American Indian Rock Art

By: Melinda Arceneaux Wickman

Revised by: Laurie E. Jasinski

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: April 20, 2021


American Indian rock art, consisting of pictographs (drawings or paintings) and petroglyphs (carvings) made by American Indians—both prehistoric and historic—exists in more than 320 known sites in Texas. The rock art is usually found on cave walls, in natural rockshelters along rivers or streams, or on ledges and cliff faces. There are probably a great number of sites that have not been discovered, but those examined, many containing numerous paintings or engravings, represent a wide variety of styles in different locations, reflecting many divergent American Indian cultures. The earliest organized studies of rock art in Texas began in the 1930s. Archeologist A. T. Jackson studied American Indian rock art throughout the state for eight years and published an extensive record titled Picture-Writing of Texas Indians (1938). From 1934 to 1942 artist Olea Forrest Kirkland and his wife Lula visited about eighty sites and copied in watercolors various examples of rock art. Rock-art sites have been found near known American Indian campgrounds; others have been found in isolated, remote areas, seemingly far from ancient or modern settlements. The artwork ranges in size from one inch to eighteen feet in height and is found anywhere from the ground level to many feet above ground. Some paintings were drawn in places that could only have been reached with the use of scaffolding of some sort. Pigments were made from powdered minerals, sometimes mixed with animal fats, and consisted largely of earth tones. Black and red were the most commonly used colors, but white, yellow, orange, and brown were also used, sometimes singly but most often in combination. Subjects ranged from the whole human figure or just hands or feet, to animals of all kinds-deer, mountain lions, buffalo, snakes, and birds. Sun symbols, various kinds of weather, trees, weapons, and geometric shapes were also drawn. In later times Spanish and other non-American Indian figures were pictured. The purposes or meanings in the drawings cannot be positively determined, but some are clearly religious or ceremonial in nature, depicting what appear to be images of shamans. Some obviously show events occurring in a tribe or in the life of an individual, often hunting or warfare. Maps, dancing scenes, and tallies of some sort are recorded, as are stories or myths, and a few scenes appear to be intentionally humorous.

Only one region in Texas exemplifies a rock-art tradition among one group of American Indians over an extended period of time. Here, at the junction of the Pecos River with the Rio Grande, and the Devils River with the Rio Grande in Val Verde County, the collection of rock art known as the Lower Pecos River Style suggests an indigenous effort. The collection of paintings shows a beginning and development, a slow refining in style, and an eventual dying out—all in a geographically limited area that was seemingly isolated from outside artistic influences. Evidences of human habitation in the area date back perhaps 10,000 years. It is estimated that the full range of styles of rock art along the Lower Pecos—including and beyond the Lower Pecos River Style—was done from between 3000 to 2000 B.C. to about A.D. 1880. The Pecos River Style per se falls in the period of 2000 to 1000 B.C. These pictographs are considered to be among the finest in the world and constitute possibly the largest collection of pictographs in North America. The pictographs of the Lower Pecos River have been categorized into several distinctive styles. The Archaic-age Pecos River Style generally consists of scenes incorporating several colors and depicting stylized figures as well as humans. The Red Linear Style of the Late Archaic Period is characterized by very small dark red pictographs, often depicting humans as stick figures. The Red Monochrome Style of the Late Prehistoric Period incorporates red, reddish-orange, and yellow colors and depicts solid human and animal figures. The Historic Style is the most recent form, and drawings in this style show European influence.

Farther west, in El Paso County, the rock art in Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site reflects a completely different culture. Though not unified in a distinctive style, these paintings, found in centuries-old natural cisterns, show the influence of the forebears of the Puebloan Indians (who lived in Arizona and New Mexico, but whose influence reached into far western Texas). Paintings similar to those at Hueco Tanks can be found in the Texas Panhandle in at least three locations: at Alibates Creek, near Palo Duro Canyon, and around the Canadian River valley at Rocky Dell in Oldham County. Characteristic subjects of paintings at these sites are masks, shield figures, and blanket designs, probably painted by the Mescalero Apache Indians between A.D. 900 and 1500, though influenced by the older Puebloan culture.

There are numerous other rock-art sites across Texas, but the work seems not to be the result of any consistent rock-art heritage such as that found in the Pecos River and Puebloan pictograph sites. Many are more recent works and are possibly the result of the influence of the ancient art on later American Indians. Paintings are found throughout the Big Bend area, for instance, that are not related to the Pecos River Style. Among the Big Bend sites are Rock Pile Ranch, Fort Davis, Lewis Canyon (the one site that is mostly petroglyphs), Study Butte, and Comanche Springs. Other places where rock paintings have been found include Nolan County, Winkler County, Paint Rock (near the Concho River in northern Concho County), and Lehmann Rock Shelter (northwest of Fredericksburg). Most of these rock-art sites cannot be attributed to any one American Indian group, and probably the drawings were done or added to by many different individuals. The paintings and petroglyphs vary in age; some are estimated to be thousands of years old, while others date only from the 1700s and 1800s and are of Plains origins. In some cases the figures represented are an indication of the relative age of the rock art. For example, the absence or inclusion of horses, guns, missions, and White men (and the sequence in which they appear) helps in dating the relatively modern drawings. These more recent drawings, however—which are often mixed in with the older work—along with vandalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, have made age determinations more difficult.

