A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Reading the White Shaman Mural
Paintings in a Texas canyon may depict mythic narratives that have endured for millennia
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.”
Boyd 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.
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