Archaeologists work to gather data from fading rock art sites

4:57 p.m Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 Travel
Francesca Vega, an intern at Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center, visits the White Shaman rock art site near the Pecos River in South Texas on July 18. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

High above the Pecos River, archaeologist Jessica Lee points out the muted colors of human, animal and otherworldly creatures that make up a faded mural spanning 24 feet along a rocky overhang.

A white-robed figure with arms stretched wide, a deer with a full set of antlers, and elaborately squiggled lines in black, red, yellow and white all brighten the stony recess within view of the Highway 90 bridge west of Del Rio.

This detailed panel, which experts believe was painted 2,000 years ago, is one of more than 350 known examples of rock art in Val Verde County. Another, the Fate Bell Shelter at nearby Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Area, depicts elaborately dressed figures, some holding darts, sticks and atlatls.

But like all of the ancient artwork in the area, rain and high humidity are slowly erasing these murals. Floods in 2008 and 2014 washed tree branches and debris into some of the sites. Receding muddy water left silt lines on others. Everywhere, limestone is gradually flaking away, taking with it stories of the ancient people who lived here.

That’s why the Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center in Comstock has launched a four-year effort, dubbed the Alexandria Project, to gather baseline data about the artwork before it disappears. Researchers are working with private land owners to gain access to sites to snap detailed photos, record GPS coordinates and gather information for three-dimensional models that can be studied by scholars long after the artwork has deteriorated. They are creating an online library of rock art.

“When we realized this kind of information could be lost, we decided we needed to quickly catalog and digitize it,” says Lee, executive director of Shumla, a nonprofit organization founded by Carolyn Boyd in 1998 to preserve the narrative murals of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. “After that, we’ll apply full documentation effort to the sites in eminent danger.”

Boyd, who now serves as an endowed research professor at Texas State University, recently released a book titled “The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative” ($75, University of Texas Press), which interprets the story behind the White Shaman mural.

The Pecos River-style rock art found here dates back 2,000 to 4,000 years and features multicolored motifs that exhibit symmetry, color balance and artistic convention. Many of the symbols and characters depicted on the White Shaman mural appear on other rock art murals around South Texas and in Mexico. Shumla archaeologists say together the panels are changing long-held beliefs about ancient hunter-gatherer societies.

“The rock art in Texas is some of the most sophisticated and intricate of anywhere in the world,” says Karen Steelman, research director at Shumla. “The idea that it was complex, and that it was planned, shows that (people) were communicating their beliefs. It’s mind-blowing. These were people who had the same brains that put man on the moon. They lived here, they cried, they had emotions.”

“It wasn’t just graffiti,” Lee says.

The Alexandria Project will cost $3 million. Shumla has hired two staff archaeologists to help with the work. So far, donors have raised about $600,000.

Earlier this year, researchers used a $15,000 grant from the National Geographic Society to test their data collection methods at 10 sites. On Aug. 1 they launched three years of intense field work. Before they finish, they’ll gather data from more than 300 locations, many of them on private land long protectively hidden by its owners.

“Shumla has honed a specific way to fully document each site, down to sand grains,” Lee says. That painstaking level of documentation, though, takes time the researchers may not have. That’s why they’re collecting baseline data first, then returning for more in-depth studies. “We realized we weren’t going to be able to document fully, one by one, under threat of destruction.”

Data will be stored at Shumla’s headquarters in Comstock so future scholars can study it long after the art has faded.

“We’re now able to preserve these rock art sites in digital form, forever,” says staff archaeologist Jerod Roberts, explaining how computer programs can make the artwork more visible by highlighting different colors. “It’s a perfect look into the past.”

Researchers at Shumla are applying scientific, analytical methods to their studies. Using digital microscopy, they can tell what order the paint was laid: Black first, then red, then yellow and finally white. They believe the White Shaman mural was likely painted within a weeklong span.

“(The murals) would have been vibrant, almost like billboards,” Steelman says.

The archaeologists hope their research will help answer lingering puzzles about the people who painted the murals, including why they apparently disappeared from the area about 1,000 years ago. Similar imagery is found in Mexico, so some archaeologists speculate that the groups could have moved south or at some point split in two.

“Was this a place people came to gather? Was this sacred place?” Steelman says. “We have a million research questions.”

The good news? Once the data is digitally preserved, archaeologists won’t have to immediately answer all those questions. That work can unfold in its own time.

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