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Rock Art Network Color Engenders Life Hunter-gatherer rock art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
Rock Art Network Color Engenders Life Hunter-gatherer rock art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
Rock Art Network Color Engenders Life Hunter-gatherer rock art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
Rock Art Network
Color Engenders Life
HUNTER-GATHERER ROCK ART IN THE LOWER PECOS CANYONLANDS

Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands

Exhibition organized by the National Museum and Research Center of Altamira (Spain)

Curator
Carolyn Boyd
Texas State University | Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center

Coordinator
Pilar Fatás
Museo de Altamira

Almost 4,000 years ago, in southwest Texas (USA) and Coahuila (Mexico), hunter-gatherer artists painted some of the most complex murals in the world. They wove together layers of black, red, yellow, and white paint to create visual narratives. In Indigenous realities, images such as these are not passive decorations. They are reservoirs of power actively engaged in creation-past, present, and future. This exhibit explores how form, color, materiality of the paint, and the image-making process infused the murals with meaning and activated the characters in the stories they relate.

Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands

A painted landscape

THE REGION

The Lower Pecos is a dramatic landscape incised by deep and narrow canyons holding hundreds of dry rockshelters. Within these rockshelters archaeologists have excavated a rich record of hunting and gathering lifeways that began around 13,000 years ago and endured until European contact. Above the deposits, painted along rough limestone walls, is a rich record of mural art that began around 1700 BCE and remained in production for more than 3,000 years.

Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
(Clockwise) The Pecos River is one of three major waterways in the region that supplied a permanent source of food and water. © Jerod Roberts; Deep canyons, some rising more than 60 meters above the canyon floor, dominate much of the landscape. © Jerod Roberts; Ladders and scaffolding were required to paint figures that are beyond reach from the shelter floor. © Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center; This section of the Cedar Springs rock art panel spans 12 meters. The full mural is more than 62 meters long and 5 meters tall. © Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center.
© Jerod Roberts & Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center

THE MURALS

Archaeologists have reported more than 300 prehistoric murals in the region. New rock art sites are discovered every year. The murals range considerably in size and complexity. Some are small, less than a meter in length and height, and have only a few figures. Others hold thousands of figures and are as much as 150 meters long and 15 meters high. While some may see these as a random collection of images painted over long periods of time, trained artists have shown that many of the murals are planned compositions.

Eagle Cave is an immense rock shelter with cultural deposits measuring more than 3.5 meters in depth
Eagle Cave is an immense rock shelter with cultural deposits measuring more than 3.5 meters in depth.
© Ancient Southwest Texas Project, Texas State University

Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands

Drawing from the past: an artist’s point of view

VIRGINIA CARSON

In 1931 artist Virginia Carson took part in an archaeological expedition sent to the Lower Pecos by the Witte Museum of San Antonio, Texas to produce artistic reproductions of the pictographs. She describes the murals as masterpieces of beautifully proportioned and arranged images.

FORREST KIRKLAND

In 1933, professional draftsman and artist Forrest Kirkland produced dozens of watercolor renderings of the murals. He also supplied the first formal analysis of the paintings, including a discussion of color harmony, picture arrangement, rhythm, movement, and action. Like Virginia Carson, Kirkland recognized the murals as complex compositions. He said that moving a single figure or symbol would upset their delicate balance and detract from their artistic merit.

CAROLYN BOYD

In 1991, artist turned archaeologist Carolyn Boyd began documenting and studying the rock art of the Lower Pecos. As a trained muralist, she recognized the skill and planning needed to produce the large, complex compositions. Her investigations into the use of color and the technical history of these artworks are challenging preconceptions about hunter-gatherer complexity and the function of art in Indigenous America. Boyd’s groundbreaking interpretive work is finding parallels between the cosmological concepts portrayed in the visual narratives and the myths and histories of later Mesoamerican agricultural societies. Her research suggests ancient origins of complex concepts and rituals still practiced today.

