Rock Art Foundation

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

My guest today is Greg Williams, Executive Director of the Rock Art Foundation, which promotes conservation and education about the rock art of the Lower Pecos.  The Rock Art Foundation owns the White Shaman Preserve and offers tours there every Saturday.  To learn more, please see their website at http://www.rockart.org.

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Hi Greg, thank you for being with us today. How long have you been with the Rock Art Foundation (RAF)?

It’s been about 20 years.  I first met Jim Zintgraff in 1993 – I had hired him to do a photo shoot in my business – so it’s been almost 20 years since I first became involved with the RAF.

Jim Zintgraff was a photographer, right?

Yes, he was a commercial photographer in San Antonio.  But in the early 1950s he started photographing rock art west of Del Rio, which was mostly unknown by the general public at the time because it was all on private land.  When the state of Texas decided to build Amistad Dam on the Rio Grande around 1963, Jim was commissioned to document many of the ancient pictographs that would be inundated with the filling of the lake. His images preserve this great legacy from the past.  Later Jim organized the Rock Art Foundation to continue this work.

What do you want the general public to understand about the ancient Image 5paintings in the Lower Pecos?

How important the art was to the people that left their stories for us to consider and what they could mean to us. The people who painted them had to be first concerned with survival in a harsh land but they took time from that to paint their mythology which was as important to them as their survival.

What is the biggest thrill you had with RAF?

Every trip I make to West Texas is a thrill. The country, the archaeology, the modern military and settler history, the tour participants – all are thrilling. Each time. It would be impossible to single out only one. I am as excited every time I go – just like the first trip.

Have you had any close encounters with snakes or other creatures of the wild?

Not many – we travel in a group and make a lot of noise. Most critters are long gone before we get there. It’s very hard to sneak up on a desert creature – most are nocturnal. In 30+ years of being in West Texas I’ve probably seen less that 5 rattlesnakes but we did see a mountain lion a few years ago at Meyers Springs. She was most likely tending to a hurt cub or we would have never seen her.

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

Besides tours of rock art sites in the Lower Pecos, what else does RAF do?

We are currently providing scholarships to the Shumla School in Comstock (associated with Texas State University) and outstanding seniors at the Comstock High School. We work with Landowners assisting in conservation efforts – in a recent example we contracted with Texas Tech University to provide a complete assessment of the prehistoric and historic cultural resources on a West Texas ranch for a new Landowner. The RAF keeps funds in reserve to protect endangered property through acquisition if needed.

We are also involved with restoration efforts on private ranches and are the official “Friends Group” for Seminole Canyon State Park helping them by conducting their weekend tours. The RAF operates a tour guide program with 15 experienced/trained Guides and we work with Landowners to develop access for this program (there is no BLM land in Texas – it’s all private property).

We also assist in research funding helping to defray the cost of field research and assist with publication funding. We have published our own book and CD ROM on Lower Pecos archaeology as well as the development and continued support of our website and have just established an electronic newsletter.

We also stage an annual fundraiser campout, the Rock Art Rendezvous, each October at Image 6the White Shaman Preserve and offer as many tours as possible that weekend. All these efforts are focused toward the preservation through education of the unique world class archaeology in West Texas. Our funding is all provided through private donations. We operate very efficiently – no one in our organization receives a salary.

Any advice for people new to exploring Lower Pecos rock art?

Yes – go to West Texas and listen to the country. Look at what appears around you and sit quietly. Be there at a sunrise, a sunset, sit beside the campfire – it will change you. If you’ve never been there it will introduce you to a part of yourself you didn’t know.

Thanks for being with us today, Greg.

Advertisements

Interview with Scott Walters

WTY Book Cover Photo

My guest today is Scott Walters, author of the young adult novel Woman Too Young of Panther Cave, which is set in the Lower Pecos and available at http://www.archaicindians.us.  More information for teachers and students is available at his companion website  www.archaicindians.net.

Hi Scott.  Tell us a little about Woman Too Young of Panther Cave.

 I wanted the novel to appeal to both boys and girls.  Consequently, the story is told through the eyes of a boy while a girl figures prominently in the decisions he makes.  Had he not met her, his life would have been radically different.

