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Spirit of the Stone

Once I passed Lake Amistad, northwest of Del Rio, traffic on US 90 thinned out across the spare desert scenery. My fellow travelers—18-wheelers and perhaps tourists bound for the Davis Mountains or Big Bend National Park—continued the gradual climb toward the mountains of the Trans-Pecos. I turned off just before the high bridge over the Pecos River and veered onto backroads to view some of the oldest and best-preserved rock art in North America.

Myriad pictographs in the Pecos River style adorn Rattlesnake Canyon, a side canyon of the Rio Grande.

Archeologists call this area the Lower Pecos—where the Pecos, Devils, and Rio Grande rivers form Lake Amistad. Eons of wind and water carved myriad canyons out of the undulating plateau. The same natural forces wore away soft layers in the limestone canyon walls to form countless overhangs. For millennia, these rock-shelters provided living quarters and ceremonial sites for prehistoric peoples.

On the floors of these spaces, the ancients left startling reminders of themselves—handwoven baskets and sandals, tools, cooking and trash pits, graves, and pebbles painted with geometric patterns. They also left fantastic pictographs—paintings on rock—covering the rock-shelters’ walls.

Some of the paintings depict simplified animal figures: deer, mountain lions, turkeys, rabbits, turtles, and birds. Others show strange, ghostly human figures with outstretched arms holding a staff or spear-like atlatl. Their long, rectangular bodies sometimes have no discernible heads, or sometimes have faceless heads of feathered birds or horned deer. Hair-like or fringe-like lines often radiate from the anthropomorphic beings.

These fanciful figures grace some 300 known rock-art sites within a 50-mile radius of Lake Amistad. Hundreds more may lie undiscovered or unreported in the rugged backcountry.

Rock-art pilgrims from around the world come here posing the same questions: Who were these aboriginal artists, and what do their mysterious murals mean?

Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site is 40 miles west of Del Rio on US 90. Interpretive center exhibits open daily 8-5. Guided tours of Fate Bell rock-shelter are Wed-Sun at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. On Jan. 29 and Feb. 19, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., a guided tour visits Presa Canyon (strenuous hiking involved). Tours on Jan. 30 and Feb. 20, 8:30 to 11 a.m., cover Upper Canyon’s rock art and 1882 railroad sites. The 2,172-acre park also features improved camping and picnic sites, plus 9 miles of hiking/biking and nature trails. For reservations and fees, call 432/292-4464 (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/seminole). Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept. also offers periodic rock-art tours at Devils River State Natural Area (830/395-2133), Hueco Tanks State Historic Site (915/857-1135), and Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area (432/ 229-3416).

Galloway White Shaman Preserve, operated by the Rock Art Foundation, is approximately 1 mile west of Seminole Canyon State Park on US 90 at the Pecos River Bridge. Guided tours on Sat. at 12:30. Periodic tours also visit another Pecos River rock-shelter (the Lewis Canyon site, featuring rock carvings, or petroglyphs), 4 Devils River pictograph sites, and the Bonfire Shelter near Langtry (foundation membership required). Some tours require high-clearance vehicles. The Rock Art Foundation hosts a Rendezvous each Oct., with camping at White Shaman, rock-art tours, and entertainment. For schedules, reservations, and fees, call 888/525-9907; www.rockart.org.

The visitor information center at Amistad Natl. Recreation Area is 5.5 miles west of Del Rio on US 90 (across from Three Rivers RV Park) and features rock-art exhibits and videos. The center hosts presentations by experts on various topics every 3rd Sat. Call 830/775-7491; www.nps.gov/amis.

Shumla School is 50 miles west of Del Rio on US 90. On Feb. 26, 2005, it hosts “Prehistory on the Pecos,” a full day of rock-art tours, hands-on activities, a barbecue, and a lecture. “The Pecos Experience,” Mar. 6-11, 2005, features rock-art tours, seminars, art study, and nature activities. Shumla also offers educational programs for schools and community groups. For details and directions, call 432/292-4848; www.shumla.org. In mid-Oct., the Shumla School joins Amistad NRA and Del Rio’s Whitehead Memorial Museum in sponsoring the annual Val Verde Co. Archeology Fair, held at the museum (1308 S. Main St.), to celebrate Texas Archeology Month. Call Amistad NRA, 830/775-7491, ext. 223.

Books/Video

Look for the following in your library or bookstore, or online: Rock Art of the Lower Pecos by Dr. Carolyn Boyd (Texas A&M Univ. Press, 2003); Life in a Rock Shelter: Prehistoric Indians of the Lower Pecos by G. Elaine Acker (Hendrick-Long Publishing Co., 1997, appropriate for children); The Rock Art of Texas Indians by Forrest Kirkland and W.W. Newcomb (Univ. of Texas Press, 1967, reissued 1996); Pecos River Rock Art: A Photographic Essay by Jim Zintgraff and Solveig A. Turpin (Sandy McPherson Publishing Co., 1991). The Rock Art Foundation offers an interactive CD-ROM, Rock Art of the Lower Pecos ($25, www.rockart.org).

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