Fate Bell Shelter is located in Seminole Canyon State Historical Park about thirty miles west of Comstock on U.S. Highway 90. The site is approximately 150 yards long, and its greatest depth is forty feet. The shelter, which is a state archeological landmark, was named after Mrs. Fate Bell, who owned the land that the shelter occupies. Fate Bell Shelter is a deeply stratified rock shelter containing evidence of over 8,000 years of occupation, from the Archaic Period to the Late Prehistoric Period (ca. 7000 B.C. to A.D. 1500). Dating the recovered artifacts and rock art in Fate Bell Shelter and in Seminole Canyon in general has been difficult because of the extreme damage done to many sites, including Fate Bell, by looters.
The site was first excavated by the University of Texas between October 20 and November 18, 1932, by a crew of five men led by James E. Pearce and A. T. Jackson. The site was chosen by Pearce out of eight sites they located because it was the largest and least disturbed. The 1932 expedition was the only major excavation of the shelter. A smaller excavation was carried out by Mark Parsons in 1963 as part of the salvage operations prior to the construction of Amistad Dam. Various projects since then have documented the Indian rock art extant in Fate Bell Shelter and in the surrounding area.
The initial excavations revealed much material culture, including engraved shells, painted pebbles, fiber sandals (complete and in various stages of manufacture), baskets, manos, and metates. Ceramics of any type are conspicuously absent. Also found were various types of projectile points. These are normally diagnostic of a particular time period and can be used to determine time of occupation when found in context. Unfortunately, some of each point type were found at all levels. The most probable explanation is that the site had been previously disturbed, either by looters or by natural process. The Pearce expedition also noted the existence of sotol pits-circular depressions used to cook the yucca-like sotol plant. Eight burials were found. Three of these had no skeletal remains; presumably they had not been preserved. One was a group burial and contained the skeletons of five individuals. Found within many of the burials were traces of matting made from either sotol or agave.
Fate Bell Shelter is best known for its pictographs, which are among the best documented and best preserved of the Pecos River style. This style, which may date between three and four thousand years before the present, is generally considered the oldest of the types found in the Lower Pecos area. This would place the art in the middle Archaic period. The Pecos River style is a polychrome style that is considered a manifestation of the shamanic cult. The central characters of the pictographs are faceless anthropomorphic figures, elaborately dressed and often holding a variety of accessories such as atlatls, darts, and fending sticks. The figures are often depicted with their arms outstretched, and in later pictographs the anthropomorphs' arms are increasingly stylized and seem to be more akin to wings than arms. At one end of the shelter there are also examples of Red Linear figures-a Late Archaic Period style characterized by very small stick figures engaged in various activities.
Although the pictographs of Fate Bell Shelter were noticed by the Jackson expedition, they were not mentioned in his 1933 publication. He did, however, include illustrations from the shelter in his 1938 publication Picture Writing of the Texas Indians. The first real attempt to make a systematic and permanent record of the pictographs was undertaken by Lula and Olea Forrest Kirkland during the 1930s. The Kirkland expedition produced beautiful watercolors of the Fate Bell pictographs, but the public did not see much of this work until The Rock Art of Texas Indians, by Kirkland and W. W. Newcomb, Jr., was published in 1967. When acquired by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the rock art was documented in detail using stereophotogrammetric methods, regular photography, and artistic renderings. These and Kirkland's original drawings are now maintained at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin. As part of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, the site is open to the public on a limited basis.