The story begins when Lizard Boy, who is tired of being treated like a child, sets out to prove to his father that he is ready to enter manhood.  At the same time, Woman Too Young, a girl from a rock shelter believed by Lizard Boy’s people to be an evil place, sets out to save her people from starvation.  When their paths collide, Lizard Boy is thrust into a world of chaos and danger.  In this world, he must become a man or die.

In my attempt to make the characters relevant to modern readers, I utilized many elements of human emotion and experience.  Readers of Woman Too Young of Panther Cave will find adventure, mystery, fear, bravery, humor, uncertainty, folly, the sacred, evil, and, of course, love.

The setting is about 3,500 years ago in the Lower Pecos where three surviving paintings provide key components in the plot.

Who is the intended audience?

My initial audience was the class of fifth graders I was teaching at the time I wrote Woman Too Young of Panther Cave.  I wanted to create a compelling story that would engage reluctant readers while including enough depth to challenge the more advanced students.  While writing the novel, however, I decided to set my sights a little higher by crafting a story that would appeal to as many age groups as possible.  Much to my surprise, I have received more comments and notes of appreciation from adults than students.

Why did you decide to write for this age group?

During a time in my life when I had taught at the university level and was about to wrap up my doctoral studies, I developed a passion for teaching children.  Learning to make worthwhile content relevant to young minds turned out to be one of the greatest and most rewarding challenges of my life.  I quickly learned that kids responded with great enthusiasm to truly good stories (not the politically correct stuff in basal readers).  When lessons were accentuated with stories, comprehension and retention went way up.  Over the years, I discovered numerous books that excited kids while teaching them valuable lessons.  While I had written for adults all of my publishing career,  I discovered that stimulating the minds of children intrigued me more.

The writings of Mark Twain served as a model for me and, in turn, had considerable impact on my writing and teaching.  In fact, I used The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to foster a love for reading and to improve comprehension.

Scott and Cassie Walters

Scott and Cassie Walters

What inspired you to write about the people who lived 3,000 to 4,000 years ago in the Lower Pecos?

Thank you for asking, because I love to tell this story.  My wife Cassie has been a catalyst for so many of the pivotal points in my life, including this novel.  In her fourth grade history classes, she used Texas Studies Weekly to make the subject more interesting to her students.  In one of the editions, the Archaic Indians of the Lower Pecos and their paintings were discussed.  One of the articles noted that some of their paintings could still be seen at Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site.  Cassie knew of my interest in Native American culture and history and suggested that we travel to Comstock to take the tour.  Over the years, we had passed by there several times and I never thought of it as anything more than a place to camp in the desert.  How wrong I was!

During our tour of the Fate Bell Shelter I was hooked by what I saw and what I heard from Billie Foster, our tour guide.  As soon as I returned home, I started writing.  In less than a year, the novel had undergone eight rewrites and was completed.

There is a real irony in this story, however.  American Legacy Publishing, the company that publishes Texas Studies Weekly, contacted me because of the novel.  They wanted to update their curriculum and asked that I write their fourth grade lessons.  The publication responsible for introducing Cassie and me to the rock art in the Lower Pecos became my next major writing assignment.

What do you want your readers to learn or feel after reading your book?

Above all, I want them to think that reading my novel was time well spent.  I also hope that my book will help the paintings and archeological discoveries in the Lower Pecos come to life for them.  I think it is vital to remember that the images and artifacts were created by real people who experienced life in ways very familiar to us.

Personally, I think we miss something when our discussion of an ancient people is purely academic.  It’s like reading the label of ingredients on a food product but never bothering to taste it.  In short, the Archaic Indians of the Lower Pecos were much more than the sum total of what they left behind.  While it is impossible to know any of their individual stories, we can easily imagine what life must have been like in their world.  Doing so establishes a commonality that enriches our appreciation for these ancient people and their art.

 How did you go about researching your book?

In addition to reading everything about the Lower Pecos I could find, I spent many hours visiting rock shelters and literally walking the land that serves as the setting for the story.  One moment of tremendous satisfaction came shortly after the book was published.  An archeologist who had worked in the Lower Pecos wrote to tell me that he knew the places I described in many of the scenes and complimented me for my accuracy.  I was humbled, though, when he thanked me for writing a book that appealed to one in his profession.  For that, I have Mark Twain to thank, because his style of writing often appealed to a wide range of ages.

