Saturday, February 22, 2014


Pictographs, Fate Bell Shelter, Val Verde 
County, Texas. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2004.

In 2004, we had the privilege to tour rock art of Val Verde County, Texas, with Teresa Weedin and a group from the Colorado Archaeological Society, guided by James Zintgraff, who had done so much to protect and study it.

Pictographs, Fate Bell Shelter, Val Verde 
County, Texas. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2004.

A large proportion of the rock art in this area is found in large rock shelters in the limestone bedrock, like Fate Bell Shelter seen here. This limestone is quite fossiliferous, begging the question, is the rock art linked to the fossils in any way? Do you fossils interest you? They have always fascinated me, and I think that is the normal reaction of most people to the idea of a shell or other part of a formerly living thing now in solid stone. I would bet that the early native American inhabitants of this area felt the same way.

Ammonite fossil, Fate Bell Shelter, Val Verde 
County, Texas. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2004.

John Felix has suggested that the shapes in the earliest rock art were copied from fossils found in nature ( It is not difficult to imagine a coiled ammonite fossil inspiring the first spiral petroglyph. This is certainly a possibility, although I cannot imagine how we can prove it. We do, however, know of instances where fossils are accompanied by rock art which certainly suggests some link (although the link could just be the rock, but I believe it is more - people are fascinated by fossils).  In this part of Texas it does seem to at least the casual observer that locales with prominent fossils also tend to have rock art. That is certainly the case with some of the major sites displaying Pecos River Style rock art. Some of these sites are Fate Bell Shelter, Halo Shelter, Painted Canyon, and White Shaman.

Watercolor paintings of the pictographs in Fate Bell Shelter.
From W. W. Newcomb, The Rock Art of Texas Indians, 
Paintings by Forrest Kirkland, 1967. 

In this posting I am going to present Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Historic Park, Val Verde County, Texas. “The site was first excavated by the University of Texas between October 20 and November 18, 1932, by a crew of five men led by James E. Pearce and A. T. Jackson. The 1932 expedition was the only major excavation of the shelter. A smaller excavation was carried out by Mark Parsons in 1963 as part of the salvage operations prior to the construction of Amistad Dam. Various projects since then have documented the Indian rock art extant in Fate Bell Shelter and in the surrounding area.” (

“Fate Bell Shelter is best known for its pictographs, which are among the best documented and best preserved of the Pecos River Style. This Style, which may date between three and four thousand years before the present, is generally considered the oldest of the types found in the Lower Pecos area. This would place the art in the middle Archaic period. The Pecos River style is a polychrome style that is considered a manifestation of the shaman cult. The central characters of the pictographs are faceless anthropomorphic figures, elaborately dressed and often holding a variety of accessories such as atlatls, darts, and fending sticks. The figures are often depicted with their arms outstretched, and in later pictographs the shamans’ arms are increasingly stylized and seem to be more akin to wings than arms. At one end of the shelter there are also examples of Red Linear figures – a Late Archaic Period style characterized by very small stick figures engaged in various activities.” (

 Fossils in limestone block, Fate Bell Shelter, Val Verde
County, Texas. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2004.

The remarkable thing about the fossils in Fate Bell Shelter is that some of them are displayed prominently in a large, roughly cubical, block of limestone. This limestone block was placed in the shelter in a location that suggested it had been moved there from elsewhere (there was no corresponding void in the ceiling above suggesting to me that it had fallen). It had many fossils that I believe to be Elimia tenera (in the family Pleuroceridae) shells showing on its surface, and the upper surface was quite polished. It looked like it had been oiled and burnished, perhaps by butt polish or intentional preparation. In his 1933 report on his studies at Fate Bell, Pearce stated: “On the surface, at the outer edge of the shelter, is a boulder of limestone that evidently was used in working down and polishing bone and wood implements. The upper surface of the stone is 60 by 37 inches. The entire surface is worn exceedingly smooth and some portions, around the rims of old eroded depressions, are as slick and shiny as glass. In addition, there are several hundred grooves with sharp, well-defined edges. The depths of the grooves vary from 1/16 to ½ inch and the lengths range from ½ to 10 inches. The presence of numerous bone implements in the midden deposit explains the use of this stone.” (Pearce 1933:37-38) You can see by this that Pearce believed that the polish was caused by abrasion from sharpening awls and other artifacts. This struck me as unlikely because the smoother the boulder became the less effective as a sharpening stone it would become. I think that the job would have been abandoned long before it achieved its present state of polish. Remember too that it has sat there for many centuries, it must have been even more polished originally. More interestingly, Pearce did not mention the fossils showing on this block. Either he considered them unimportant, or perhaps he was discussing a different block of stone, but then why did he not discuss the one we saw? I can only assume that Pearce, as a traditional archaeologist, had no interest in fossils and did not bother to mention them in depth. A final point is that limestone is a soft rock and would not have been very effective as a sharpening stone.

To me, it was hard to escape the conclusion that there was some sort of correspondence or connection between the pictographs and the fossils at Fate Bell Shelter. Both were prominently placed, both took a lot of work to put in place and prepare, and both are examples of things that the people would have found special and meaningful. Also seen at Fate Bell Shelter was a fossil ammonite in the bedrock. I am certain that a detailed search would have turned up many more fossils.

In his 1933 report of the excavations of Fate Bell Shelter Pearce listed two fossils found in burial contexts. However, he did not identify the type of fossils they were, and careful reading of the inventories in his burial descriptions only yielded mention of one fossil found. This example of one (or two) fossils included in grave goods seems to me to reinforce the significance of fossils and thus, the relationship of those fossils to the rock art of Fate Bell Shelter.

The 1930s excavation of Fate Bell Shelter also produced samples of the paint that were used to create the pictographs. I will take this up in a separate posting at a future date. Additionally, material items found in the rock shelters in this region often include painted pebbles, and this was certainly the case at Fate Bell Shelter. I will focus on the painted pebbles in a future posting as well.


Newcomb, W. W., Jr.
1967    The Rock Art of Texas Indians, Paintings by Forrest Kirkland, University of Texas Press, Austin and London.

Pearce, J. E., and A. T. Jackson,
1933    A Prehistoric Rock Shelter In Val Verde County, Texas, Anthropological Papers of the University of Texas, Vol. 1, No. 3, Bureau of Research in the Social Sciences, Study No. 6, University of Texas, Austin.

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