Archaeology Education History and Heritage Non-Profits Research

Lindsay Vermillion, Shumla Archaeology Research and Education Center

Research Intern for Shumla Archaeology Research & Education Center Summer 2015

Primary Report Image _Image of me recording figures at the White Shaman Site_

I conducted my internship from May to August at the Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center as a research intern for the 2015 summer field session where I participated first hand in Shumla’s documentation and preservation methods in rock art research both in the field and the lab.  During the duration of my internship, I was able to work with Shumla archaeologists to apply advanced technology to preserve rock art, organize a hands-on digital archive of rock art data, conduct site assessments, and aid in conservation efforts by assessing ecological threats to rock art panels.

Shumla is a nonprofit archaeological research center headquartered in Comstock, Texas, just a stone’s throw away from Coahuila, Mexico. This semi-arid desert environment, known as the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, or more commonly called The Lower Pecos, has three primary rivers: The Pecos, The Devil’s, and The Rio Grande (C. Boyd: 2003, P. 9-10). Over time, these rivers and their many tributary streams have washed through the canyon networks and cut high into the limestone cliffs of the Lower Pecos region, aiding in the formation of hundreds of rock shelters (www.texasbeyondhistory.net/pecos).

Some Lower Pecos rock shelters are easily accessible and hospitable, holding evidence of the daily life of early hunter-gatherers, such as earth-oven cooking and basketry. Others are much more treacherous to travel, and were reserved for, perhaps, very different purposes (www.texasbeyondhistory.net/pecos). Both types, however, are teaming with rock art; the painted word sometimes stretches in a vast array of colors, symbols, and motifs across the limestone canvases of these shelter walls, making the Lower Pecos rock shelters a pivotal component in understanding the people who once occupied these Canyonlands over 2,000 years ago (C. Boyd: 2003, P. 14-15).

The town of Comstock itself is relatively small, consisting of more cats than people, so it may be hard to imagine this as home to individuals at the vanguard of rock art research and conservation. Nevertheless, the Shumla staff is just that. This summer, I had the opportunity to be one of those individuals and to take part in Shumla’s mission: to preserve the oldest ‘books’ in North America. For, like a book, each mural in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands was authored and composed to communicate thoughts and ideas. These ancient paintings are visual narratives that will rewrite the pre-history of North America. Shumla works to preserve and share the ‘library’ of painted texts and the information they hold through documentation, research, stewardship and education (Shumla 2015).

Shumla as a facility consists of a lab, where the research team operates out of and the Shumla Campus, located on the outskirts of Langtry, Texas, where the Rock Art Field School, Eagle Nest Canyon Field School, and the ASWT project take place.

Shumla has a small staff consisting of a two-person primary research team, so they often rely on volunteers as well as interns. Aside from the research team, Shumla also has an executive director, director (and Lower Pecos rock art specialist,) Dr. Carolyn Boyd, a Human Resources manager, and an information technology consultant. These six people, as well as student-interns and volunteers are an active force in rock art research, education, and preservation. Because of Shumla having such a small staff, my, and the rest of the research teams’, duties were at times all-inclusive. Meaning that sometimes I spent weeks organizing past data into folders, transferring notes onto the database, scanning pages from old binders, field checking, figure illustrating and speaking in impromptu rock art tours. Due to flooding, vandalism, pollution, and other environmental factors the ancient rock art of the Lower Pecos region is vanishing at a rapid pace. Some sites are subject to such intense flooding that it is not an issue of whether the rock art will fade fully, but rather when (C. Boyd, V. Munoz, J. Roberts: personal communication, May, 2015). Because of this, documentation is crucial in preservation and the most vital method in ensuring that these visual narratives can be studied, interpreted, and shared long after they are gone. Shumla’s documentation practices take place both in the field and in the lab. The next sections of the report will demonstrate Shumla’s methods for field recording and data management.

The Process of Recording Rock Art

Shumla’s methods are constantly evolving to allow for the most precise and constructive analysis of the rock art of the Lower Pecos, including photography, mapping, portable x-ray florescence, and illustration, to name a few. Shumla’s rock art recording process is comprised of six primary phases: site mapping, site assessment, data collection, field verification, final data entry, and dissemination of results and collaborative research (Shumla Recording Manual, 2013: p. 10-33).

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Photo I: TDS set up across from the White Shaman (41VV0124) Panel

The first phase in documenting rock art in the field is site mapping. Due to many sites in the Lower Pecos region being privately owned, Shumla must first work to obtain access to the land that they wish to document. Once access is granted, Shumla archaeologists begin mapping the overall site. This involves taking various photos of the site, including Structure for Motion (SfM) photogrammetry, and setting up a Total Data Station in order to map data and ground control points (Shumla Recording Manual, 2013: p. 17). These photos and points are then accessed through software in the lab to create actual 3D models of the sites that are given real-world coordinates. After processing, sites can then be looked at within a grid to better understand and analyze rock art geospatially.

