Heritage, Volume 7, Number 4, Fall 1989 Page: 8
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Rock Art Preservation
Bv David G. Robinson
In the dust and boulders of a cliff overhang,
several city dwellers work, talk,
and laugh amid a sprawl of cameras,
tripods, backpacks, bundles of paper, and
drawing boards. Rays of the early morning
sun cut the haze nestled in the deep canyon
and light the Texas sky. No one notices.
Across the canyon, a startled deer
rushes up a rocky slope, fleeing some silent
danger below. It stops, flanks heaving,
then picks its way over the sharp-edged
boulders of the canyon rim. One man
breaks from the intent group focused on its
work. He puts down his drawing board and
walks a few yards along the overhang to a
small crevice marked by fluorescent orange
flagging tape. A small rock rattler lies dormant
behind the warning marker.
"Our friend's still at home, Teddy," the
man calls to a woman reading off measurements
from a metal tape measure.
"Smartest snake I've seen," she says
without looking up.
The scenic Devils River region seldom
witnesses such single-minded attention to
duty, but this group behaves with purpose.
They are recording aboriginal rock art
before time takes its final toll. And that
time is not far off.
The man walks back to his gear. Squinting
at the rock, he resumes his work. On
the rough, fractured limestone in front of
him, he can pick out spidery painted lines,
still faintly blood red. The lines merge just
enough to form a running bison pursued by
a few stick-figure hunters, depictions of
those long dead who painted this rock to
commemorate that sporting chase.
Off to one side, someone drops a bag and
raises a cloud of limestone dust. The rock
figures fade for a moment. Obscured by that
dust, they seem to melt back into the centuries,
deep into the rock, into the silence.
In Native American religion, exhaled
smoke is a prayer to God. Similarly,
aboriginal rock art was often entwined
with spiritual themes and painted in
conjunction with rituals. And, like smoke,
rock art over time fades, dissipates, and
vanishes into the realm of the spirits.
This causes concern among modern
students of rock art worldwide. At the 1989
American Rock Art Research Association
(ARARA) meetings in San Antonio, international
rock art experts discussed the
bleak prospects for literal preservation of
art on stone. Ian Wainwright, chief rock
art conservator of the Canadian Conservation
Institute, acknowledged drawbacks to
even the most advanced methods of saving
pictographs and recognized the impracticality
of building climate-controlled
museums over all significant rock art sites.
Lucas Smits, preeminent recorder of
southern African rock art, said "recording
is the first step toward preservation." He
identified recording as figurative preservation,
by which the art is metaphorically
peeled off the rock and translated into
other media-photographic, artistic, literary,
Discussions at the July 1989 Texas Historical
Foundation meeting gave urgency
to the need for all forms of preservation.
Bob Parvin, conservationist and photographer,
and Pat Mercado-Allinger, of the
Texas Historical Commission and president-elect
of the Texas Archeological
Society, estimated that at least one million
prehistoric sites of all types have been
destroyed in the modem era.
In the face of this appalling loss of heritage,
the Texas Archeological Society
(TAS) has for years quietly found ways to
retrieve bits of the past from so-called progress,
and occasionally from outright
criminality. Considering the threat to prehistory
and history as a giant challenge,
this group of amateur and professional
archaeologists, historians, and conservationists
raises the call to preservation in
chapters across Texas.
Year-round, the 1,200 Society members
participate in local projects-often the
scientific excavation of threatened sites.
In the summer, the Society takes its
vacation in a grand convocation and largescale
project named "Summer Field
School." Safe to say, the dirt flies and the
past gives up its buried secrets.
In 1989 the Texas Archeological Society
Field School took place in southwest
Texas. Under the sponsorship of the Texas
Parks and Wildlife Department, the field
school enrolled more than 300 Society
members and carried out a broad-spectrum
inventory of all prehistoric and historic
sites in the newly acquired 22,000 acre
Devils River State Natural Area, which
lies in the Lower Pecos culture region.
The area is rugged limestone canyon
country in Val Verde County near the
southern edge of the Edwards Plateau.
Gnarled oaks and stunted junipers vie for
space with yucca, cacti, lechuguilla, sotol,
guajillo, agarita, and scores of other flowering
shrubs and herbs. Consequently,
canyon bottoms and slopes lie choked in
tangles of vegetation loved by deer,
javelina, wild turkey, and cougar.
The landscape also offers habitat for the
endangered black-capped vireo; the Society
was denied any encroachment on the
small bird's nesting areas, and this was one
of the few successful barriers to finding
sites. The cool, inviting waters of Dolan
Springs, home of the Devils River pupfish,
were similarly off limits to hot and bedraggled
Farther up the canyons, the hard limestone
walls have fractured and eroded over
eons to form monumental cliffs and, in
places, hollowings called rockshelters.
These rockshelters offered clean stone
panels-canvases for ancient artists.
8 HERITAGE * FALL 1989
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 7, Number 4, Fall 1989, periodical, Autumn 1989; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45433/m1/8/: accessed December 14, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.