Saving What You Cannot See

I’d seen pictographs before.  West of Vega at what we call “Paint Rock,” what archaeologists call “Rocky Dell.”  It’s an important pictograph site (pictographs are painted on rocks rather than incised like petroglyphs).  In fact that site is the only Panhandle painted rock site cited in Kirkland’s The Rock Art of Texas Indians (l967), based on field research done in the l930s.

Turns out Kirkland, an artist himself and amateur researcher, made watercolor renderings of other major cites in Texas, the most stunning and prolific in the Lower Pecos River Valley.  Any of us is lucky to have access to the mostly private land in Texas to get a glimpse of cultures who reverenced shamans, anthropomorphs and animals too hang on his every image.  It’s fascinating to think what peoples who lived almost 2000 years before Christ communicated and celebrated–and what might be part of the earliest graphic communications system in North America.

Yet mostly none of us will ever see these sites, maybe only read about them, glimpse their representations in a book like Kirkland’s.  But private citizens like you and me ironically are in charge of their future.  This was brought home to me in a recent communication with a friend from Lubbock, Texas, Carolyn Tate, a recently retired Texas Tech professor who has gotten involved in trying to preserve the Rattlesnake Canyon pictographs, still visible on a 125 foot wide panel underneath a protruding ledge overlooking the Rio Grande.  Because of a gift of land by an alumni in the l980s, Texas Tech University owns Rattlesnake Canyon.  But the land is land-locked, surrounded by another ranch and although Texas law and the stipulations of the deed provide for access, the rancher whose land surrounds Rattlesnake Canyon mostly denies access.

Through the years, the needed research and preservation has gone on sporatically.  Groups like (a rock art preservation and documentation organization) have been on site enough to assemble four huge binders of documentation done in 2015.  Rattlesnake Canyon and other lower Pecos River sites are already on the National Historic Registry and are being touted for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

But another problem presses for immediate action.  Due to flooding along the Rio Grande and Devil’s rivers–flooding which affects the levels of Lake Amistad nearby–water and silt has pushed its way back up the canyons.  Pictographs which were visible at least 25 feet above the water are now only four inches above.  Paint that has lasted 4000 years (perhaps Sherman Williams should try mixing deer bone marrow, yucca root and water for greater longevity of their paints!) will not only soon be flooded but likely will not survive.  And the Shumla research is only 60 percent complete.

Yet the Texas Tech administration has yet to take any action which would solve the access problem or make a decision about selling the land to other entities who could research and protect it.   Texas Tech has an opportunity to be a major player in conservation of ancient sites, this one even attracting the interest and commitment of French specialists to build a replica as they did of Lascaux cave in 2015.  Even the National Park Service has shown interest.

This is where we private citizens come in.  We need to call, write, spread the word, educate others about the existence of and the conditions surrounding Rattlesnake Canyon.  Here’s a Texas site, not a French one–one in our own backyard which gives testimony to early man and culture in Texas.  Some researchers are even on a trail which would connect this culture to Aztecs further explaining the movements of peoples and languages in the Americas.

No we can’t see them in person but here’s how Carolyn describes them in a talk she gave at Texas Tech:  “The Pecos River style of pictographs consists of abstract, human-like figures, some multi-colored and some simply outlined. . .The human figures hold hunting equipment, such as atlatls or spearthrowers, and staff like objects. . . .There are deer and felines, with some birds and canines.  Caterpillars and centipedes appear as well.  Then there are Y and U shapes, dots, amoeba shapes and ladder-like shapes.”

In his film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Werner Herzog was granted access for film-making to a famous but off-limits cave site in France.  His descriptive title suggests not only the possible celebratory and spiritual language of rock art but its subconscious levels as well.

Like what the researchers at the Rattlesnake site discovered–that paint has been applied in layers in a sophisticated way for effect–we may glimpse the internal language of our forebearers, if only by geography, by our shared places, like the subconscious: layered over time.


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