserved organic materials (see below) and as we peel back the layers, one by one, evidence comes to light from earlier and earlier periods of time. That, and the fact that the shelter walls are often covered with bright multi-colored pictographs depicting animals, humans, and many symbols whose meaning is not obvious.

Why were some rockshelters occupied and not others?

As the photographs in this section show, no two rockshelters are the same. Some are much larger than others, some occur at the bottom of a cliff, others at the top, and so on. In general, people, of course, chose to live in the larger ones located near areas where water, food sources, and other basic necessities were readily available. They favored those with flat floors and those that faced in certain directions. And this would have changed from season to season. For example, in the hot summer, a rockshelter that faces (opens toward) the west and the setting sun is not a very comfortable place to be. Similarly, in the winter, shelters facing north are much colder and windier than those facing south. This probably explains why the rockshelters with the most abundant evidence of occupation are those that face east or south.

We know which rockshelters were favorite places to stay because they are full of evidence of daily life—trash, mostly. And in the rockshelters of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands the trash contains all sorts of organic materials that are not preserved in most archeological sites. Dried plants, fibers, seeds, nuts, leaves, roots, sticks, bone, leather, wood, and all kinds of things made out of these materials. Baskets, mats, ropes, nets, blankets, robes, digging sticks, atlatls, darts, fire-drills, snares, pouches, sandals, and many more "perishable" artifacts. We also find cooking pits, grass beds, latrines, warmth hearths, and other kinds of features. Such things can last for 5,000 to 6,000 years in the right environment. In the Lower Pecos this means a well-protected rockshelter that stays dry.

One of the things that people routinely did in certain rockshelters was to cook plant foods—roots and bulbs mostly—in large cooking pits called roasting pits or earth ovens. Earth ovens are layered arrangements of heated rocks, plants, food, and earth that roast or bake food slowly—often over 2-3 days time. Not just any food, but mainly root foods like the hearts (bulbs) of the lechuguilla and sotol plants—inedible raw, after prolonged cooking they turn to a sugary carbohydrate. Most earth ovens were constructed outside in open sites archeologically identified as burned rock middens—piles of fire-cracked rock that accumulated around roasting pits. But in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, earth ovens were also built inside certain rockshelters. Why? The most likely explanation is the shelters mainly were used for cooking during periods of wet or very cold weather when earth ovens would be difficult to build in the open.

Other shelters weren't used for everyday living or cooking, but for special purposes. For example, there are a series of shallow rockshelters located almost at the top of an enormous cliff overlooking the Devils River. Most of these are small and they have steep floors where nothing rests for long. While these were useless as places to live, their walls are covered with rock art. These were obviously special, sacred places where rituals took place or were at least evoked by the painted symbols such as that of a panther with an unnatural "curly" tail.

When you visit one of these hard-to-reach places high above the canyons, the view is spectacular and awe-inspiring. It doesn't take much imagination to conjure up the "vision quests" and other extraordinary experiences that small groups of prehistoric peoples took part in there. While we'll never know the details, we can see patterns in the location of such places, the types of associated symbols, and sometimes artifacts.

Another type of special purpose rockshelter is that used for human burials. Sometimes burials are found in ordinary rockshelters full of evidence of everyday life. The burials are usually placed in the backs of the shelters or in small chambers or other out-of-the-way places. In other cases, people sought out small, remote shelters and crevices as burial places, perhaps in hopes these would not be disturbed.

Lower Pecos Rockshelters

Fate Bell Shelter was one of the first rockshelters in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands to be excavated by a professional archeologist. A.T. Jackson carried out relatively modest excavations there in 1932 on behalf of the University of Texas and its archeological leader, Professor James E. Pearce. His excavation report was the first reasonably detailed description of a rockshelter. Several years later he published a study called Picture Writing of Texas Indians that described the pictographs found at Fate Bell and dozens of other localities in the Lower Pecos and elsewhere in Texas.

