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Appreciating Indigenous rock art in southwest Texas

At Halo Shelter, Pecos River–style rock art stretches for about 50 feet across a limestone wall.

I’m scooting backward down a steep slope into a rocky, cactus-studded canyon, one hand clutching a rope to help keep me steady.

As I pick my way along, one step at a time, someone from above calls out a few words of encouragement. Beneath me awaits one of the more than 300 known rock art sites scattered throughout Val Verde County in the Lower Pecos River Region of southwest Texas. I rest a moment, then keep moving. In another minute I hit flat ground. Now I’m ready for the big reveal.

Each spring and fall in this rugged corner of the state, the Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center offers guided treks to rock shelters where Indigenous people painted murals thousands of years ago.

For the center, it’s an opportunity to educate the public about this ancient art form and to raise money for researching and protecting it. For the public, it’s a chance to learn directly from archaeologists who are working in the field and studying the paintings before time erases them.

“Getting firsthand experience with rock art is really important,” says archaeologist and trek leader Katie Wilson, who’s also Shumla’s outreach coordinator. “You can see it for yourself, and that makes you want to advocate for it.”

Sacred places

Schumla vehicle caravan.

Seeing the murals requires riding through hardscrabble country in high-clearance vehicles.

Our full-day trip begins early in the morning at Shumla’s headquarters in the tiny town of Comstock, 32 miles west of Del Rio. From there, 20 adults (and a few preteens) pile into high-clearance vehicles for the hour-long drive to Halo Shelter, located on a private ranch.

After we navigate our way down the slope (about a 10-minute challenge for each of us), Wilson asks that we be quiet, noting that rock shelters were sacred places for the artists. We make our way around a corner in silence, ignoring the brush plants snagging our skin, then get our first glimpse of the art.

It’s gorgeous.

Pam LeBlanc climbing down into a canyon.

Writer Pam LeBlanc inches her way down into a canyon to view the rock art at Halo Shelter.

The black, red, yellow, and white paintings at Halo Shelter stretch for about 50 feet along a gray limestone wall at the back of an overhang. At the center of the paintings is a humanlike figure in a mustard-yellow garment, with what appears to be a halo over its head. Farther down, a cat with its hair standing on end as if it has been spooked looks like it’s breathing fire. The squiggly lines coming from its mouth are known as “speech breath,” Wilson tells us, and indicate sound.

A row of red deer, outlined in black, march across one section of the wall. In another spot, small human figures hold the legs of a deer as if butchering it. Undulating lines, delicate designs, and bursts of color complete the elaborate painting.

Rock painting.

A halo seems to float above the head of a humanlike figure.

This particular shelter holds one of the region’s finest examples of Pecos River–style rock art, a painting style characterized by large multicolored images of humans, animals, and abstract designs. Some design elements are repeated in other rock art in the region, and researchers believe the art may depict the belief system or origin stories of the people who painted it. “It’s like a visual book that’s used to teach and pass on stories,” Wilson says.

The artists used paint made with crushed minerals, plant sap, and animal fat (likely bone marrow). Scientists can tell the order in which they painted the wall—black first, then red, followed by yellow and white.

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Looming threats

Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center rock art tour group.

The Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center is working to preserve rock art in the Lower Pecos River Region of southwest Texas. Trek leader Katie Wilson (wearing a bandanna) discusses rock art at Halo Shelter with a tour group.

Radiocarbon dating has shown that the rock art in Val Verde County was produced 1,500 to 5,400 years ago, says Karen Steelman, the science director who runs Shumla’s plasma oxidation laboratory, where flecks of paint far smaller than a fingernail are tested.

The rock art at Halo Shelter looks more vibrant than other murals because it isn’t covered by as much accretion—an organic and mineral buildup that accumulates on rocks over time, making rock paintings difficult to see.

Besides accretion, other factors—including flooding, vandalism, sun exposure, animal activity, and natural weathering—are also taking a toll on the region’s rock art.

That’s why, in 2017, Shumla launched the Alexandria Project, in which archaeologists spent 4 years documenting 235 rock art sites via thousands of high-resolution digital images. Those images will allow future generations to study the murals even after they’ve vanished. There’s no way to know exactly when the art might be lost, but a flash flood at any time could destroy some panels—thus the urgency.

“They’re old, but still visible now,” Wilson says. “If we want to be able to see these sites in the future, we need to digitally preserve them.”

Rock art tour group taking a lunch break.

Trekkers contemplate the Indigenous art during the lunch break.

We gaze at the Halo art for a while, then pull out picnic lunches we’ve brought with us. I plop onto the ground and lean against a slab of rock. As I eat stuffed grape leaves, I try to imagine the people who painted this mural. Did they laugh and tell jokes as they worked? How long did it take? Did they stop for a lunch break like we’re doing?

Archaeologists don’t know exactly who painted the murals, but it was likely groups of hunter-gatherers who lived in this region on land that’s now split between Mexico and Texas.

“To me, it’s very emotional,” Wilson says. “When you go to a rock shelter, what you’re looking at is the worldview of the people who made the art.”

Layers of history

Close up of a section of rock art.

Images of humans, animals, and abstract designs are featured in this style of rock art.

Most of Shumla’s full-day treks visit 2 rock art locations, but ours hits just one so we can enjoy a dip in the nearby Devils River, which cuts through this ranch. In another hour I’m floating zenlike in an almost neon-colored ribbon of turquoise that splices the desert’s dull gray-green.

Relaxing in the cool water, our group chats about what we’ve just seen. We all agree the art is more than colors splashed on a wall.

“There are layers and layers of history here,” says architect Jessie Temple of Austin, who signed up for the trek because she wanted to understand how other people inhabited the land on which she lives. “I didn’t expect to feel this moved by it. But seeing it in person makes it less of a book and more of a movie.”

Artist Emma Schmidt, who paints contemporary murals in Austin, teared up when she first glimpsed the ancient artwork.

“You sense the singular specialness of the place, and to see something that was painted that long ago is so fascinating,” Schmidt says. “Painted works have been such an important communication form for so long. Now I want to see all the sites.”

Pam LeBlanc is an Austin-based freelance writer.

If you go

The Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center offers full-day ($120) and half-day ($60) treks to rock art sites in Val Verde County in spring and fall.

Participants must be at least 8 years old, relatively fit due to the strenuous nature of some of the trips, and able to walk on uneven terrain. See their schedule of treks (which are limited to 25 people).

You can also learn more about the rock art by visiting Shumla’s headquarters in Comstock. Staffers will show you the digital images that have been made, and you can observe work in the plasma oxidation lab. Shumla also welcomes visitors at its Texas State University office in San Marcos. It doesn’t have a lab, but you can see digital images there and discuss the art with archaeologists and student volunteers.

Both offices are open 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, but you should arrange a visit by calling (432) 292-4848 or emailing

Other rock tours

At Seminole Canyon State Park in Comstock, rangers lead 1  1/2-hour tours ($8) to Fate Bell Shelter year-round, Wednesday through Sunday. Buy tour tickets. The park also offers challenging daylong hikes to Presa Canyon ($30) from October through March. Buy hike tickets.

The Witte Museum in San Antonio organizes 1  1/2-hour guided tours ($15 for members; $25 for nonmembers) to the White Shaman Mural every Saturday from September through May. It also offers tours to other sites in the Lower Pecos region on select dates. Get  information or buy tickets online or by calling (210) 357-1910.

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