Phase two, site assessment, is where all site forms are filled out, extensive notes are taken, figure counts are collected, and any additional figure identification is performed. When figures are identified, they are classified into four primary categories:

1) Anthropomorphs – figures possessing three or more ‘human-like’ characteristics

2) Zoomorphs – figures possessing three or more animal-like characteristics

3) Enigmatics – figures which do not contain enough characteristics to be classified as either an anthropomorph or a zoomorph

4) Remnant Figures – figures that are too badly spalled, faded, or abraded to determine a classification. (Shumla Recording Manual, 2013: p. 19).

Unlike in “dirt archaeology,” rock art cannot be collected or bagged up and taken into a lab for closer analysis at the end of the day. In phase three, data collection, analysis can be made through verbal, written, and illustrated documentation (Shumla Recording Manual, 2013: p. 26-28). Likewise, a panel can be recreated through photographs and the collected attribute data which varies across figure classification.

Anthropmorphs, zoomorphs, and enigmatics all have different forms stating the qualities Shumla looks for figure to figure. Collecting attribute data is vital in laying the groundwork for interpretation (C. Boyd, V. Munoz,& J. Roberts: personal communication, May, 2015). As mentioned before, each figure was an intentional manifestation, right down to the digits. Neglecting to record a certain aspect of a figure could result in that figure or composition being misinterpreted.  Along with these forms, ample notes are taken regarding the figure, including general location, description, paint color, paint application, style of painting, and all other relevant information. These notes and attribute forms are now being used through tablets which save directly onto the Shumla database, saving us precious time in the lab.

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Photo II: Figure attribute data and figure notes are entered digitally on tablets in the field. Daily recorder notes are taken by hand and typed up later in the lab

Shumla’s photographic methods are ever-evolving, including the use of multifocal stacking, D-stretch, and SfM. Multifocal stacking involves taking groupings of photos for one location on a figure with varying focal lengths. This allows for upmost clarity in that everything is in focus, including the uneven surfaces of the rock shelter walls. This method also enables us to discern the sequence of pigment application through a non-invasive technique (J. Roberts, personal communication: May 18, 2015).

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Photo III: Multi-focal stacking involves taking multiple sets of the same figure at varying lengths, however it is important that the camera itself stays in the exact same position during this process.

D-Stretch is a photographic tool that can be used both in the field and in the lab which allows the viewer to snap a photo of a figure and then look at that figure through different color spaces to decipher elements of the figure not visible to the naked eye. SfM, or Structure for Motion Photogrammetry, as mentioned above, is a method where in which you take multiple (sometimes hundreds) of overlapping photographs. In the lab, these photos are stitched together and exported into a program which then gives a spatial distribution of the figures (J. Roberts & V. Munoz: personal communication, May 18, 2015).

After data is collected in the field, it is processed in the lab. Often for every day spent in the field, a week or more is required in the lab to input and organize that data. This process includes illustrating, preparing for field verifications, and inputting data onto a digital database.

One of the most crucial elements of documentation in the lab is figure illustration. Figure illustration allows rock art researchers to tease out the different layers, patterns, and groupings of rock art figures and images (C. Boyd, V. Munoz, & J. Roberts: personal communication, May 26, 2015). All official illustrations are done digitally using Photoshop software and a Cintiq illustration tablet. The illustrator first observes all notes, figure attribute data, and photos for the figure that they will be illustrating. Next, the illustrator enhances the image (sometimes through multiple filters).These enhanced images enable the viewer see the figure more vividly than the naked eye.

After all respective images are placed into Photoshop, the illustrator creates layers. As mentioned before, the layers in which the paint is applied is key to interpretation, so the illustrator must apply each color separately within its own layer, making sure that the focus is always on the figure and items associated with that figure. Spalled and abraded areas also get their own layer, as well as associated figures (Shumla Recording Manual 2013: p. 26-28.)

After illustrations are completed, attribute data is either added to or changed for the figure and then field checks are performed in phase four: field verification. Attribute confirmation and field verification are generally performed by somebody other than the illustrator to assure accuracy. The person conducting field checks will search for any missing information on the figure and add notes accordingly. The figure will then receive additional verification (often three or more field checks) to confirm accuracy of notes, attributes, and illustration(s) (Shumla Recording Manual: 2013, p. 29).

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Photo IV: Digitally illustrating an Anthropomorph on the Wacom Cintiq.

Phase five, final data entry, includes validating site forms, entering any additional information into the digital database, printing hard copies for figure reports, and site file and folder organization. (Shumla Recording Manual 2013: p. 30).

In the lab, the most routine task I performed was organizing the file and folder structure for digital documentation which is essential in implementing uniformity among sites within the system. In the past, the organization of documents and data transcribed digitally was not conducted in any standardized way, but rather depended on which documents were present. There were so many differing documents in folders with obscure names, sometimes going back ten years or more. Because of this, often the data could not be found, let alone used.

We countered this problem by making a spreadsheet, which acted as a recipe of where things should be designated. We broke main folders into sections consisting of Figure data, 3D Models, Site Documents, Mapping, and Stratigraphic Analysis. Within those folders, other folders were added in correspondence to the initial outside folder, until the last file contained the actual documents separated by date.