Fate Bell Shelter is massive, stretching over 150 yards from one "end" to the other, but narrow, only 40 feet or so at its widest point. It was used as an habitation site, a cooking place, a burial place, and as a rock art gallery. The thick deposits once contained a wealth of information, but, sadly, most of the cave was dug up by untrained people intent on finding showy artifacts. In the 1970s the property became part of Seminole Canyon State Park and the site is now protected by law. Visitors to the park can take special guided tours of Fate Bell Shelter, an unforgettable experience.

Hinds Cave, located in a side canyon off the Pecos River, is one of the most carefully studied rockshelters. It was excavated in the 1970s by archeologists from Texas A&M. They were particularly interested in human ecology—how people interact with the environment. Professors and graduate students undertook many different kinds of specialized studies. One of the most informative types of research was coprolite analysis. Coprolites are dried human feces—when "reconstituted" by adding water, even 4,000-year-old specimens smell just like the original. This may be more than you wanted to know, but coprolite analysis gives a direct picture of the ancient human diet. You won't be shocked to learn that it was the graduate students who were assigned to analyze the coprolites.

Baker Cave is on a small side canyon off the Devils River. It, too, has been carefully studied by several different projects. One of the most astonishing findings there was a large cooking hearth that dates to about 9,000 years old during what is often called the Late Paleoindian period. The hearth was chock full of bones, but not the bones of bison or other large animals. Instead, there were snakes, rats, fish, rabbits, and many other small creatures as well as various charred seeds and nuts. This shows that by this time people were already making use of virtually everything that was edible.

Bonfire Shelter in Mile Canyon, a short box canyon that empties directly into the Rio Grande near Langtry, is probably the most famous Lower Pecos rockshelter. It is famed because it was the scene of a series of buffalo "jumps" beginning as early as 12,000 years ago or maybe even earlier. You can read all about it in the Bonfire exhibit.

Panther Cave is a "high lonesome" shelter situated on a cliff overlooking the Rio Grande at the mouth of Seminole Canyon. This cave is known for its spectacular rock art, especially a huge red panther (mountain lion). This site lies within the boundaries of the Amistad National Recreation Area and is protected by federal law. It is managed jointly by the National Park Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. With a good pair of binoculars, the famous panther can be seen from the scenic overlook trail in Seminole Canyon State Park. When lake levels allow, special guided tours can be arranged through Seminole Canyons State Park. Sadly, vandalism forced the NPS to erect a heavy chain link fence to protect the cave.

Coontail Spin Cave is a relatively small, narrow rockshelter that is important because of the archeological excavations done there in 1962. According to archeologist Ed Jelks who supervised the Amistad Reservoir investigations, the shelter takes its name from the local nickname for the western diamondback rattlesnake—coontail—the dark bands around the snake's tail are reminiscent of a coon's tail. The "spin" describes the winding trail the archeologists followed up and down the canyon walls to reach Coontail Spin Cave. The results of work at this site will be featured in a future exhibit on Texas Beyond History.

White Shaman Cave is a very small rockshelter on a tiny side canyon of the Pecos River, not far from the Pecos River Bridge. Small perhaps, but this shelter is famous because of the evocative image of … you guessed it, a white shaman. Actually, the "white shaman" is an anthropomorphic figure of the type called "shamans," but the meanings of these figures are debated. (See Rock Art.) This site is now owned and protected by the Rock Art Foundation and can be visited on one of the regularly scheduled tours. The climb in and out of White Shaman Cave is not for the faint of heart, but the vivid pictographs and intimate setting are truly remarkable.