Vandalism and natural weathering of the rock are two of the most common causes of rock-art deterioration. Also, the impoundment of Amistad Reservoir in 1968 inundated an unknown number of important paintings as well as many other significant archeological sites. A secondary effect of reservoir construction was the accessibility it granted to sites previously protected by the rugged terrain of the Lower Pecos River and the Rio Grande. In the 1990s the emphasis on the recording and interpretation of rock art expanded to include conservation and public education. The call for preservation, first voiced by A. T. Jackson and Forrest Kirkland in the 1930s, had been reiterated over the years, but only tentative recommendations were generated by the Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site master plan. In 1991 a group of concerned private citizens formed the nonprofit Rock Art Foundation, Incorporated, to forward the goals of preservation, public education, and research. A program of site management, restoration, and protection was launched in 1995 on the Pecos River, and that testing of methods and techniques will last well into the twenty-first century. At the same time, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department initiated a graffiti-eradication program at Hueco Tanks. The burgeoning interest in rock art saw an increase in volunteer participation in its preservation, including the formation of a recording task group within the Texas Archeological Society.

In 1998 Carolyn E. Boyd, an artist who had recently received her doctorate in archeology, founded the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center. Located in Comstock, the center is dedicated to preserving “the oldest ‘books’ in North America,” specifically, the rock art of the canyonlands of the Lower Pecos River region, through the mission of “archaeological research, heritage preservation, community outreach and education.” In 2012 Shumla launched the Border Canyonlands Archaeological Project, a five-year effort to document “some of the most complex and most endangered mural sites in the region.” In 2017 the center began its Alexandria Project (a name that paid homage to the Old World’s Alexandria Library and its place in the preservation and subsequent loss of untold countless historical and literary archives) to document 225 known sites of the Lower Pecos in four years and then expand that documentation to all sites.

In recent decades a number of important publications have detailed the sites and studies of rock art in Texas. In 1967 The Rock Art of Texas Indians presented the first opportunity for the interested public to see Forrest Kirkland's watercolor renditions of the rock art, now curated at the Texas Memorial Museum. The accompanying commentary by W. W. Newcomb, Jr., was a landmark interpretive study that first suggested that the Pecos River-Style pictographs were shamanic art. Subsequently, Ancient Texans: Rock Art and Lifeways along the Lower Pecos (1986) offered a sampling of photographer Jim Zintgraff's massive collection of color prints from the Pecos area. Text by Harry Shafer and a number of contributing authors provided a detailed description of the material culture and art. A revised version, Painters in Prehistory: Archeology and Art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, was published in 2013. Jim Zintgraff and Solveig Turpin then collaborated on Pecos River Rock Art: A Photographic Essay (1991), a larger sample of Zintgraff's works as interpreted by Turpin in the context of a widespread religious tradition. This hypothesis was further developed in Shamanism and Rock Art in North America (1994), edited by Turpin and published by the Rock Art Foundation. In the twenty-first century Carolyn Boyd wrote Rock Art of the Lower Pecos (2003) and The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos (2016). 

The Witte Museum in San Antonio developed a permanent exhibit devoted to the rock art and its context. For the museum’s major renovation, in 2017 the Witte presented its new permanent exhibit People of the Pecos, which featured three galleries and their related labs. That same year, the Rock Art Foundation officially transferred it properties and administration to the Witte, including the foundation’s ownership of the White Shaman Preserve, located west of Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site. The Witte subsequently offered Rock Art Foundation guided tours to rock art sites.

Articles and reports on rock art from the Big Bend, the Panhandle, the Lower Pecos, and other areas of Texas have been featured at professional meetings and made available to the public in magazines, journals, newspapers, and television documentaries. Guided tours of selected rock-art sites are available at Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, Hueco Tanks, Devils River State Natural Area, and Big Bend Ranch State Park, all managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, as well as through the Witte Museum and Shumla. Effective January 13, 2021, the Lower Pecos Canyonlands Archaeological District, which included thirty-five representative sites, was designated a National Historic Landmark. This milestone was achieved by the work of Shumla in conjunction with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and National Park Service.

See also PREHISTORY, ALIBATES FLINT QUARRIES, ANTELOPE CREEK PHASE, FATE BELL SHELTER, PANTHER CAVE SITE, RATTLESNAKE CANYON, and SEMINOLE CANYON.

Marjorie Valentine Adams, "Pictographs on the Pecos: Our Disappearing Indian Art," Texas Parade, March 1955. Austin American-Statesman, June 11, 1994. Carolyn E. Boyd, Rock Art of the Lower Pecos (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003). Carolyn E. Boyd, The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016). Campbell Grant, Rock Art of the American Indian (New York: Crowell, 1967). A. T. Jackson, Picture Writing of Texas Indians (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1938). Forrest Kirkland and W. W. Newcomb, Jr., The Rock Art of Texas Indians (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967; 1996). Lower Pecos Canyonlands (online exhibit), Texas Beyond History (https://texasbeyondhistory.net/pecos/), accessed April 17, 2021. Rock Art Foundation White Shaman Preserve of the Witte Museum, The Witte (https://www.wittemuseum.org/rock-art/), accessed April 17, 2021. Harry J. Shafer, ed., Painters in Prehistory: Archaeology and Art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2013). Harry Shafer and Jim Zintgraff, Ancient Texans: Rock Art and Lifeways along the Lower Pecos (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1986). Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center (https://shumla.org/), accessed April 17, 2021. Victor J. Smith, "Indian Pictographs of the Big Bend in Texas," in Publications of the Texas Folk-Lore Society, ed. J. Frank Dobie (Austin, 1923).

Categories:

  • Archeology
  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Visual Arts
  • Genres and Media

Time Periods:

  • Prehistory

Places:

  • Hill Country and Edwards Plateau Region
  • Panhandle Region
  • Southwest Texas
  • Trans-Pecos Region
  • West Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Melinda Arceneaux Wickman Revised by Laurie E. Jasinski, “American Indian Rock Art,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/indian-rock-art.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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1976
April 20, 2021

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