There’s no better way to peer into the distant past than to walk into a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, just west of Del Rio. The concave limestone walls are covered in ancient paint. There are over 300 murals, in fact, painted between 5,000 and 1,000 years ago. Now a National Historic Landmark, these Texas murals are on par with the famous paleolithic paintings in the French caves of Lascaux and Chauvet.
Don’t believe me? Ask the French!
Dr. Jean Clottes himself, a prominent French prehistorian, visited Texas and proclaimed, “It is my considered opinion – after having seen rock art on all continents – that the Pecos River rock art is second to none and ranks among the top bodies of rock art anywhere in the world.” That’s right, Texas’s ancient art is up there with the best in the world. You don’t have to get on a plane to see ancient wonders, just hop in the car!
Pecos River Style art is highly complex, multi-colored and often monumental. It takes scaffolding to document and study the paintings, just as it took scaffolding to paint them thousands of years ago. What’s more, the art depicts beliefs and rituals that closely parallel those of the Aztec people who lived in Mexico and Central America long after the art in Texas was painted. Just like an Aztec codex, the Pecos River Style murals are compositions painted to communicate. They are like books. Books we are learning to read.
At Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center (shumla.org), we work to preserve this critically endangered library of ancient “books” through documentation, research, stewardship and education. Shumla founder Dr. Carolyn Boyd, now an endowed professor at Texas State University, and her students are deciphering the meanings of the murals through archaeological science, formal art analysis and indigenous consultation. And archaeological chemist Dr. Karen Steelman uses advanced chemistry and a process called plasma oxidation in her lab at Shumla to study and radiocarbon date the paint.
Everything we discover about the art increases our amazement at the skill of the archaic artists and the richness of their culture and beliefs. But you don’t have to take my word for it. You can come experience the art for yourself! Shumla offers guided treks to rock art sites through our Shumla Treks program. You will trek with a Shumla archaeologist and have the benefit of the 25 years of study and experience as you encounter the mind-blowing art and landscape of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. Our wonderful partners at Seminole Canyon State Park and the Witte Museum also offer rock art tours. Check out the links below to learn more and sign up. This is one library that no one in your family could call boring or stuffy.
Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center
28 Langtry St.
Comstock, TX 78837
Visit the Rock Art with Shumla Treks
Trek itineraries, schedules and registration are available at: shumla.org/shumlatreks
Other Places to See Rock Art in Texas
White Shaman Preserve of the Witte Museum
Situated on the banks of the San Antonio River in Brackenridge Park and established in 1926 with an extensive natural history collection, the Witte Museum has a long history with the Canyonlands of the Lower Pecos. The Witte Museum supported and staffed archeological expeditions throughout Texas in the 1930s. Research, study and excavation in the canyons of the Lower Pecos area and Big Bend region led to important findings and an increase in the Witte’s collections and exhibits. Today, the Witte houses more than 20,000 artifacts from these ancient historic sites and their collections are considered the finest of their kind in the world.
From early Fall to late Spring the Witte provides weekly tours for the public to visit the White Shaman Preserve; public tours to other sites in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands are offered at various times during the year.
A tour of the White Shaman Preserve involves a two-hour trek through a landscape filled with Chihuahuan Desert plants and stunning views of the Pecos River where it converges with the Rio Grande. The Preserve is one of the most remarkable and well-photographed rock art sites in the Lower Pecos. Painted thousands of years ago, the White Shaman mural’s meaning and the techniques used to create it have been the subject of intense scholarly research and many publications. For example, it is one of the most spectacular surviving examples of the use of rare white paint.
Opportunities for other guided visits include the Bonfire Shelter and Eagle Cave, the Meyers Spring, the Halo Shelter and rock art tours on private ranches.
Reservations are required and spaces are limited. Participants must be ages 12 & up. All minors must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
The Witte Museum
3801 Broadway Street
San Antonio, TX 78209
For details on the rock art excursions,
For reservations or questions, call (210) 357-1910.
Hueco Tanks – El Paso
Roughly 30 miles east of El Paso, the Hueco Tanks State Park is a high-altitude desert basin set between the Franklin Mountains and the Hueco Mountains. Hueco is the Spanish word for hollows and refers to the numerous depressions and deep natural cisterns in the boulders and rock faces in the region.
Inhabited for more than 10,000 years, the area has an abundant and varied assortment of pictographs and petroglyphs that provide clues to the activities and lives of those earlier peoples. Images include geometric designs, handprints, birds, horses, dancing figures and more. Hueco Tanks has the largest grouping of “mask” or face design paintings. The Kiowa, Mescalero Apache, Comanche, Tigua and the people of Isleta del Norte Pueblo consider the area to be culturally and spiritually significant.
To protect and preserve this unique area and its fragile resources while also providing public access, park visitation is limited. Guided tours of Hueco Tanks are offered Wednesday through Sunday if a guide is available; reservations must be booked at least a week in advance. Self-guided tours are also available. When planning a trip to Hueco Tanks, be sure to call the state park customer service center to make a reservation and consult the online visitation guidelines and details.
Hueco Tanks State Park
6900 Hueco Tanks Road No. 1
El Paso, TX 79938
Call (512) 389-8911 to reserve a day for your visit.
Before your visit, call (915) 849-6684 to make arrangements for a guided tour.
Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site
Just east of the Pecos River Bridge, Seminole Canyon State Park is located 9 miles west of Comstock on U.S. Hwy 90. Placed near the confluence of the Pecos River with the Rio Grande River, portions of the park are on the Rio Grande River. Seminole Canyon and the state park are named in honor of the U.S.
Army Seminole-Negro Scouts that were stationed at Fort Clark seventy miles to the east. Between 1872 and 1914, the scouts patrolled and worked in the region.
In many of the canyons, erosion over millions of years has carved massive rock overhangs that were used as shelters by past prehistoric inhabitants. According to the park’s interpretive guide, these people “left their mark in several ways, most notably through rock paintings called pictographs. The park contains some of the most outstanding examples not only in Texas, but in the world. Extensive pictographs of the Lower Pecos River Style, attributed to the Middle Archaic period of 4,000 years ago, adorn rock-shelters throughout its canyons.”
In addition to the tours offered by Shumla, the following guided hiking tours to remote rock art sites are available with park rangers: the Fate Bell Shelter Tour; the Presa Day Hike; and the Upper Canyon Hike. When planning a trip to Seminole Canyon State Park, be sure to call the state park customer service center to make a reservation and consult the online visitation guidelines and details.
Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site
P.O. Box 820
Comstock, TX 77837
To guarantee park entry, call (512) 389-8900 to make reservations for your visit.
Jessica Lee Hamlin is the Executive Director of Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center. She earned her B.A. in Archaeology at Texas A&M University, where she studied under Dr. Carolyn Boyd and got a front row seat to the founding of Shumla in 1998. 25 years later her awe and wonder at the art of the Lower Pecos continues to grow.