Virigina Carson was a member of the Witte expedition led by Emma Gutzeit (pictured here). These pioneering women of the 1930s were the first to document the rock art of the Lower Pecos
Virigina Carson was a member of the Witte expedition led by Emma Gutzeit (pictured here). These pioneering women of the 1930s were the first to document the rock art of the Lower Pecos.
© Courtesy of the Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas
 
Virginia Carson produced 118 vivid watercolor reproductions during the expedition.
Virginia Carson produced 118 vivid watercolor reproductions during the expedition.
© Courtesy of the Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas
 
Kirkland copying paintings at a site along the Pecos River
Kirkland copying paintings at a site along the Pecos River.
© Courtesy The Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, The University of Texas at Austin
 
Kirkland’s watercolor reproduction of a site along the Pecos River
Kirkland’s watercolor reproduction of a site along the Pecos River.
© Courtesy The Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, The University of Texas at Austin
 
Section of Boyd’s pastel and colored pencil reproduction of Cedar Springs
Section of Boyd’s pastel and colored pencil reproduction of Cedar Springs.
© Carolyn Boyd
 
Carolyn Boyd standing before the White Shaman Mural
Carolyn Boyd standing before the White Shaman Mural.
© Texas Department of Transportation

Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands

Serpentine arches with openings in the middle graphically represent the primordial birthplace. At Cedar Springs, the artist used color and line to show movement through the portal
Rock art of the Lower Pecos

THE IMAGERY

Artists arranged the imagery into complex visual narratives to document myths and rituals associated with the creation and maintenance of the world and the cosmos. They used graphic symbols to represent divine and mortal beings, things, places, sensations, and experiences.

At Mystic Shelter, an ancestral deity emerges from the watery underworld through the mouth of a cave. In Native America, caves represented the birthplace of the gods and humanity and served as portals between the upper- and underworld
ANTHROPOMORPHS

Anthropomorphic or humanlike figures dominate the paintings both in number and meaning. Most range in size between 1 m to 1.5 m, however, some are monumental, towering more than 6 m in height. Others are pocket-sized, standing no more than 10 cm. These finely executed human-like figures are often an elaborate combination of physical attributes, such as color, shape, body adornments, paraphernalia, and weaponry.

ZOOMORPHS

The most common animals portrayed in the murals are deer, felines, and snake-like figures. Birds and insects are also widespread, but smaller in size and usually surrounding anthropomorphic figures.

ENIGMATIC FIGURES

Other figures lack characteristics of either anthropomorphs or zoomorphs. These enigmatic figures range significantly in size, shape, and complexity. Sometimes they vaguely resemble plants, other times they are amorphous shapes having no analog in the physical world.

Serpentine arches with openings in the middle graphically represent the primordial birthplace. At Cedar Springs, the artist used color and line to show movement through the portal
Serpentine arches with openings in the middle graphically represent the primordial birthplace. At Cedar Springs, the artist used color and line to show movement through the portal.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
Artists used natural features in the rock to serve as the eyes and nose of the taller figure on the left
Artists used natural features in the rock to serve as the eyes and nose of the taller figure on the left.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
Panther Cave was named for this beautiful, 2.5-meter-long feline. Whereas the deer is associated with the sun at dawn, the feline is associated with the sun at night
Panther Cave was named for this beautiful, 2.5-meter-long feline. Whereas the deer is associated with the sun at dawn, the feline is associated with the sun at night.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
At Mystic Shelter, an ancestral deity emerges from the watery underworld through the mouth of a cave. In Native America, caves represented the birthplace of the gods and humanity and served as portals between the upper- and underworld
At Mystic Shelter, an ancestral deity emerges from the watery underworld through the mouth of a cave. In Native America, caves represented the birthplace of the gods and humanity and served as portals between the upper- and underworld.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
Halo Shelter anthropomorph surrounded by birds in flight
Halo Shelter anthropomorph surrounded by birds in flight.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
Boxes with legs arranged in complex compositions are a common motif in the Lower Pecos, but what they represent is unknown. This grouping from Black Cave is several meters above the shelter floor and spans 2 meters
Boxes with legs arranged in complex compositions are a common motif in the Lower Pecos, but what they represent is unknown. This grouping from Black Cave is several meters above the shelter floor and spans 2 meters.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center

Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands

Incarnated images

Yucca (Yucca glauca), commonly referred to as soap root
Yucca (Yucca glauca), commonly referred to as soap root.
© Jerod Roberts
INGREDIENTS

Researchers have found that the color-producing agents in the paint are mineral pigments, including ochres and manganese. Ethnographic texts and experimental archaeology suggest that deer tallow or marrow likely served as a binder and that saponins from yucca, also known as “soap root” (Yucca spp.) mixed with water served as an emulsifier. Each ingredient in the paint was sacred and a source of power that gave life to the images.

