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Solveig Turpin

Native Texan cultures painted or carved art on the rocks at thousands of sites across southwestern portions of Texas. Much of the art is concentrated in the canyons of the lower Pecos River, but much more is found from Big Bend to the mountains near El Paso, at the western tip of the state. Dr. Solveig Turpin, who has retired from The University of Texas at Austin,  is a leader in the study of Texas rock art, and has visited and catalogued scores of sites. She also is a founder of the Rock Art Foundation, which is preserving Texas rock art.

What are some of the leading Texas rock-art sites with possible astronomical connections?

One recently studied site is called Lewis Canyon. It’s on the Pecos River, about 30 miles above its intersection with the Rio Grande, near the town of Comstock. It started with Forrest Kirkland, who recorded a number of glyphs at the site [in the 1930s and ’40s]. But additional work started in 1990, and we found a number of glyphs that Kirkland hadn’t recorded. We’ve gone twice a year since then, and we’re still finding more.

Astronomers have looked at the site, and they see possible “star maps” in some of the petroglyphs. The glyphs are all pecked into the flat bedrock surface, so the viewer was looking at them from above. These could be native constellations. I think the connection is a little weak. I’m not saying that these couldn’t be drawings of the stars. But there’s a difference between just observing what’s around you, which was probably what happened here, and actually being an astronomer -- using the stars in some way to track the seasons or guide you on your travels.

A site called Myers Springs has pictures of Suns, and maybe comets or falling stars. The Suns are typical Plains Indian Sun symbols. They might be related to the practice of astronomy, but we have no ethnography on the site -- no record of their views of the cosmos. The only records we have are from the early Spaniards, who were trying to make the Indians look as bad as they could.

Hunters and gatherers probably didn’t stay in the same place long enough to make a record of solstice or equinox markers. Except for noting the cardinal directions -- north, south, east, west -- it was probably too difficult for them to have accurate calendar markers. They probably had constellations, but they didn’t have math.

But there are some pretty convincing images of seasonal markers at Paint Rock. These were probably displaced Plains Indians coming in with a complete system of beliefs about the sky.

What about the rock art of the Lower Pecos?

There are probably 300 rock-art sites in the Lower Pecos, and that probably represents about 25 percent of everything that was ever painted. There’s a lot of erosion, so we’ve lost a lot. There probably are still a lot of undocumented sites, but the real treasure trove is probably in the mountains of Mexico.

The first art we see in the Lower Pecos are small painted pebbles. The oldest are probably 7,000 years old.

As far as we can tell, the great paintings started around 4,000 years ago, although there’s no means of getting absolute dates of these sites.

The paintings are highly structured religious art. To me, they’re the oldest ritual religious artworks in the world. They are elaborate figures done in multiple colors. The biggest is 12 feet tall.

The population density in this area rose because upland water sources dried up, and the bulk of the people stayed along the rivers. With more and more people crammed into the area, you needed a system that offered some structure to the society. And you needed an authority figure. The cardinal rule is that if you get more than six or seven people together, you can’t reach consensus, so you need social structure and ranking. So there was probably a rise of some kind of officialdom. There were shamans who supposedly had the ability to contact the spirit world.

Bill Newcomb [former director of the Texas Memorial Museum and author of The Indians of Texas] explained it in terms of “medicine” societies. Groups got together, and rock art was part of their ritual. They portrayed a shamanistic universe that confirmed the power of the leaders. There was a communal, organized world view. People met every year, so they might have needed a rough calendar, which means they used a rough astronomy. There could have been something in the sky that told them, “It’s time for the big meeting at Rattlesnake Canyon.”

Tom Campbell, in 1958, suggested that the paintings were the product of a mescal bean cult. The beans aren’t hallucinogenic, but they put you in a stupor. And today, Carolyn Boyd thinks they were peyote visions. It’s immaterial how they got into a trance; we just believe that they had some vehicle for getting into a trance state and commune with the spirits. This was a sort of supernatural astronomy -- a layered universe. The shamans had to go through a “hole” in the universe, which is depicted in the paintings as a circle with matter streaming out of it and the shaman falling into it. It’s a picture of their cosmos, their view of the universe.

When were the last works of rock art in this region created?

We don’t know how long people painted these big, early artworks. It could have been a couple of hundred years. About 3,000 years ago, the climate changed. It probably disrupted the local society, and the people may have retreated into New Mexico.

Then a different kind of painting came in. Instead of the grandiose, “I’m the guy who can talk to the spirits,” the pictures are all only about two or three inches tall. They’re little guys with staffs, pregnant women, little dogs. They’re funny little things. But it looks like they went to great lengths to use the old paintings without defacing them. It’s as though they recognized the power of the ancients.

Around A.D. 1000-1200, the Lower Pecos starts sharing the rock-art style with the Big Bend. We see pictures of people, about four feet tall, done in red monochrome. They’re carrying bows and arrows, and there are naturalistic animals -- turkeys, deer, dogs.

Dr. Solveig Turpin is a Texas rock art researcher in Austin.

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