Heritage, Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 1994 Page: 18
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facing each other; sometimes, a shaman
figure stands between them brandishing
weapons. The shaman in his feline incarnation
can be recognized by the cat ears
perched atop the head, claws, a blank face,
and striped costume. Here, the artist has
chosen a much simpler way to illustrate the
human-feline symbiosis. The cat has only
Another strangely assembled creature
appears to have a human body but its head
looks like an open mouth, ringed with
teeth, or a pair or serrated pinchers. High
on the Pecos River, 30 miles across very
difficult terrain, a similar figure has but one
claw or mandible where the head would
normally be on a human being.
The artists of 41VV1230 favored another
yet rare convention. Three of their
figures have detached arcs of hair-like
material hovering over their heads, giving
rise to the name of this site, Halo Shelter.
Birds and...shaman figures had been
recognized by early researchers...but
the examples were so few and so
dispersed that the pattern was not
clearly evident. Nowv that the artistic
conventions that denote magical flight
have been deciphered, it appears as
one of the most common themes.
To date, this artistic convention has been
recognized at very few sites. (See illustration
on page 16.) One is right across the river in
the Devils River State Natural Area (see
HERITAGE, Fall 1989); another is Sin
Nombre, 90 miles south of the Rio Grande
on the other side of a small mountain range,
the Serranias del Burro, and a third fronts
the Pecos River just above its confluence
with the Rio Grande. Although a great deal
of imagination would be needed to decipher
these figures, they apparently had meaning
for both artists and viewers across a wide
area that included near-desert, barren
rangeland, deep canyons, and mountains.
Two of the shamans at 41VV1230 link
it to newly found sites on the east bank of
the Devils River by the medium of flight
metaphors, illustrating another form of
animal transformation poetically called "the
bird-like flight of the soul". Figures are
shown ascending, their feathered wings
outstretched or rising from the earth in a
cloud of birds, their escorts to the upper
world where good and evil spirits reside.
Another way of illustrating the concept of
magical flight is horizontal positioning --
human figures emerging from cracks in the
bedrock, their hair streaming upward to
illustrate speed and direction of flight. At
the largest of the east bank sites, Brazos
Fuerte, the progressive abstraction of the
flight metaphors can be seen in the reduction
of flying figures to simple crosses, arranged
like flocks of birds rising from the
Even more unusual is a major figure at
nearby 41VV1350 where the head of a
human figure with huge feet has been replaced
by a design that resembles two
stacked spools. (See illustration above.) This
is not a casual or meaningless substitution
- a few feet away, three stacked spool
designs are encircled by a framing line and
similar freestanding motifs are seen up and
down the Rio Grande. A possible explanation
for this design may at first glance seem
farfetched but comparison of dozens of figures
shows the gradual abstraction of feathers
until all that remains is a bar with three
or more crossbars. We may find it difficult
to see "featherhead" as an honorary title,
but in this context it probably implies
animal transformation, this time into a
bird. All these are variations on the single
theme of contact with the spirit world,
effected by a medium of flight metaphors.
How else could such a complex idea be
conveyed artistically within the range of
options available to hunter-gatherers?
Birds and winged shaman figures had
been recognized by early researchers, working
with a much smaller sample, but the
examples were so few and so dispersed that
the pattern was not clearly evident. Now
that the artistic conventions that denote
magical flight have been deciphered, it
appears as one of the most common themes
across the length and breadth of the region.
The Devils River cluster is on the northeastern
edge of the Lower Pecos culture
area. A veritable squadron of winged figures
soars across the shelter walls at the
ceremonial site of Rattlesnake Canyon, on
the western periphery. Horizontal flying
shaman figures ascend in clouds of miniature
replicas or swoop from the ceilings of
rock shelters in the Sierra del Carmen, 90
miles south of the Rio Grande in Mexico.
A flock of Devils River birds was featured
on the cover of HERITAGE magazine in
the fall of 1989.
Obviously, there is still much to learn
about the ideas, beliefs, and visions of these
long-gone people and much of that learning
will be attained by adding to the inventory
of sites and paintings. By its public
nature, the communal investment in its
production, its stereotyped imagery, and
the repetition of specific attributes and
figures, the art of the Lower Pecos region
was created as an information system, a way
of telling the people about their religion,
science, and history. Archaeology must
continue to treat it that way until the last
page of this encyclopedia of prehistoric
ideology is read.
Solveig Turpin is the associate director of the
Texas Archeological Research Laboratory,
The University of Texas at Austin. Robinson
is a staff archaeologist at TARL.
18 HERITAGE * SPRING 1994
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 1994, periodical, Spring 1994; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45413/m1/18/: accessed May 28, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.