TOOLS OF THE ARTIST

Perched on ladders or scaffolding, artists used pigment crayons to sketch out complex compositions. They applied the paint with brushes made from fiber, animal hair, and feathers, and used other tools such as straight-edges and stencils. With skilled and intentional brushstrokes, artists deftly painted murals on rough limestone canvases arching several meters overhead. The precision and clarity of lines found in the paintings would present a significant challenge for even the most skilled artist.

SIGNIFICANCE

The care with which artists selected ingredients and created the art suggests that their goal was to produce exceptional art. Not for the sake of art, but for the sake of life. Native American peoples perceived a universe in which a life force imbues all things, including rock art and its stone canvas. In this view of reality, characters in the rock art are living beings that have their own point of view and intentionality.

Grinding stone, mineral pigments, and brushes made from fiber and animal hair used in experimental paint-making
Grinding stone, mineral pigments, and brushes made from fiber and animal hair used in experimental paint-making.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
The artist blew red paint around a stencil to create this 1-meter-tall anthropomorph at Cedar Springs
The artist blew red paint around a stencil to create this 1-meter-tall anthropomorph at Cedar Springs.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
An artist likely used a supple brush to create the fine lines of this precisely painted anthropomorph
An artist likely used a supple brush to create the fine lines of this precisely painted anthropomorph.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
A straight edge was used to create the crisp lines of this finely painted, 2-meter-tall, anthropomorph at Fate Bell Shelter
A straight edge was used to create the crisp lines of this finely painted, 2-meter-tall, anthropomorph at Fate Bell Shelter.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
Black masks cover the faces of some figures, such as this one at Panther Cave. In some Native American cultures, artists painted figures with black masks to signify them as stellar deities
Black masks cover the faces of some figures, such as this one at Panther Cave. In some Native American cultures, artists painted figures with black masks to signify them as stellar deities.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
Ghost-like figures with large eyes gaze upon visitors to the mural
Ghost-like figures with large eyes gaze upon visitors to the mural.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center

Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands

Nothing is random, everything carries meaning

Color, shape, and context infused the art with meaning, sound, and life in the White Shaman Mural. The artist applied the black paint first, then red, yellow, and white
Color, shape, and context infused the art with meaning, sound, and life in the White Shaman Mural. The artist applied the black paint first, then red, yellow, and white.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
COLOR

Colors are loaded with potency and symbolism. They are associated with specific deities, spirit beings, natural phenomena, gender, emotions, souls, and the cardinal directions. Some Native Americans even perceive colors as words and magical songs of the gods. The artists’ choice and application of color transformed and enlivened the images.

ATTRIBUTES

Human and animal forms supplied a framework upon which artists added physical attributes to name characters in the stories told through the art. Colors, body adornments, headdresses, weaponry, and even the number of fingers and toes functioned like a graphic vocabulary that conveyed meaning. Think, for example, about the attributes of Medusa from Greek mythology or Thor from Scandinavia. We recognize them by their distinctive attributes-hissing snakes as hair and a mighty hammer.

PAINT SEQUENCE

The murals’ painting sequence reveals that they are well-ordered and carefully planned. Using a handheld digital microscope, researchers have discovered that many Lower Pecos artists followed a strict paint application order when creating the murals. They applied black paint first, followed by red, then yellow, and finally white. As a result, elements of one figure are painted over and under elements of another figure, weaving them together to form a complex composition.

BRUSHSTROKE

Everything carries meaning – the ingredients in paint, the order of paint application, attributes, and even the choice of brushstroke. For example, artists often portrayed figures with lines entering or coming out of open mouths. These lines stand for sound in the form of speech or song, and they represent breath or the sense of smell. To differentiate between inhalations and exhalations artists altered the direction of the brushstroke.

Between claw-like fingers this yellow and red anthropomorph at Halo Shelter raises an enigmatic object in its right hand
Between claw-like fingers this yellow and red anthropomorph at Halo Shelter raises an enigmatic object in its right hand.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
Black, red, and yellow anthropomorph wielding a large black and red staff in its left hand at Mystic Shelter. The black paint was applied first, followed by red and yellow.
Black, red, and yellow anthropomorph wielding a large black and red staff in its left hand at Mystic Shelter. The black paint was applied first, followed by red and yellow.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
This powerful, red anthropomorph from Panther Cave displays a wide range of body adornments, paraphernalia, and weaponry
This powerful, red anthropomorph from Panther Cave displays a wide range of body adornments, paraphernalia, and weaponry.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
Sometimes artists painted upside down figures. In the story told through the White Shaman Mural, this black-masked anthropomorph is the Evening Star descending into the underworld at sunset
Sometimes artists painted upside down figures. In the story told through the White Shaman Mural, this black-masked anthropomorph is the Evening Star descending into the underworld at sunset.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
Lines enter and exit the mouth of this feline to denote inhalation and exhalation
Lines enter and exit the mouth of this feline to denote inhalation and exhalation.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
 