Tell us a little about the workshops you conduct on indigenous archaic life?

Oddly enough, it has been the science community in education that has shown the most interest in my book.  One would naturally expect the social studies teachers to be first in line.  I was initially asked by an innovative consultant at a regional service center if I could introduce teachers to the science employed by ancient people in their quest for survival.  As I prepared for the workshop, I decided to include a discussion of  the science employed by archeologists to learn more about how early people lived.  Consequently, my workshops consist of these two approaches.

Since my first workshop nearly a decade ago, I have made presentations at service centers, school districts, and state-wide conventions.  In the all-day events, we do a lot of activities that teachers can take back to their classrooms.  Some of my workshops include a trip to the Lower Pecos to tour several rock shelters.

What other books have you written?  What is your next project?

My first break in publishing came years ago when I was hired as a television and movie critic for a national journal.  This, however, is where I must admit to a flaw in writing.  When I grew weary of spending hours in movie theaters and on the sofa in front of the television, I began writing novels.  When one was finished, I threw it in the closet and started the next one.  Once again, Cassie saved me from myself by encouraging me to seek a publisher for Woman Too Young of Panther Cave.  To date, it is the only one that has been published.  I received an offer to publish Beyond the Shadow, a time travel novel for young adult readers, but the contract was not a good one, so I turned it down.  My other novels are about the demise of public education in our country.  As for my next project, I am deep into a sequel for Woman Too Young of Panther Cave.  I am also on the verge of seeing if I can find a better contract for Beyond the Shadow.

Thanks for being my guest today, Scott. See you in the desert!

Halo Shelter Paintings

I’ve just returned from another wonderful trip to the Lower Pecos region of south Texas where I had the good fortune of seeing these magnificent ancient paintings.  Their color is vivid even now, 4000 years or more since their creation.  The gold anthropomorph struck me as especially well-preserved. My quivering legs were my souvenir of the rugged climb in and out of the canyon where these paintings are located.  I had to climb straight down–and then straight up– hand over hand on a rope. But luckily not too far.  It was only after we had arrived in the shelter that my guide told me of the rattlesnake that had been there a few days before.

Do not attempt to find these paintings yourself.  They are on private land with no roads.  But do find amazement in what the ancient people who came before us thought, created, and left for us to ponder. No doubt these figures express profound stories and understandings of the world that we may never fully comprehend.

Yet they tell us of their lives and dreams, their gods and heroes, their world and ours.

If you do have the privilege  of seeing such rock art with your own eyes, I hope you will do everything you can to protect it as the world treasure it is.

36 Hours in the Lower Pecos

The Lower Pecos region in south Texas doesn’t look like much as you drive west on highway 90 from Del Rio.  Dry, dull grey or brown, nothing but creosote and cactus.  Even Lake Amistad, built by damming the Rio Grande, looks like dry bones after years of severe drought. Long distance trucks fly by without a glance on their way to El Paso or LA.  But with over 300 aboriginal petroglyph sites deep in the canyons, this hidden gem holds wonders topped by nothing else in the world, much less in North America.

Rugged canyons protect world-class rock art from over 4000 years ago.  Most of these treasures of human creation are on private property with no public access.  But several sites are owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Rock Art Foundation, which offer tours for the adventurous to selected  locations.

Del Rio, Texas, makes a good base for a visit, with plenty of cheap hotels, restaurants, and bars. Just a short drive away a new world opens up, when you take the time to see.

Friday  6 p.m.

1. Fortifying Your Belly

Have dinner  at Wright’s Steak House, a family-owned spot in business more than 30 years.  The bartender/owner will make you a margarita to soothe your soul, or anything else you like from the full bar.  Order the fried onion rings as an appetizer for about $5.95, but don’t bother asking for a half-order.  They just won’t do it.  You’ll be delighted with the towering plate of golden rings anyway, and they are perfect for sharing with four people.  Excellent steaks are $15-25.00, with full salad bar and vegetables of the day. Be sure to see the year-round Christmas tree. It had big pastel bows, silk  flowers,  and colored Easter grass the last time I was there.  Live music on weekends. Wright’s is located about 8 miles west of Del Rio on highway 90.

