depict mythic heroes and monsters, and mark astronomical events
sun strikes the center of this pictograph at Paint Rock at
noon on the winter solstice.
The legends of the Lipan Apache tell of emergence places, sacred
ceremonies and the mythic heroes and monsters that fought in the underworld.
Remnants of these stories, told in vibrant pictures, appear
in Paint Rock, Texas, where a 70-foot cliff on privately owned land
contains 1,500 pictographs. The pictures stretch for a half-mile
on limestone walls on the banks of the Concho River.
The site, called "significant" by the archaeologists who study
it, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
But this place holds personal significance to Bernard Barcena, chairman
of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. This is where Barcena traces
"That site is sacred to us," he said. "That area is part of
our creation story, where God came and brought forth life."
At Paint Rock, the Lipan Apache also recorded their modern history:
arrival from the Great Plains in the early 1600s, establishment
of a tribal identity and epic battles with the Comanche after which
the Lipan corpses were "left in piles like leaves." In the 1750s,
the Spanish established the first mission dedicated to converting
the Lipan to Christianity, and in the ensuing years, the Lipan battled
smallpox along with human enemies.
and a mission-like structure, perhaps depicting nearby Mission
San Saba established by the Spanish for Lipan Apaches in 1757.
Handprints were achieved by dipping the hand in paint and
then pressing it against the rock. A less common method, shown
in other panels, entailed placing the hand on the wall and
spattering paint over and over around it, leaving a "negative"
(Forrest Kirkland rendering/Texas Archeological Research Laboratory
In the late 19th century, armies from the United States and
Mexico began forcing the Lipan onto reservations, often grouping
them with the Mescalero Apache. The remaining Lipan made a permanent
home in the southern tip of Texas, where they continue to petition
for federal recognitionrelying, in part, on their oral and
"Our history is written on the rocks," Barcena said. "We are
not the only people who used those rocks, but you can see our stories."
In fact, as many as 300 different tribes made their homes at
Paint Rock and the art is believed to span 12,000 years, dating
to nomadic Paleo-Indian people. The Lipan Apache, who camped along
the bluffs in the 1600s, probably picked the location for the same
reasons as their predecessors: protection from the elements, a vantage
point to watch for enemies and a reliable source of water.
But Lipan Apache and other tribes' stories also tell of an intimate
relationship with the cosmos, of comets and eclipses, constellations
and the changing position of the sun. Among the pictographs at Paint
Rock are drawings that, once per year, align perfectly with the
sun's raysevidence of ancient astronomical calculations.
For example, every winter solstice at noon, a dagger of sunlight
punctures the center of a picture of a turtle. Every summer solstice
at noon, the same thing happens with another pictograph, said Kay
Campbell, owner of the ranch where the pictographs are located.
Campbell's grandfather, a would-be professor researching nomads
of the Southern Plains, happened on the pictographs in the 1870s.
After determining that about one-quarter of the pictographs had
been vandalized, the man shelved his dream of being a professor
and instead purchased 15,000 acres of land to help protect the site.
Now 89, Campbell grew up on the ranch. A child of the Great
Depression, she fancied herself an amateur archaeologist and spent
her childhood accompanying visiting intellectuals who sometimes
traveled great distances to view the pictographs. But it wasn't
until the 1990s when Campbell, then a retired teacher, stumbled
on the solar markers.
"I was in my 60s by then, and I thought I knew everything about
these pictures," she said. "When I retired, I wanted to spend even
more time with these pictographs, and I began to notice there were
certain lines of light that seemed to interact with the paintings
on certain days."
Campbell called in some experts and together they discovered
more paintings with connections to the sun. Diagonal rays illuminate
specific pictographs at the spring and fall equinoxes, and researchers
found additional evidence of complex, ceremonial paintings that
interact with the sun on the summer and winter solstices.
Kirkland, copying pictograph designs on a ledge. After seeing
the graffiti and natural destruction at Paint Rock, the artist
and his wife, Lula, made a commitment to preserve the paintings
for posterity by making watercolor renderings of each panel.
Their determination also led them to the Lower Pecos, where
hundreds of bluffs and shelters adorned with Native art awaited
(Courtesy Texas Archeological Research Laboratory archives)
The pictographs quickly became a tourist attraction, said Campbell,
who leads groups of schoolchildren, researchers or sightseers along
the limestone cliffs year-round. Her busiest days are solstice and
equinox, when people come from all over the world to see sunlight
play with ancient paintings.
"I think this really contradicts what people assume about Native
Americans," Campbell said. "People think pictographs are savage
markings, but when you really look at this you understand that this
is communication rather than art."
The discoveries came as no surprise to Barcena, who said oral
Lipan stories are full of "astronomical symbolism." For example,
the ancient ancestors could predict solar eclipses, he said, and
many stories told today reference a comet that flew across the sky
every 500 years.
"Our people had correspondence with the heavens," he said. "We
believe that the knowledge we have of the cosmos we got directly
from the people who brought it from the stars."