Throughout the region, antlered anthropomorphs are portrayed with black dots at the tips of each red antler tine. In each case, artists painted the black dots before the red antlers
Throughout the region, antlered anthropomorphs are portrayed with black dots at the tips of each red antler tine. In each case, artists painted the black dots before the red antlers.
© Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center

Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
Color Engenders Life Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands

The White Shaman mural

VISUAL CREATION NARRATIVE

Carolyn Boyd found patterns in the mural that relate to the myths and rituals of Aztec and Huichol peoples in Mexico. These patterns led her to interpret the panel as a pictorial creation narrative. The imagery relates the sun’s daily cycle and its apparent path along the ecliptic throughout the year. It documents the changing seasons and the beginning and ending of ages and the mythic pilgrimage and sacrifice that gave birth to the sun and time.

CYCLES OF TIME AND MEANING

Through the careful application of colors laden with meaning and agency, the artists wove cycles of time into the mural.

  • The artist began with black, the color of femininity, the underworld, and primordial time, a time of perpetual darkness.
  • After the black paint dried, the artist applied red, the color associated with masculinity, fire, and blood. It is the fiery red glow appearing on the horizon just before sunrise. The union of red and black, masculine and feminine, initiated creation and gave birth to the sun.
  • The next color applied was yellow, the color associated with the warm rays of the morning sun as it overcomes the cold black of night and the red of predawn.
  • And finally, the artist applied white, the color associated with the light of midday. It is the color of sacrificial transformation and transcendence, and the return to primordial time. Thus, the cycle of life continues.
Three layers of black paint form the first painting sequence. Five layers of red paint form the second painting sequence. Two layers of yellow paint form the third painting sequence. Two layers of white paint form the final painting sequence. Illustration: Carolyn E. Boyd
Three layers of black paint form the first painting sequence.
Five layers of red paint form the second painting sequence.
Two layers of yellow paint form the third painting sequence.
Two layers of white paint form the final painting sequence.
© Illustration: Carolyn E. Boyd
Funding

Subdirección General de Museos Estatales | Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte

Curator

Carolyn Boyd Texas State University | Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center

Coordinator

Pilar Fatás | Museo de Altamira

Photos

Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center Comstock, Texas
Texas Archeological Research Laboratory University of Texas, Austin
Witte Museum San Antonio, Texas
Ancient Southwest Texas Project
Jerod Roberts
Chester Leeds
Carolyn Boyd

Design

Nexo

Acknowledgments

Texas State University San Marcos, Texas
Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center Comstock, Texas
Texas Archeological Research Laboratory University of Texas, Austin
Witte Museum San Antonio, Texas

And especially to

Phil Dering, Jessica Hamlin, Vicky Roberts, Audrey Lindsay, Tim Murphy
Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center
Jerod Roberts Texas State University
Marybeth Tomka Texas Archeological Research Laboratory
Amy Fulkerson, Leslie Ochoa, Harry Shafer and Marise McDermott
Witte Museum
Bob Scribner Texas A&M University-Galveston.

This exhibition is the result of the collaboration in the framework of the Rock Art Network, formed by the Getty Conservation Institute and the Bradshaw Foundation.

The Rock Art Network
→ Discover more about the Rock Art Network
→ Members and affiliated institutions of the Rock Art Network