 Saturday, 9:00 a.m.

2. Prepping Your Senses and Sensibilities

Leave Del Rio about 9:00 and drive about 60 miles west of Del Rio on Highway 90 to Langtry, population 30, clinging to a spectacular golden side canyon on the Rio Grande. Visit the Chihuahuan desert botanical garden at the Texas Highway Department Visitor Center to learn about the many uses of desert plants.  Then wander through the Judge Roy Bean Saloon and Opera House. Judge Roy Bean billed himself as the “Law West of the Pecos” in the 1880s-90s, and was infatuated with the English singer Lily Langtry, thus the name.

The Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway used to stop here to take on more fuel and water.  A small community grew up around the stop to service the train, and a few people took up ranching on the side. Judge Roy Bean ran the saloon and served as Justice of the Peace.  He also sponsored boxing matches and kept a pet bear.

Drive down the streets in Langtry to see the crumbling adobe ruins from over 100 years ago.    The old white school house from the 1920s now serves as the community center.   That and the church where services are held about once every three weeks are all that remain of the village.  Drive to the end of the pavement, and proceed carefully on the gravel road to glimpse the majestic canyon.  You will need four-wheel drive to go very far, so take it easy. Prepare to leave Langtry by 11:15 for the drive back east on highway 90. Just before you cross a little bridge that says “Eagle Nest”, pull off on the wide shoulder.

Take a good look at the canyon in front of you.  Turn your head slightly to the right to see a cleft in the canyon edge across from you, and a big tumbled rock pile.  That is Bonfire shelter, location of several spectacular bison jumps during the past 10,000 years. Do not even think of going down there.  It is private property (patrolled by shotgun) and extremely dangerous. Instead, read all about it at www.texasbeyondhistory.net/bonfire/index.html.

As soon as you cross the Pecos River high bridge, turn left into the White Shaman Preserve. Stop at the gate if it is not open and wait for the guide.

12:00 noon

3. White Shaman Shelter

Arrive White Shaman Preserve gate by noon. Eat the sandwiches and apples you brought and put on your hiking boots, preferably  with two pairs of socks.  Slather on the sunscreen and bug spray. Adjust your hiking sticks.  Get your hat and sunglasses, and pack plenty of water. Tours start promptly at 12:30 every Saturday, no reservations needed.  Donations of $20 cash per person are appropriate.

White Shaman Preserve is owned by the Rock Art Foundation (www.rockart.org), which vigilantly protects the property. The ancient rock art here is world-famous, and justly so. New research is currently on the verge of breaking the iconographic  code to understand what the artists from long ago were telling us in this panel.

An informed guide leads each tour.  The climb down into and up out of the canyon is moderately steep, and it can be very hot.  It is not recommended for those in poor health or with mobility issues.  The tour generally takes about two and one-half hours.

4:00 p.m.

4. Cool off in the Pool

This being hot desert country, almost any Del Rio hotel you stay in will have a pool.  The Ramada Inn’s two pools (indoor and outdoor) and three hot tubs are highly recommended.  Plunge into the cool water to lower your body temperature, then soak your bones in a hot tub.  Your muscles will thank you. Next, time for a nap in your dark air-conditioned room.

7:00 p.m.

5. Dinner Again at Wright’s

This is the best place to eat I have found in Del Rio.  Try the chicken fried steak with real homemade mashed potatoes and gravy or the  16 oz. garlic encrusted ribeye.  Really good. They also have fish, quail, and frog legs.

If it is dark when you come out, and the sky is clear, look up.  The Milky Way spreads out like heaven itself here in the desert. Better yet, drive further out of town and find a side road to park on.  Then stretch out on the hood of your car and drink in the night sky.

Sunday

8:00 a.m.

6. Canyon of the Winged Anthropomorphs

Leave Del Rio by 8:00 a.m. for the 40 mile drive west on highway 90 to Seminole Canyon State Park (432-292-4464). Pay your entrance fee and tour fee of about $8.00 per person.  Wander the small but well done museum that explains human life from the  Paleolithic era to the present in this area. Listen to the explanation of rock art and watch the informative video while overlooking the canyon.  Put on your hiking boots, etc., use the restroom, and meet on the back deck at 9:55 for the tour to Fate Bell Shelter. Entrance to the canyon is by guided tour only.

