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Artistic Expression

A triangular ground stone pendant made from fine-grained sandstone from near El Sauz in Starr County. Click to see more stone pendants. Drawing by Richard McReynolds (Chandler and Kumpe 1994:
Figure 1). Enlarge image
Enlarge image = image can be enlarged.

Unlike the arid, richly painted Lower Pecos Canyonlands to the northwest with its extraordinarily well preserved dry rockshelters, the South Texas Plains region has yielded only glimpses of the creative artistry of its native peoples. Poor preservation conditions and geology are the main culprits that account for this scarcity. The south Texas brush country is a land of gentle topography and silt-laden streams that cut through clay-derived or sandstone substrates. It is only in the region's northwestern reaches-on the limestone outliers south of the Edwards Plateau and along the Del Rio to Laredo section of the Rio Grande- that we find the resistant bedrock bluffs and overhangs that served as stone canvasses upon which ancient peoples painted symbolic representations of life and belief. Further, the alternating dry-wet climate of southern Texas has taken a toll on many artistic expressions, even on stone, further accounting for the rarity of surviving expressions of art.

Yet we know the peoples of the region employed various media for their creative and symbolic expressions. On sandstone outcroppings, on marine and freshwater mussel shells, on stone pipes, and smooth pebbles, we find traces of their work. Other evidence comes from accounts in Spanish journals of the 17th and 18th centuries which tell of another mode of expression-the often elaborate body ornamentation of native peoples. Here we call these diverse representations "artistic expressions," but we are mindful that many of these depictions were laden with religious, social, and personal meanings that are lost to us today. Western conceptions of "art" rarely convey the integral roles that crafted designs played in the lives of native peoples.

In the section following, we take a look at a selection of documented examples of artistic expressions from archeological sites in the South Texas Plains and from accounts in early historic documents.

This uniquely shaped marine shell pendant has three holes drilled through as well as a succession of smaller holes and faintly scored lines along the curved edge. It is made from a section of conch (lightning whelk) shell. It was found with a burial of a 4 to 7 year-old child at the Silo site in Karnes County. The position of the pendant suggests it was placed around the child's neck. Note that this artifact has not been fully cleaned in hopes that the encrusted matter may contain traces of residue or perhaps even paint. TARL archives. Enlarge and see opposite side. Enlarge image
Snake Vertebrae
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Necklaces or strings of bone artifacts were found in burials at the Morhiss site in Victoria County. On the left, nearly 100 adult rattlesnake vertebrae were strung on a cord.. At right, hollow bird bones were grooved and snapped to form beads. Insets in center show close-ups of the rattlesnake vertebrae (top) and a bird bone bead, comparable to those on the necklace. TARL collections.

A striking pendant was formed by drilling holes through a marine conch shell columella (Florida Horse Conch, the largest shell found on the Texas coast). The artifact still retains part of the outer whorl, but most of the shell has been removed, probably by natural beach erosion. Found in Wilson County, the pendant measures nearly 18 cm (roughly 7 inches) in length. Drawing by Richard McReynolds; from Chandler and Highley 1998, Figure 1. Click to enlarge and see three views of this artifact. Enlarge image
Drawings of the perforated conch shell pendants found in a burial cache at Loma Sandia cemetery. (From Taylor and Highley 1995: Figure 119. Drawing by Cathy Dodt-Ellis.) Enlarge image
painted pebble
Known as "painted pebbles," these stream-worn pebbles (technically, small cobbles) are small enough to be held comfortably in your hand. This specimen from Zavala County exemplifies the ephemeral nature of ancient painted designs in the South Texas Plains. The curving geometric designs are only partially legible, but similar artifacts from the Lower Pecos Canyonlands are thought to depict female figures. UTSA-CAR archives. Enlarge image

Ornaments and Decorated Objects - "Portable Art"

In contrast to rock art, comparatively numerous examples of ornaments and decorated objects fashioned by native peoples have come from archeological sites across the South Texas Plains. These run the gamut from bird-bone beads to tubular smoking pipes carved from stone and decorated with geometric designs to smooth pebbles adorned with painted or engraved designs. Some of these items accompanied burials at cemetery sites and clearly represent grave offerings that had special meanings to the deceased and their loved ones.