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LATEST ARTICLE
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RECENT ARTICLES
Bradshaw Foundation Donate Friends
→  An online course by SEAMEO Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SPAFA)
by Noel Hidalgo Tan
20 April 2022
→  Cupules and Vulvas in the Alwar area, Rajasthan
by Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak
14 March 2022
→  Color Engenders Life - Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
by Carolyn Boyd & Pilar Fatás
02 March 2022
→  David Coulson receives RGS Cherry Kearton Award
by David Coulson
07 February 2022
→  Vandalised petroglyphs in Texas
by Johannes H. N. Loubser
06 February 2022
→  Hand Stencils in Chhattisgarh
by Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak
05 February 2022
→  And then they were gone: Destruction of the Good Hope 1 rock paintings
by Aron Mazel
28 January 2022
→  Early masterpieces: San hunter-gatherer shaded paintings of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg and surrounding areas
by Aron Mazel
8 September 2021
→  Aїr Mountains Safari - Sahara
by David Coulson
17 August 2021
→  The Neolithic rock art passage tombs of Anglesey as brand-new virtual tours
by Ffion Reynolds
21 June 2021
→  A Map from the Memory of the World
by Janette Deacon
8 June 2021
→  The dangers of 'Discovering' rock art
by Peter Robinson
1 June 2021
→  Dharkundi and Deurkuthar Rock Art Sites in Central India
by Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak
1 June 2021
→ Dating the Earth and its Rock Art
by Neville Agnew
23 May 2021
→ Studying the Source of Dust Using a Simple and Effective Methodology:
by Tom McClintock
30 April 2021
→ ABC Radio National 'Nightlife' with Philip Clark - 'Exploring the wonders of cave art in Australia'
by Professor Paul S.C. Taçon & Dr Josephine McDonald
30 April 2021
→ A Painted Treasure - San hunter-gatherer visual engagement with Didima Gorge (South Africa)
by Aron Mazel
10 March 2021
→ L'Atlas de la grotte Chauvet-Pont d'Arc
by
Jean-jacques Delannoy &
Jean-Michel Geneste
1 February 2021
→ Oldest cave painting found in Indonesia
by Rock Art Network
14 January 2021
→ Graffiti Dates and Names as a Rock Art Conservation and Management Tool
by Johannes H. N. Loubser
29 October 2020
→ Animals in Rock Art
by Aron Mazel
7 October 2020
→ Reflecting Back: 40 Years Since ‘A Survey of the Rock Art in the Natal Drakensberg’ Project (1978-1981)
by Aron Mazel
29 September 2020
→ Art on the Rocks in the Age of COVID-19
by Neville Agnew & Tom McClintock
15 September 2020
→ Explore Cederberg rock art from your home
by Janette Deacon
9 September 2020
→ The Continuum of Art: The relationship between Ice Age art and contemporary art and how an understanding of the former can help engage a modern audience
by Peter Robinson
16 August 2020
→ Illuminating the Realm of the Dead: The Rock Art within the Dolmen de Soto, Andalucía, Southern Spain
by George Nash
29 July 2020
→ Rock Art Adventurous Field Work during COVID-19 in the Southernmost of South America
by María Isabel Hernández Llosas
9 June 2020
→ The Final Passage - FAQ
by Jean-Michel Geneste
1 June 2020
→ Experts rush to map fire-hit rock art
by Andrew Bock
15 May 2020
→ Sacred Indigenous rock art sites under threat
by Amy van den Berg
12 May 2020
→ Virtual Meeting
by Ben Dickins
22 April 2020
→ The Bradshaw Foundation Launches the Rock Art Network Website
by Wendy All
23 March 2020
→ The aftermath of fire damage to important rock art at the Baloon Cave tourist destination, Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland, Australia
by Paul Taçon
24 November 2019
→ The removal and camouflage of graffiti: The art of creating chaos out of order and order out of chaos
by Johannes H. N. Loubser
11 November 2019
→ The Histories of Australian Rock Art Research symposium, 8-9 December 2019, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
by Paul Tacon
5 November 2019
→ San rock art exhibition at the National Museum & Research Center of Altamira
by Aron Mazel
17 September 2019
→ The 2018 Art on the Rocks Colloquium
by Wendy All
2 December 2018
→ Preserving Our Ancient Art Galleries: Volunteerism, Collaboration, and the Rock Art Archive
by Wendy All
1 December 2017
→ Altamira and the New Technology for Public Access
by Pilar Fatás Monforte
30 April 2017
→ From the Chauvet Cave to the Caverne du Pont d’Arc: Methods and Strategies for a Replica to Preserve the Heritage of a Decorated Cave That Cannot Be Made Accessible to the Public
by Jean-Michel Geneste
29 April 2017
→ Emerging Consciousness and New Media: The Management of Rock Art in Southeast Asia and New Opportunities for Communicating Its Significance
by Noel Hidalgo Tan
28 April 2017
→ Step by Step: The Power of Participatory Planning with Local Communities for Rock Art Management and Tourism
by Nicholas Hall
27 April 2017
→ Fundraising for Rock Art by Promoting Its Values
by Terry Little
26 April 2017
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