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Reading the White Shaman Mural

Paintings in a Texas canyon may depict mythic narratives that have endured for millennia


Monday, November 06, 2017

White Shaman Mural Overall


In the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of southwest Texas, a mile upstream from where the Pecos River flows into the Rio Grande, the White Shaman rock shelter is carved into a cliff face at the end of a limestone canyon. Here, in a small alcove, a 26-foot-long collection of pictographs stretches across a smooth wall that faces west. The pigments have faded over time, but a dense profusion of surreal figures, some highly abstract, others seemingly human or animal-like, are still visible. The setting sun can intensify the figures’ yellow and red colors, while a full moon illuminates white images, including the elongated headless human figure that gives the site its name. Similar rock art figures, some up to 20 feet high, decorate more than 200 rock shelters within a 90-mile radius around the confluence of the Pecos and the Rio Grande. Hunter-gatherers who lived here from about 2500 B.C. to A.D. 500 created these paintings, which belong to a tradition known today as the Pecos River Style.


These fantastical pictographs have long defied easy interpretation, and many archaeologists have resisted speculating about their meaning at all. Some believe the often bizarre images were made by shamans to recreate hallucinogenic visions they experienced while under the influence of stimulants. In recent years, Texas State University archaeologist Carolyn Boyd, a former professional artist, has proposed that they represent something much more complex. She has put forth the theory that the pictographs at White Shaman, and perhaps other Pecos River Style paintings, record the beliefs of ancient peoples whose descendants still live in Mexico today. What’s more, Boyd is convinced that by using scientific and ethnographic methods, we can begin to understand these narratives. “These are painted texts,” says Boyd. “I think we can read them, just as the people who created them must have read them.”


White Shaman Mural BoydBoyd first visited White Shaman in 1989. At the time, she was making a living as a muralist, executing large paintings on commission. When she saw the figures there, she felt a shock of recognition. “I instantly knew that it was a mural,” she recalls. Some scholars believe the painting was created over an extended period of time, with multiple people painting unrelated figures. But Boyd felt that couldn’t be right. “I could tell at once that it had been planned and conceived as a single composition,” says Boyd. “And because I was a muralist, I knew the skill it took to produce something like this, and to do it so beautifully. I was awed.”


For one thing, it was clear to her that some kind of scaffolding had to have been erected in order to complete some of the pictographs, which can stretch as high as 13 feet. As she made her own renderings of the painting’s images, she began to think the work could depict a battle scene of some sort. She suspected that a prominent row of five identical faceless humans with black bodies, topped with red and carrying what appear to be staffs, could represent warriors. But she also knew she was viewing the painting through an artist’s eyes. To talk about her ideas with researchers, she was going to need hard evidence. “I was convinced it was a composition, but I also knew that the archaeologists were going to say ‘Show me the data,’” says Boyd. The experience inspired her to return to school and pursue a doctorate in archaeology.

In the Time of the Rosetta Stone

Turbulent events surrounding the Rosetta Stone are being revealed by new excavations in the ancient Egyptian city of Thmuis


Monday, October 16, 2017

Rosetta Stone Egypt Rosetta Stone SectionThe Rosetta Stone is, inarguably, one of the most famous archaeological artifacts in the world. Shortly after it was uncovered by French Napoleonic troops in Egypt in 1799, it was seized by the British and transferred to the British Museum, where it has remained prominently on display for the past 200 years. The carved gray granodiorite stela is strikingly elegant, but the stone’s significance lies more in its tripartite inscription than in its aesthetics. The juxtaposition of the three passages, identical but for each having been written in a different script—Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian Demotic, and Ancient Greek—would prove to be key to solving the puzzle of deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.


While many people may be familiar with the basics of the Rosetta Stone, few perhaps know what the text says or understand the events that influenced the stela’s creation. The stone was once part of a series of carved stelas that were erected in locations throughout Egypt amid events of the Great Revolt (206–186 B.C.). These monuments were inscribed with the Third Memphis Decree, which was issued by Egyptian priests in Memphis in the year 196 B.C. to celebrate Ptolemy V’s achievements and affirm the young king’s royal cult.


It is sometimes forgotten that the Ptolemaic rulers were actually Greek. Ptolemy V (r. 205-180 B.C.) came to power as a child of six when his father, Ptolemy IV (r. 222-205 B.C.), died. Ptolemy V was no more than 14 when the decree was written.


The decree, nonetheless, chronicled his victory in the Nile Delta over a faction of native Egyptians who were violently rebelling against Hellenistic rule. While specifics of the revolt remain obscure today, the little that is known has been drawn from a few surviving texts and inscriptions, including the Rosetta Stone. Until recent excavations at the ancient city of Thmuis, located in an area where some of the bloody events are known to have occurred, hardly any archaeological evidence of the revolt existed. But at Thmuis, archaeologists have encountered signs of violent destruction and death, which they believe are the first definitive remains associated with the uprising. In addition, these discoveries are leading to a new and more subtle understanding of the Rosetta Stone—one in which it is viewed less as linguistic serendipity and more as a propagandistic document created for all to see in a tumultuous time.


Rosetta Stone Egypt Thmuis Pottery Kiln Skeleton


Thmuis is buried beneath Tell Timai in the Nile Delta of northern Egypt around 40 miles from the Mediterranean coast. A tell is an artificial mound of earth and debris, common in the Near East, formed through long periods of occupation and abandonment of the same site. Thmuis, once located along the now-defunct Mendesian branch of the Nile, was originally established as a smaller companion settlement to the important port city of Mendes, just under half a mile to the north. While Mendes was a significant religious and political center dating back as long as 5,000 years, Thmuis, literally meaning “new land,” was founded around the middle of the first millennium B.C. as an industrial suburb. The Mendes-Thmuis district lies along an important transit and trade corridor connecting the Mediterranean Sea with Upper Egypt and was renowned in antiquity for its production of perfume. Much of the perfume manufacturing process, from the infusion of olive oil with special scented flowers and herbs, to the production of small ceramic oil vessels, or aryballoi, was centered in Thmuis.

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