Tours leave Wednesday-Sunday at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. from September through May, and 10:00 a.m. only June through August. If you are lucky you will get an informed guide, but sometimes you get an intern that is pretty green, so you never know.  The hike in and especially out is moderately strenuous and very hot. Carry water with you. Do not put your hands and feet anywhere you cannot see, i.e. in rock crevices.  That’s where rattlesnakes like to hang out.

You will see two rock shelters on this tour, the largest of which is named Fate Bell, for the rancher who once owned the property.  Fate Bell is a huge rock shelter where 30 people or more could have lived comfortably.  And live they did, as evidenced by the sotol matting still visible in the disturbed cave dust floor.  Stay on the rubber mats put down by the park service at all times in order to prevent further damage. Flint flakes are everywhere on the floor as well, but do not be tempted to take them with you.  Look but don’t touch.  Please.

Fate Bell shelter is inspiring now, and must have been almost overpowering 4000 years ago.  Notice how the paint goes all the way down below the current floor level.  It probably continues down several feet, but we may never know, as any archeological digging would likely destroy the art that can be seen today.  It’s a real dilemma that frustrates many a concerned person.  The paintings cover the entire expanse in this shelter, so look carefully as you go. 

The brightest and best preserved grouping is the “winged shaman” at the left end of the shelter.  No one really knows their meaning, but they are powerful images, nonetheless.

12:00 noon

7. The Joy of Running Water

When the tour is over, you will likely be covered in sweat, so drive up to the campground and take a shower to cool off.  Hot and cold running, courtesy of the Texas state parks. Put on clean clothes. Believe me, you will feel much better.  Then eat the sandwiches you brought (you did, didn’t you?) and drink plenty of liquid. This is the time for that bottle of Gatorade.

1:00 p.m.

8. Pecos River Overlook

Leave Seminole Canyon State Park and turn left onto, you guessed it, highway 90.  Within about 2 miles you will see a sign for a scenic overlook.  Turn left there and wind around past the old mobile homes.  You will come to a roadside park with a magnificent overlook of the Pecos River.  The view is spectacular.  Look far to the left to see the conjunction of the Pecos and the Rio Grande.  From here, it’s time for the journey home, or to continue on your way.  Happy Highways!

If You Go

The Ramada Inn Del Rio, 2101 Veteran’s Blvd (aka highway 90), 78840, 830-775-1511, www.ramadinndelrio.com is a good hotel with two swimming pools, three hot tubs, an excellent gym, dining room, etc.  A room with two queen beds is about $60.00 per night.  There are many other inexpensive motels along this strip, as well as lots of chain eateries.  The Wal-Mart is one of the best-supplied I’ve ever seen, and is great for that forgotten sunscreen or hat.

Hands Across Time

Human beings have lived in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands  over 10,000 years, without doubt.    Over 350 generations of people–grandparents, parents, children– lived their lives around  these canyons and created cultures we will never fully understand.

Although handprints are not common in Lower Pecos rock art, a small group of people pressed  their hands on the wall of a limestone cliff to reach out, to communicate in some way.  What do they say to us today?

We can postulate various reasons why someone would smear red ochre on his or her hand and push it against the rock.  Maybe they were just having fun, joshing and joking around.  Maybe they were marking a particular spot that was important to them.  Maybe they were shaking their fists at the gods.  Maybe they were sealing a pact to undertake some serious business.   Maybe they were the only ones left after a catastrophic event: the only survivors. Or maybe they were just saying “Joe was here.” 

As you can see in the picture above, the handprints are much higher up the wall than an average person could reach.  And people were shorter back then as well. So whoever left these images for us had to go to considerable trouble, probably building a scaffold of some kind, to do this.  Perhaps  this is no different from tagging water towers and other impossible places today.  Are they marking territory?  If so, why aren’t there hundreds of handprints throughout the Lower Pecos?  The fact is, there are only a few known.

Yet they do speak to us, on a very emotional, human level. They tell us somebody was here long before us, living in ways we can barely fathom. Joe, or Jose, or Hwaxti, he was here all right.