Ornaments-or what we today might call jewelry-include pendants (or gorgets), and beads made of shell, bone, and stone. At the Morhiss site, a small cemetery in Victoria County, archeologists found two strings of beads-apparently necklaces. One was made of hollow bird bones which had been grooved (incised with a sharp stone tool), then snapped into smaller sections which were then smoothed and polished to form finished beads. The other "necklace", placed in the burial of a male, was made of dozens of vertebrae from adult diamondback rattlesnakes. Given the placement of this artifact at the knees of the deceased, it may not have been a necklace. But the vertebrae were obviously strung together and apparently worn from use; perhaps the string of snake vertebrae was attached to a leather garment or bag.

Freshwater mussel (clam) shells, with their gleaming opalescent interiors, were favored materials for prehistoric artists. Cut and shaped into various forms, the shells became pendants, beads, or "danglers" which were strung on a cord through small drilled holes. Pendants frequently were decorated with designs, including intricate geometric patterns and punctations.

Marine shells, especially the Lightning Whelk (Busycon perversum pulleyi) and several other species of conch shells, were also worked into ornaments and are sometimes found whole as well far from the coast. The large spiraling conch shells were highly valued by the native peoples of the South Texas Plains (and far beyond). This value can be seen by the elaborate shapes into which conch shell pieces were carved, by the diverse range of ornament forms into which they were fashioned, and by the fact that conch shell artifacts are commonly left as grave offerings. Given its prehistoric importance, it seems most appropriate that the Lightning Whelk is now the official Texas State Shell.

In prehistoric times, conch shells were often used by coastal peoples to fashion everyday tools such as gouges, scrapers, dippers, and perhaps small bowls. But the shells traded or carried inland seem to have been used almost exclusively as ornaments and symbols. Lightning whelk shells were used in two particularly striking ways. Broad cup-like sections of the outer shells were shaped into ovals pendants or gorgets (chest pieces) suspended from cords around the neck. Some conch gorgets have elaborately carved or drilled designs. The other section of the lightning whelk shell that was often used is the central axis or columela. Drilled through and suspended in a dangling fashion, these long, pieces, sometimes left with visible spirals, sometimes smoothed to tubular shapes, would have been quite distinctive.

Small stones and smooth pebbles also caught the eye of native artisans looking for available craft materials. Flat pebbles were used as is and sometimes even shaped and ground along the edges to create elongate triangles, rectangles and other shapes. Some had holes drilled through one or both ends, transforming the stones into pendants or other ornaments. Other pebbles were left whole and had painted designs.

Painted and or sometimes engraved pebbles are common in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, but they do occur on the South Texas Plains. Technically, these stones fit within the size range known to geologists as cobbles, but archeologists call them pebbles. These are stream-worn stone pebbles (cobbles) that are small enough to be held comfortably in your hand. They are usually fairly flat rocks that are oval or elongated in outline shape. Shaped by nature, they quite purposefully chosen hard, thin limestone pieces of the sort commonly found in gravel bars along the streams and rivers that drain the Edwards Plateau as well as along the middle stretches of the Rio Grande.

Although rare, painted pebbles are known from the South Texas Plains, especially in the northwestern part of the region where the raw materials (smoothed pebbles) can be found in many streambeds. This apparent scarcity is probably attributable mainly to poor preservation conditions - painted designs seldom survive in open archeological sites. Even in the dry rockshelters of the Lower Pecos archeologists sometimes fail to notice the often-faint traces of designs.

The meanings of the painted pebbles are debated, but archeologist Mark Parsons has argued that these are representations of human beings, some more abstractly than others. Some examples from the Lower Pecos clearly depict humans.

A much different design was executed on a tiny, oval-shaped pebble found on the surface along San Miguel Creek in Atascosa County. Although there was no obvious evidence of shaping by pecking or grinding, a series of deeply engraved lines on all surfaces seems to give the artifact the appearance of a shell.