Creating a uniform and easy-to-navigate system for hundreds of sites will expectantly enable anyone to more easily access the data collected and sorted. (V. Munoz: personal communication, May, 2015) Having such a massive amount of data, which is continuously being added to and updated, is truly a testament to the amount of knowledge that can be learned from this remote region. Having everything in a designated space allows for this information to not only be studied more easily, but it ensures its preservation. This is especially vital in phase six, the dissemination of results and collaborative studies.

In addition to giving presentations at both public and professional venues, Shumla publishes their research findings in scholarly articles, dissertations, and theses (Shumla Recording Manual, 2013: p. 33). Shumla is working toward their ultimate goal of constructing a “multimedia digital library housing all visual, audio and textual rock art data with multi-tiered access for the general public and researchers” (Shumla Recording Manual, 2013: p. 33) to access and use for years to come. Shumla is also currently collaborating internationally with scholars to launch a “multidisciplinary, comparative research program on a global scale utilizing data generated by the Lower Pecos Rock Art” (Shumla Recording Manual, 2013: p. 33). These collaborations play a huge role in rock art research in that Shumla’s process of recording rock art will be applied internationally, thus providing uniformity between sites worldwide.

Analysis

Through documentation and analysis Shumla is continuously finding evidence that the pictographs of the Lower Pecos were deliberately illustrated incarnations. Shumla has looked at the chemical analysis of image colors, which reveal where the materials used for paint were sourced from, providing invaluable information for interpreting these ancient texts (C. Boyd: personal communication, July 29, 2015).

Shumla and Dr. Carolyn Boyd have noted a pattern wherein images and motifs meant to represent the underworld are painted with mineral-based pigment (from below the earth), while upperworld imagery is plant based (of the earth). Following this practice, an image containing both upperworld and underworld imagery holds both types of pigment (C. Boyd: personal communication, July 29, 2015). This analysis, looked at in correspondence with indigenous ethnographies, reveals even further indication that these rock art paintings were deliberate compositions that were illustrated in intentional and communicative ways (C. Boyd: personal communication, July 29, 2015).

Paint contains much more than simply color. Digital figure illustrations, photography, and microscopic analysis can reveal the actual stratigraphy of the paint layers. Not only is this important for determining the age of various styles of rock art, but can aid in interpreting compositions by seeing the sequence of paint layers (C. Boyd: personal communication, July 29, 2015).

For instance, at the White Shaman Site black pigment is always first, then red, then yellow, then, finally, white. The order in which paint is applied may tie heavily in with the stories recorded on the rock surface, many of which are thought to be creation myths (C. Boyd: personal communication, July 29, 2015.) Being able to see the stratigraphy also allows Shumla archaeologists to tease out separate compositions. Much of the rock art of the Lower Pecos is so woven together that at first glance, many paintings grouped together may seem like they are telling one story. However, through recent analyses, especially through illustration, Shumla is able to isolate different figures and motifs to better understand if they are telling one story, or would be better viewed as a collection of short stories (C. Boyd: personal communication, July 29, 2015).

Analyses of rock art at Shumla goes far beyond the extent that I’ve written here. During my internship I was able to witness and listen in on only a fragment of the examination process. However, I was able to clearly see that Shumla uses every method available, from mapping and microscopic documentation to note taking, illustration, and photography (most of which are non-invasive techniques) to assure that the rock art will be able to be studied and interpreted for years to come.

Conclusion

Through the application of various rock art recording methods implemented by Shumla during my internship, I became increasingly aware of not only how data is collected and is analyzed, but how those methods directly affect the interpretation and archaeological understanding of the ancient people of the Lower Pecos. I came to realize how important it is to apply as many different relevant methods as possible and to continuously be open to learning new techniques to better represent a rock art figure or composition and the people who created them.

Interning for Shumla helped me see how art and artifact can be one and the same. Rock art often seems to be shrouded in mystery to the outside viewer. However, Shumla and other rock art researchers work diligently to un-cloud that mystery. Shumla works to peel back the layers (metaphorically speaking) of pictograph panels to better interpret their individual and overall meanings.

The stunning pictographs that adorn the walls of the Lower Pecos are valuable tools in learning about the people who occupied the region of the Lower Pecos thousands of years ago. However, the pictographs of the Lower Pecos will not be around forever. In fact, they are rapidly deteriorating due to floods, human activity, and other environmental factors. Because of this, Shumla works to conserve these panels by documenting them as thoroughly as possible through non-invasive techniques so that they may be studied and interpreted far into the future.

References

  • Boyd, Carolyn. 2003. Rock Art of the Lower Pecos. Texas A&M Universit
    • Press
  • Black, Steve and Dering, Phil. 2008. The Lower Pecos                                                                                                                                                                                                       (www.texasbeyondhistory.net/pecos)
  • Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center. 2014. Rock Art Recording Manual (Draft
  • Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center. 2015                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 (www.shumla.org/about-shumla/ )

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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