A digital rendering of the White Shaman Mural brings a 4,000-year-old creation story to life, thanks to Carolyn Boyd, founder of Shumla, and her colleagues. Credit: Courtesy / Carolyn Boyd

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Diana Rolón is an archaeologist from Mexico City. During a 2018 visit to the remote Texas borderlands, she saw ancient murals painted on the limestone walls and “fell in love” with the “gorgeous, complex paintings.”

She noticed something else: The human and animal figures in the paintings reminded her of images painted by other cultures indigenous to Mexico and Latin America. In October, she moved to the tiny town of Comstock near the Texas-Mexico border west of Lake Amistad in Val Verde County – population 190 – to begin a research project tracing the common connections between depictions of felines in Texas rock art and the symbols and stories of other ancient peoples.

“The paintings are talking about complex ancestor stories,” Rolón said in an interview earlier this month. “Nothing is arbitrary. Every detail was painted with intention to communicate something.”

Archaeologists like Rolón are trying to determine what people who lived in the area between 4,200 and 1,500 years ago were communicating with their elaborate paintings in red, black, white, and yellow. Shumla, a Comstock-based nonprofit focused on locating, studying and preserving the rock art of the lower Pecos River region, has created a virtual library to help researchers interpret the ancient art, much of it located in rough, inaccessible terrain or on private ranchlands.

Launched in 2017, the Alexandria Project is a detailed digital archive of 233 rock art sites in the limestone canyonlands carved by the Pecos and Devils rivers and the Rio Grande. In December, Shumla leaders declared an end to the project’s first phase, having documented every accessible site in the region.

Last year, the National Park Service granted the Lower Pecos canyonlands National Historic Landmark status, an achievement Shumla staff have sought since 2015. The recognition acknowledges the importance of the region and its archaeological sites but doesn’t grant any federal ownership or regulation over the sites, according to Jessica Hamlin, Shumla’s director.

A trove of visual data

With these milestones complete, Shumla’s main focus shifts to curating the massive amounts of data and making it available for researchers such as Rolón.

“Our biggest hope is that people will get so excited about this archive that they will just come out of the woodwork and come up with research questions,” Hamlin said. “You could study this endlessly.”

Hamlin said she hopes the digital archive introduces other archaeologists and the broader public to their library of rock art. Most of the sites are on private land and many require hiking into remote areas. Researchers know roughly 100 more sites exist on the Texas side of the U.S.-Mexico border, with an untold number of sites in the Mexican state of Coahuila still undocumented.

“Unless you have all of the equipment we have and the relationships with landowners that we have … you cannot get to them,” Hamlin said. “This gives people the opportunity to really study these sites in a way that’s almost like being there.”

Access to the Mexico sites is an even greater challenge than the one posed by the inaccessible terrain. Drug cartels operate with near-freedom along the Mexican side of the border, making security a significant concern for any outsiders venturing in, even those doing archeological research.

Shumla has already posted some of the images and virtual models online, but gaining access to the whole dataset will require partnering with Texas State University in San Marcos, Hamlin said. Texas State archaeology professor Carolyn Boyd founded Shumla in 1998 and continues to serve as its vice president and head of research, including working with Rolón on her postdoctoral research studying the hidden meanings of the symbols.

The Alexandria Project contains a staggering amount of visual data. The three-dimensional models, panoramic images, and supporting photos take up more than 25 terabytes, according to Shumla. For scale, that’s the equivalent amount of storage of 425,000 hours – 48½ years worth – of digital audio. The plan is to allow future researchers to visit Texas State’s Center for Archaeological Studies and pore through the archives for up to months at a time, Hamlin said.

Shumla Founder Carolyn Boyd at work at White Shaman Mural in 1989. Credit: Courtesy / Shumla Archeological Research and Education Center

“How do we share this with all the different professions and perspectives in the world that want to study this?” said Tim Murphy, who helps lead the team that visited the sites one-by-one to gather photos and digital scans.

Climbing through brush and cactus

Murphy, a northern California native, is an archaeologist originally trained in the study of stone tools. He visited Shumla for six months in 2015, then returned last year before the coronavirus pandemic began.

“It’s been pretty isolating,” he said of experiencing the pandemic from Comstock, a 40-minute drive from the 36,000-person border city of Del Rio. He and his partner, Audrey Lindsay, also a Shumla project archaeologist, live in a 450-square-foot former welding shed, he said.

“It’s been a small space to be self-quarantined in a long time,” he said.

At least there’s been plenty of field work, with Shumla staff documenting 70 sites in 2020. Often, they have to backpack in, carrying packs weighing up to 50 pounds, sometimes camping near a rock art site for several days, Murphy said. Summer temperatures soar to 110 degrees in the rough limestone terrain filled with thorny scrub and cactus.

“You really have to get out into the nitty gritty of bushes and canyons,” Murphy said, though he also describes all the outdoor work as “probably one of the biggest perks of being an archaeologist.”

Murphy said he’s been struck by the number and continuity of the murals, left behind by a hunter-gatherer culture that moved around and sheltered in the rock overhangs. A painter working in the Lower Pecos tradition could have lived alongside art made thousands of years before he or she picked up a brush.

“It’s so impressive that there is a network of rock art sites that are clearly related,” Murphy said. “There’s so much detail about each bit of the rock art. Each attribute has meaning; it has a story.”

Decoding symbolism

Rolón wants to understand those stories better, one symbol at a time. For her project, she’s focusing on feline images.

Many of the rock art panels, such as Panther Cave, feature images of big cats. For her postdoctoral research, Rolón is comparing the Lower Pecos depiction of felines to imagery from other cultures, including the Inca Empire and from the Huichol culture of northern Mexico. She notices similarities in the direction the cats are facing and images of lines emanating from their mouths.

In many cultures, big cats are associated with shamans, and with natural phenomena, such as thunder, Rolón said. Two cats facing each other could symbolize two warring deities or a creation myth. Colors, shapes, positions, and associated figures all play a role, she said.

Work like hers can help breathe new life into the stories left behind by early Texans, while linking those stories to those of other indigenous peoples across the Americas.

“It’s amazing, because there are multiple meanings in one symbol,” Rolón said. “Every detail changes the meaning.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He serves as the assistant manager of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.