A marine conch shell and two perforated conch shell pendants were included in this burial offering from the Late Archaic Loma Sandia cemetery in Live Oak County. Conch, or Lightning Whelk, were particularly valued by native peoples. Photo from CAR-UTSA. Enlarge image
Large conch shell from Loma Sandia burial.The large shell may have been a “core” from which raw material for ornaments was obtained. (From Taylor and Highley 1995: Figure 119. Drawing by Cathy Dodt-Ellis.) Enlarge image
Incised lines on this small pebble gives it a shell-like appearance. The artifact, found on the surface along San Miguel Creek in Atascosa County, is 34 mm long (1.3 inches). Perhaps this carved pebble may have been carried as a token or talisman. Drawing by Richard McReynolds (from Chandler 2000: Figure 1). See drawings of all four sides. Enlarge image
Prehistoric artists transformed marine shells (likely Lightning Whelk) into beautiful ornaments. The specimens shown—gorgets (chest pieces) from the Olmos Dam site in San Antonio—have been decorated with small punctuations drilled in geometric patterns. The cross design is an intriguing motif that occurs widely in native America; these examples are thought to date over 2100 years ago (before 100 B.C.). Photo courtesy Thomas R. Hester. Enlarge image
Painted Pipe
A fragment of a tubular pipe painted with black asphaltum and red ocher was found at the Late Prehistoric Hinojosa site (41JW8) in Jim Wells County. The illustration at bottom shows an interpretive reconstruction of the design and color. (Adapted from Black 1986: Figure 9.) Enlarge image

Native peoples also engraved designs on bone tools and other objects, such as awls and hair pins, as well as carved stone smoking pipes, although the latter are quite rare. Several decorated pipes have been reported as surface finds along the lower Rio Grande. The example shown is of fine-grained sandstone with deeply incised designs, varying from wavy to zig-zag lines, running the length of the object.

Another pipe fragment, found at the Hinojosa site in Jim Wells County, is even more unusual. The short, cylindrical fragment of a sandstone pipe bears traces of a bold curvilinear design executed in red ocher and black asphaltum (natural tar). Although recovered from the surface of the site, the sandstone pipe is attributed to a Late Prehistoric artist.

Some of the most remarkable traces of prehistoric artisanship can be found on bone objects used as tools, ornaments, and even musical instruments. Most bone tools aren't decorated, but some pointed awls (weaving tools?) and needles do have incised designs. Curving, flattish bone pieces thought to be hair pins often have intricate incised designs in checkerboard patterns and spirals. There are also examples of incised rasps or bones that have sets of deeply incised parallel lines that produce a rhythmic sound when rubbed with a stick or another bone. One final, most peculiar type of bone ornament is worth mentioning - decorated sections of bone fashioned from human bones. These are rare and known mostly from along the Rio Grande. It does not take any imagination to suggest that such objects had special ritual significance - perhaps these were made from the bones of enemy peoples.

Several views of a decorated, tubular sandstone pipe from the Lower Rio Grande. Drawing by Richard McReynolds (from Chandler 1997: Figure 2). See additional views. Enlarge image
Intricate geometric patterns incised on a bone tool are still distinctive, even though the artifact has deteriorated as it lay beneath the ground for over a thousand years. It was recovered from the Morhiss cemetery site in Victoria County. See more examples. Enlarge image

Painting of a Coahuiltecan man
A Coahuiltecan man displays an array of tattooed and painted designs over his face and body in this depiction cropped from a larger painted scene by archeologist and artist Frank Weir. Such body ornamentation may have carried a host of meanings, including tribal affiliation or rank. Early Spanish observers such as Cabeza de Vaca commented that body art was a common practice in the region. Enlarge image

Rock Art

Although bedrock bluffs and overhangs are rare throughout most of the South Texas Plains, there is surviving evidence in the northwest portion of the region that native peoples took advantage of these natural "canvasses."

