Saturday, August 9, 2014

PAINTED PEBBLES, VAL VERDE COUNTY, TX.



Painted pebbles (reproductions) on display,
White Shaman, Val Verde County, TX.
Photograph: Peter Faris, March 2004.

Forms of rock art that are often considered portable include rock slabs, stones or pebbles, or even stone tools that are carved, scratched, or painted. In the Pecos region of Texas painted pebbles are quite commonly found, often with burials in rock shelters. A large number of them were recovered during the 1933 excavation of Fate Bell Shelter by J. E. Pearce.


Painted pebbles, Val Verde County, TX, From Newcomb, 
1967, The Rock Art of Texas Indians, paintings
by Forrest Kirkland, Plate 68, p. 107.

“Forty-eight painted pebbles were found in the shelter. Eight were broken.
Of the pebbles excavated 67 per cent came from the upper 25 inches, 21 per cent from depths of 25 to 40 inches, and 12 per cent from below 40 inches.
The painted designs on a few of the pebbles remain clear and bright, but on a majority they are somewhat dim. Frequently they are so nearly obliterated that but little remains of the original designs. On twenty of the pebbles the paint is barely discernible.” (Pearce 1933:79)  

“Black was the predominant color of the paint used. One design has a trace of red bordering the black; another bears a very dim design in red paint.
In length the pebbles vary from 1½ to 4½ inches, in width from ½ to 2¼ inches, and in thickness from 1/8 to ½ inch.
It seems worth noting that a number of the painted pebbles from Site No. 1, Seminole Canyon, and from other nearby rock shelters bear evidence of having been scratched and pecked in spots.” (Pearce 1933:83)


Painted pebbles, Val Verde County, TX, From Newcomb, 
1967, The Rock Art of Texas Indians, paintings
by Forrest Kirkland, Plate 67, p. 106.

“The design elements present and the number of times each was employed in the decoration of these pebbles are as follows:
Horizontal lines……………………….….24
Geometric figures………………….…..15
Ladder symbols………………………..…12
Scrolls……………………………………..….10
Vertical lines………………………….…..10
Sun Symbols …………………………..…..8
Projectile shafts …………………….…..7
Serpents …………………………….….…..5
Cross…………………………………….………5
Dashes, or enumeration dots.……..5
Human faces………………………….………5
Moon symbol s………………………………4
Trees or plants ……………………………4
Lightning symbols ……………….…..…4
“Death counts” ………………………..…3
Human figures ………………………..….2
Crosshatch………………………………....2
Bird …………………………………………….1
Animal or insect………………………….1
Blanket-like figure ……………..…….1
Tepee-like figure ……………………….1” 
(Pearce 1933:84)

Now many of these categories strike me as problematical and arbitrary, especially since they were not accompanied with any sort of index to the meanings of these designations.  It is worth noting that Pearce footnoted this table with the disclaimer - “This tabulated study of designs is the work of Mr. A. T. Jackson. His co-author is dubious about some of his identifications of elements but accepts most of them. J. E. P.” (Pearce 1933:84)

“This study of the designs on painted pebbles is not intended to be exhaustive. Many more specimens must be secured, studied, and compared before any definite conclusions can be arrived at as to their significance. Their number, character, and distribution indicate that they were an important element in the life of the early men who lived in this shelter. They are suggestive of the churingas of Australia and were almost surely sacred objects.” (Pearce 1933:87)

Of course they were not “almost certainly sacred objects” as Pearce stated (the underline is mine). They are just as likely to have been gaming pieces, toys, or practice for the important job of painting on the shelter walls. They might even have been intended for juggling, in some sort of prehistoric Pecos vaudeville act, or for all we know a Pecos magician might have pulled them from some child's ear in an example of prehistoric prestidigitation. They were, however, obviously important for some reason because there are so many of them, and so many of those are quite neatly made with carefully delineated lines and patterns, not just splashed or smeared. Painted pebbles have been found in many other locations from throughout human history, including Paleolithic sites in Europe. Whatever else they were, they were certainly a widespread human cultural phenomenon, and they are worth looking at for that reason alone.

REFERENCES:

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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