Studying Lower Pecos Hunters and Gatherers through Illustration and Photo Documentation: How Shumla Can Help Change the Perception of Pre – Historic Peoples
I conducted an internship with the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education center in the summer of 2016. Shumla, which stands for is a non-profit education and research center “Studying Human Use of Materials, Land, and Art” is a non-profit education and research center. Their primary study is rock art in the Lower Pecos region of west Texas and their goal is to better understand the meaning and motifs behind the rock art, during my internship, I worked intensively with the Shumla archaeologists to explore new and ground breaking techniques. Such as the use of digital high quality photography, GigaPan Technology and a digital database. Shumla applies and has assisted in the development of many technological advances for documenting rock art. These advancements allow each figure in the panels to be recorded to the highest level of documentation even if the pigment is not as visible. The rock art in this region is spans from Late Middle Archaic through to the Historic period. This report will discuss how my internship is just a small piece to the puzzle being solved by Shumla, and explore how training in art and anthropology have become increasingly important to the field of archaeology as a whole.
Shumla’s mission is to record, document, and better understand the rock art in the Lower Pecos region of Texas. The archaeological region termed “Lower Pecos” is centered near the confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers. The northern half lies in Texas and the southern half in Coahuila, Mexico (Boyd, 2003:9). Considered to be some of the oldest “books” in North America, the rock art of this region is mostly on private or state owned land. Shumla works with many land owners to help preserve the region’s history and archaeology. Dr. Carolyn Boyd, an artist turned archaeologist, was captivated by the archaeology and began to study and illustrate these panels. Recognizing the incredible value of these ancient works of art, she founded an organization Shumla in 1998 to preserve, study, and share these archaeological resources with the surrounding community. Since then, Shumla has been a center of archaeological research, preservation, Public outreach and education. Shumla has various staff members and contracted individuals, along with seasonal interns who are the backbone of this organization. The staff archaeologists, who were also my internship coordinators, taught me and my fellow interns how to better understand Shumla’s mission and recording process.
When identifying and photographing figures, there is a lot of data that is accumulated. This data ends up being the only record available for many at risk Sites that are either fading or spalling at a faster rate than most. Thus, creating the need for a searchable database that can be used by researchers long after the paintings have disappeared. Many murals are located on private property which makes public access minimal. In fact, some of the landowners have been some of the best stewards of these cultural resources. By collaborating with the private and public sector Texas State parks have allowed Shumla access to document the murals in a respectful and un-intrusive way. This also increases the overall awareness of the art, engaging in a dialog with the public to better educate and inform them of the cultural recourses West Texas has to offer. Many staff members prepare education programs and presentations to be given at conferences to make the public and the archaeological community aware of the specific methodology used and how it can assist in documenting rock art in various regions all over the globe. These non-intrusive recording methods include, but are not limited to, GigaPan Photography, High quality digital photography, D-Stretch, and Photoshop, all of which are used in the field to maximize the data gathered on site.
The infield recording process began even before the other interns and myself arrived. In February, the Shumla staff went out to take GigaPan Photos with Mark Willis, a privately contracted photographer and master of archaeological technology and photographs. A GigaPan is a large high definition panoramic photo. This photo can then be viewed in the lab by using various programs that allow remnant and nearly visible pigment to stand out. This made the initial figure labeling process much easier (See Figure 1.) Mark helped Shumla staff Vicky and Jerod Roberts to take and compile GigiPan photos of 41VV0888, also known as High Country Shelter. This would be the first step allowing us to properly record and describe the figures at this site.
There are 7 different figure type categories that can be given to the figures on the panel for better documentation. The most prominent figure types at this site are Anthropomorphs, Zoomorphs, Enigmatic, remnant, and unclassified. The anthropomorph category is given to a figure that has three or more human like features. Such features can be digits, arms, legs, feet and many others. The Zoomorphic is a figure with three or more animal- like qualities such as tail, antlers, wings, or feathers. Enigmatic figures are those which lack human or animal like figures, and or have a more geometric shape or lack a specific shape. This category along with uncalsiffied are for figures that are extremely hard to determine or do not possess three or more features to be labeled as an anthropomorph, zoomorph or enigmatic. With the use of the GigaPan we were able to field check and verify the figures. This technique was used at a previous shelter last season and proved to be a key tool in allowing to better document and photograph the panel. Using the GigaPan photo as a legend, the labeling process is continued in the field. This helped the crew to site and photograph the figures and remnant pigment. These high quality photos make the illustrations not only easier to sketch, but also allows Shumla to have a high quality photo database of the panel, its figures, and the current condition of the rock art. These were overview tasks that would then be used to record 41VV0888 and became part of our weekly routine while out in the field.