Sites with painted rock art panels, Pictograph sites, are very rare in the region for the reasons noted above. The Old Sullivan Springs site (41WB56) in northwestern Webb County is one of the few documented examples known in the region (other pictograph sites are known from adjacent northeastern Mexico). The pictograph panel at Sullivan Springs measures roughly 13 feet (4 m) wide by nearly 5 feet (1.5 m) high in some areas. The painted designs were executed in shades of red and yellow on a wall beneath a sandstone overhang overlooking the Rio Grande River. The motifs are largely vertical zig-zag designs, although there is a central anthropomorphic figure with what may be a horned headdress. The figure appears to have both arms extended and wears a horned headress. Archeologist Thomas R. Hester, who recorded the site, notes its proximity to a large spring that is associated with several nearby campsites, one of which also contains several bedrock mortars and grinding surfaces - modified bedrock with an obvious utilitarian purpose. According to Hester, visitors to the site in the mid-20th century recalled seeing smaller rock art panels nearby; these may have been destroyed since by floods and weathering.

Body Art

Early explorers traveling through south Texas occasionally made note of the appearance and customs of native peoples, including the often elaborate tattooing, painted designs, and piercings with which they ornamented their bodies. Although there clearly were different reasons for ornamenting the body, including ritual painting for ceremonies and raids, or tattooing to denote group affiliation, these adornments were a form of artistic expression.

There are several accounts of the body art of the Coahuiltecan groups of south Texas. In Cabeza de Vaca's journal, La Relación, we learn that the Yguazes, a sub-group of the Coahuiltecos, "have both a nipple and lip bored." Tattoos were common on Coahuiltecan men and at least some of the women. Coahuiltecan boys were tattooed during ceremonies marking the passage from childhood to adulthood. Herbs were rubbed on to numb the skin, then shallow incisions were made with sharp flakes or animal teeth. These cuts then were rubbed with charcoal and resin. Captives were often tattooed as well. Fernando del Bosque noted that a Spanish boy brought to him by a Gueiquesale Inidan had "a line on his face marking him from his forehead to his nose, and two lines on his cheeks, one on each, and rows of them on his left arm and one on the right."

The Old Sullivan Springs site in Webb County contains numerous pictographs painted in bright red ochre-based colors. The stylistic motifs appear to be more closely related to sites in northern Mexico than the Lower Pecos. See full view. Enlarge image
Drawing of a Coahuiltecan man
A different rendering of a Coahuiltecan man by artist Frank Weir shows lines of tattoos across the chest and around the upper arms. Enlarge image


Black, Stephen L.
1986 The Clemente and Herminia Hinojosa Site, 41JW8: A Toyah Horizon Campsite in Southern Texas. Special Report 18, Center for Archaeological Research, The University of Texas at San Antonio.

Chandler, C. K.
2000 Engraved Pebbles from Atascosa and Bell Counties. La Tierra 27(2):9-11.

Chandler, C. K.
1997 Tubular Stone Pipes and Pipe Fragments from the Lower Rio Grande of Texas. La Tierra 24(4)-11-25.

Chandler, C. K. and Cheryl Lynn Highley
1998 Marine Shell Pendants from South Texas. La Tierra 25(1): 42-45.

Chandler, C. K. and Don Kumpe
1997 Decorated Mussel Shell Ornaments. La Tierra 24(1): 9-13.
1994 Ground Stone Ornaments of the Lower Rio Grande. La Tierra 21(1): 28-33.

Hester, Thomas R.
1986 A Rock Art Site in Southern Texas. La Tierra 86(4): 2-4. 1977 A Painted Pebble from a Site on the Nueces River, Southern Texas. Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 48: 13-143.

Krieger, Alex D.
2002 We Came Naked and Barefoot: The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca across North America. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Martin, George C. (Editor)
1947 Expedition into Texas of Fernando del Bosque, Standard-Bearer of the King, Don Carols II, in the Year 1675. Translated from the Spanish by Bob Brewster. San Antonio.

McClure, W. L.
1990 A Snake "Necklace: from the Morhiss Site. La Tierra 17(1): 9-12.

Newcomb, W. W.
1961 The Indians of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Taylor, Anna Jean and Cheryl Lynn Highley
1995 Archeological Investigations at the Loma Sandia Site (41LK28): A Prehistoric Cemetery and Campsite in Live Oak County, Texas. Studies in Archeology 20. Tes=xas Archeological Research Laboratory, University of Texas at Austin.