Rockshelters form in limestone cliffs and vertical faces where softer or fractured layers of rock occur. These layers erode faster than the harder, more resistant surrounding rock and, over time, become prominent shelters such as this one. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Rockshelters form in limestone cliffs and vertical faces where softer or fractured layers of rock occur. These layers erode faster than the harder, more resistant surrounding rock and, over time, become prominent shelters such as this one. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
The Curly-Tailed Panther painted on the rear wall of an almost inaccessible rockshelter high on a cliff overlooking the Devils River. Photo by Steve Black.
The Curly-Tailed Panther painted on the rear wall of an almost inaccessible rockshelter high on a cliff overlooking the Devils River. Photo by Steve Black.
This scene depicts a burial at Seminole Sinkhole, a natural cave formed by a solution cavity in the limestone bedrock.
This scene depicts a burial at Seminole Sinkhole, a natural cave formed by a solution cavity in the limestone bedrock. Such places probably had great symbolic importance as openings to the underworld. The deceased was lowered into the narrow sinkhole opening perhaps with the idea that in doing so, he or she could join ancestors in the world beyond the living face of the earth. Mural by Nola Davis, courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Excavations underway at Coontail Spin Cave in 1962. Access to this cave was extremely challenging because of its remote location. Archeologists reached it by descending a long, steep slope from the opposite canyon wall and then climbing up a narrow tortuous path to the cave. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Excavations underway at Coontail Spin Cave in 1962. Access to this cave was extremely challenging because of its remote location. Archeologists reached it by descending a long, steep slope from the opposite canyon wall and then climbing up a narrow tortuous path to the cave. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.

Over time, some rockshelter deposits have grown to over 30 feet thick just during the time span that humans lived in the region.

Even at a distance, a trained eye can spot the tell-tale signs of intense human occupation.
Even at a distance, a trained eye can spot the tell-tale signs of intense human occupation. The gray fan-like talus deposits below this rockshelter may look like the result of mining, but this is actually cooking debris—literally tens of tons of fire-fractured limestone rocks mixed with charcoal and ash. These "burned" rocks are spent cooking stones rejected after they broke into pieces too small to be useful. They are the result of the use of this shelter for earth oven cooking on countless occasions. For scale, the opening of this shelter is about 10-12 feet high and perhaps 50 feet wide. Photo by Phil Dering.
Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon is one of the largest rockshelters in the Lower Pecos.
Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon is one of the largest rockshelters in the Lower Pecos. It was partially excavated by A.T. Jackson in 1932 and briefly tested by Mark Parsons in 1963. In between and afterward, much of the cave was churned up by looters. The walls of the shelter are covered with hundreds of pictographs. Today this shelter is protected within Seminole Canyon State Park. It can be visited on regular tours led by the Park Rangers. Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Hinds Cave is located on a side canyon off the Pecos River. It was excavated by archeologists from Texas A&M University in the 1970s. Photo by Phil Dering.
Hinds Cave is located on a side canyon off the Pecos River. It was excavated by archeologists from Texas A&M University in the 1970s. Photo by Phil Dering.
Fiber layers in upper deposits at Baker Cave. This is typical of many of the dry caves in the Lower Pecos. The upper deposits, 2-6 feet thick, are mainly plant fiber from food refuse, bedding, wooden and fiber-tool making, etc. This presents a real problem to the archeologist—what do you keep? The whole deposit?
Fiber layers in upper deposits at Baker Cave. This is typical of many of the dry caves in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. The upper deposits, 2-6 feet thick, are mainly plant fiber from food refuse, bedding, wooden and fiber-tool making, etc. This presents a real problem to the archeologist—what do you keep? The whole deposit?
Archeologist Mark Parsons exposes a fiber layer in an undisturbed area of Fate Bell Shelter. The distinctly colored and textured layers visible in the excavation wall represent different episodes in the shelter's long history of intermittent human occupation. Generally speaking, the dark layers are associated with intense occupation, while the light colored layers are mostly cave dust and roof spalls from periods when the shelter (or just this part of it) wasn't used by humans. Photo from ANRA-NPS Archives at TARL.
Archeologist Mark Parsons exposes a fiber layer in an undisturbed area of Fate Bell Shelter. The distinctly colored and textured layers visible in the excavation wall represent different episodes in the shelter's long history of intermittent human occupation. Generally speaking, the dark layers are associated with intense occupation, while the light colored layers are mostly cave dust and roof spalls from periods when the shelter (or just this part of it) wasn't used by humans. Photo from TARL Archives.