Another important piece of technology used during my internship was the D-stretch. A wonderful tool for rock art recording the D-stretch is a computer and photography program that is used in the lab and in the field. It runs a photo through filters that help bring out the specific colors of pigment. At the same time, the D- strect program can produce what Shumla likes to call “artifacts”. These artifacts are false representations of pigment; thus, D- stretch is to be used as a reference and not a means of identifying figure types or stylistic variation in the panels themselves (See Figure 2 & 5). The GigaPan was then roughly identified and taken into the field with us to use as a guide while doing figure description and photography.
My role as an intern for Shumla was to aid the staff archaeologists in the recording, photography, and illustration processes. I was given weekly tasks that depended on the overall goal for the duration of my stay. While at Shumla, one of the tasks given to me and my fellow interns was to aid the staff in recording a site on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Devil’s River north unit. Del Norte is a new park that was surveyed within the last 3 years, and is open to the public. The Devil’s River Del Norte unit is home to at least 5 rock shelters with varying styles of art. High country shelter, or 41VV0888, is a rock shelter with various degrees of degradation. Therefore, it was imperative that we record this site to the best of our ability. We were given permission by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) to document High Country Shelter as part of the Broader Canyonlands research project, an initiative started by Shumla to document and record as many sites in Val Verde county with as many up to date techniques as possible.
On our first day in the field, we hiked to the shelter after a forty-five-minute drive out to the site. We were joined by two Parks and Wildlife staff of the Devil’s Natural area who were intrigued by the project and wanted to learn more about the rock art and documentation techniques. They also wanted Dr. Carolyn Boyd to help educate some of the park interpreters about the rock art and how to interpret sites to the general public. The objective of day one in the field was to gain a familiarity with the site and what techniques we would be using to best document the rock art in its current condition. This allowed us also to speak with the park’s staff to find out more about what impacts the site. Does it flood? Is the panel exposed to full sun? All of these factors need to be taken into consideration when documenting a rock art site. These environmental factors can be detrimental to a site, which calls for lengthier documentation if a site has a greater risk of degradation. Sometimes, it can hold priority over another site depending on access.
At first glance, High Country is a medium sized rock shelter with rock art in fair condition and a great number of sheep and goat rubbing on the lower portion of the panel. This rubbing is created by the movement of goats rubbing their fur up against the wall creates a burnished look on the panel.
All classifications given in the field are checked in the lab while the figure is being illustrated. Sometimes a figure is seen one way in the lab and then after thought and a careful consideration the figure can be re categorized and put into the database with its appropriate figure type. The detailed and over view figure photography is taken with a professional high grade cannon camera which is stabilized on a tripod for better quality photos (see figure 3).
A color correction scale is held against the panel, which allows the camera to capture the color range as close to the original pigment color as possible and a scale is placed in every photo. At the end of the day, these photos were imported and renamed for better file organization and to make it easier to search for them in the database.
After doing the panel photography, figure description and crew photos the tasks were rotated between the interns allowing everyone the opportunity to learn each step in Shumla’s field methodology. This meant that each night after being out in the field we would process photos and daily log notes in our make-shift “lab” at the Parks and Wildlife bunk house. On the second day in the field, it was my turn to take daily notes and assist Vicky, the staff archaeologist, on updating the TexSite form, a crucial form used in archaeology in the state of Texas to help document the site to its fullest. This was a great opportunity to learn first-hand what the state needs and expects to be in forms for any style of archaeological feature or site type. Not only did I experience how to write and fill out field forms, but I also learned how to assist in figure photography. Figure photography is an extremely tedious tasks, yet once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to work through and photograph a site in a week. The methods used to capture these high quality photos are simple, but they make a world of difference when taken back to the Shumla lab, and are used to illustrate the figure that was photographed. If the photo is extremely high quality, it makes the illustration process easier and more accurate.
While out in the field we had the pleasure of working with Dr. Boyd for the first few days. Having her out in the field was crucial, and her explanations on how to classify and identify figures was a great help. One of the most memorable experiences I had at Shumla was the ability to work with Dr. Boyd. Her knowledge of rock art is extensive and listening to her speak about shared motifs she notices throughout the rock art panels is amazing. Just having the opportunity to be surrounded by such passionate individuals such as Dr. Boyd and the Shumla staff was a great experience. Being able to pick their brains on a range of questions pertaining to the rock art and the pigment used to create these works and how they were created from start to finish is eye opening and remarkable. When you can have the opportunity to watch someone so passionate about a subject at work it can broaden your mindset towards any subject. This definitely translated into our figure ID’s and illustrations once we got back to the lab.
