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Rock Art of the Lower Pecos

A book review

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Carolyn Boyd. 2002. Rock Art of the Lower Pecos. Texas A&M University Press, College Station. ISBN 1-58544-259-3

The Uneasy Science

Archaeologists, in general, are most uncomfortable with things of the past that we can't put a number on. Oh sure, we talk about using ethnographic sources, and discussing the sacred and social structures, but it still makes us nervous. This is precisely why books such as Carolyn Boyd's Rock Art of the Pecos is so interesting and important.

The Pecos River Style of Rock Art

Boyd's area of study includes southwest Texas and northeastern Mexico, a semiarid climate with dry winters and hot summers. More than that, local vegetation is part of the rock, part of the art. For the purposes of this book, she examines in detail panels in five rockshelters: Rattlesnake Canyon, White Shaman, Panther Cave, Mystic Shelter, and Cedar Springs. Each panel is rendered in soft color pencil and pastels and presented as a color plate.

The images addressed by Boyd are from the Archaic period, when hundreds of rockshelters in the lower Pecos mountains were painted in Pecos-River style, dated by the accelerator mass spectrometry method of radiocarbon testing between 4100 and 3200 years ago. This kind of rock art is dominated by human and animal figures with outstretched arms as if flying. Sometimes the figures are headless, sometimes they are clearly blended beings, animal and human or two different animals. As illustrated in Boyd's renderings, the colors used by the prehistoric artists are reds, oranges and blacks, primarily. The images are in groups called panels, some as large as 70 meters wide by seven meters tall and including hundreds of images.


In Chapter 3, Boyd provides us with an intimate look at the learning process revealed in recording rock art. Even if there were effective mechanical means to reproduce rock art images, she argues that the process of rendering scale drawings and paintings of the panels is the cornerstone of the research. She says, "Drawing and painting each pictographic element in the rock art panel not only increases awareness of imagery content but also helps identify variations and consistencies in artistic styles and recurring patterns in the art."

Of course, the most intriguing question for the rock art researcher is why was it done. Boyd makes the salient point that it is only in recent times--and of course, in western culture--that "art for art's sake" is the standard. Art is not utilitarian in modern western society; but was it so in the past?

Shamans and Hallucinations

Several researchers over the past decades have connected cave paintings and rock art to shamans and hallucinations in megalithic period Ireland (Jeremy Dronfield), Upper Paleolithic Europe (David Lewis-Williams), Arnhem Land (Paul Tacon), the Great Basin (David Whitley), Minnesota (Mark Dudzik), and of course the Lower Pecos (Solveig Turpin). Rightly crediting Turpin for the direction, Boyd detects recurrent images of traveling to the underworld and depictions of local hallucinatory agents such as datura and peyote.

Rock Art of the Lower Pecos is a very interesting book on several levels: on the mechanics of reproducing rock art images, on the artistry of Archaic people of the the Lower Pecos River, and on the possible meanings of the images from three to four thousand years ago.

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