The illustrations themselves are set up on a templet that is formatted on Photoshop. This allows the illustrator to use high quality figure photos as well as the detailed shots for completing the illustration. Once back in the lab, the figures were placed in numerical order and were assigned to each intern. We had identified 84 figures at High Country Shelter, and it became the goal for the rest of the internship to finish illustrating and describing the figures in the panel. Minus the remnant pigment, there were a total of 78 figures to illustrate. This ranged from anthropomorphs, enigmatics, zoomoprhs, and unclassified. We started the illustration process with the zoomoprhs, which are animal-like in shape and form. These must have at least three qualifying animal like features, such as horns, antlers, legs, tail. The most prominent zoomorphic feature at this site were deer. These deer were also a different style than the anthropomorphs in the panel. The deer at this site seemed to be of the red linear style which was one of the stylistic variations we noted in the field. As it implies in the name, red linear are basic red “stick figure” like anthropomorphs or zoomorphs. The color red varied at this site from the classic red linear red ochre color, this red at High Country shelter is darker in pigment and hue. The anthropomorphic figures seen at this shelter along with most of the figures in the panel were Pecos River style these figures are — “Polychrome human-like figures, animals, and enigmatic designs” (Kirkland and Newcomb, 1967). All of these descriptions of the rock art itself, such as the color, style, and size are taken into consideration in the field and during the illustration process.
The next two categories to be illustrated were the Anthropomorphs and then the Enigmatics. Once the individual illustration was complete, it was measured and all of its defining qualities were entered into the database. After we finished the illustrations for the identified figures, the next challenge was to decipher and type the unclassified figures. This is where D-Stretch technology is relied on the most. With a careful eye we illustrate the figures and further determine in the lab if they have been categorized in the field properly. With a careful eye and determined if it has any qualities to be categorized.
Not every unclassified figure could be identified simply because of the preservation at this site. The figures were either spalled or had a heavy accretion that hindered the ability to view features such as a head or antlers. The layers used to create these illustrations are made to describe the panel’s surface, such as a layer of spalled or obscured surface or natural features in the panel itself. Each of these layers are created separately to allow for better organization and to make layers visible or invisible. When the illustrations are completed and all layers have been filled, the illustration and notes are reviewed by Dr. Boyd, and a further interpretation of the figure is made.
The project we conducted this summer at 41VV0888 is a small piece to the larger puzzle that can help Shumla fulfill its goal. With their mission statement in mind throughout the internship, it helped me realize the broader approach to rock art, and Texas archaeology that is being taken into consideration at Shumla. There goals to further record as many sites possible in Val Verde, as well as trying to work with Mexico to record the rock art present across the border. It has helped me gain increased knowledge on art, archaeology and how it can relate to the bigger picture of Texas archaeology. To think of archaeology as an interdisciplinary field is crucial, the ability to work on a broad horizon only increases the knowledge that can be obtained from a site. Whether it’s a rock art panel, burned rock feature, or historic site the ability to work with other professionals to answer these questions become crucial. Working alongside such talented and passionate individuals was an amazing experience that many archaeologists could only dream of.
Archaeology can explain what it means to be human, and with better understanding of the past we can infer that hunters and gathers of the Lower Pecos Canyon Lands as a whole were more complex than just what the cultural deposits infer. We can use the art as a means to explain that these peoples had an extremely deep connection and understand how the world works. For them to even produce these works of art the pigment had to be collected, and the means for making this pigment was extremely spiritual. Studying these panels unite the two disciplines of art and archaeology, each of which are part of the conversation on archaeology in Texas, and should not be separate. Through archaeology it is always possible to understand something greater about yourself and other “archaeology holds all the keys to understanding who we are and where we come from”(Parcak 2016) , thus through exploring the rock art we can better understand who these people were and where they came from and how this is expressed in the rock art. I feel more work technologically needs to be done on the creation of the paint and the methods used pre-historically to produce and execute a mural such as 41VV0888. I hope to implement experimental archaeology as well as my training in art to better answer some of these questions in the future. Not only was this internship a phenomenal experience for the month, but it led to an opportunity to present at the Texas Archaeological Society annual meeting. In my experience interning with Shumla was possibly the best decision I made for my undergraduate career.
Boyd, Carolyn E. Rock Art of the Lower Pecos. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003.
Sarah Parcak. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2016. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/s/sarahparca741758.html, accessed August 6, 2016.
Kirkland, Forrest and William W. Newcomb. The Rock Art of Texas Indians. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967.