archeo-astronomical features at the paint rock, texas pictograph site
PAINT ROCK, TEXAS PICTOGRAPH SITE
William P. Yeates
The first solar interaction with a pictograph at Paint Rock was discovered by
Kay Campbell about 15 years ago as she began introducing visitors to the site and to one
painting in particular. It was a scene which depicted, according to her uncle – Judge
Orland Sims, the death and ascension to heaven of a person whose body seemed to be
wrapped in a funeral shroud leaving the legs exposed.
Kay noticed that at certain times of the year the body’s feet perfectly aligned
with an angular shadow line formed by the sun on the rock structure above. After
several years of observations, she connected the shadow line with the equinoxes both in
March and again in September.
In the fall of 1996, she mentioned this phenomenon to a group of visitors, one of
whom served on the Board of Directors of McDonald Observatory in the Davis
Mountains. This lady, Joyce Samson of Austin, relayed the information to Dr. Bob
Robbins of the Astronomy Department, University of Texas. Dr. Robbins visited with
Kay Campbell and told her that she would likely find other solar interactions around or
near Summer and Winter Solstices.
The following Winter Solstice, December 1996, Kay was giving a tour when she
saw the Sun Dagger piercing the prominent painting which is believed to represent a
turtle within a “shield” design. This beautiful painting is the most outstanding solar
marker observed to date at Paint Rock and is considered to be the “gem” of the site.
Following this discovery, a lot of interest was developed in trying to find
additional or similar markings placed on the rock ledges to interact with the sun at
specific times of the year. Dr. Robbins returned in 1996 and observed the only Summer
Solstice found so far on a pictograph remarkably similar to the shield and turtle of the
Winter Solstice. After finding several more potential markers, Bill Yeates and Fred
Campbell began planning a video and photographic cataloging activity to locate and
scrutinize all the pictographs which seemed to interact with sun and shadow at key times
of the year and try to determine if these paintings were deliberately placed to use these
Others who expressed interest and assisted in the project were Lance Latham of
Fredricksburg, Bill J. and Brenda Fleming of Llano, and J. Fred Reed of Texarkana.
Throughout 2001 and early 2002, all day observations (for several days) were made
around the “solar significant” days of the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days
(midway between solstices and equinoxes). The observations resulted in the discovery
of several more Winter Solstice markers all of different styles. Some, like the equinox
“path to heaven”, seem to tell a story as well as mark a particular day. Others appear to
depict certain astronomical events.
The solar interactions we have found may be accidental, but the evidence
suggests that they were deliberately planned. The effort and time involved would
indicate that these paintings had significant meaning and importance to the people who
created them, but for what reason (ceremonial or calendrical) we may never know.
PAINT ROCK, TEXAS PICTOGRAPH SITE
William P. Yeates and Fred Campbell
Some of the paintings at the Paint Rock Pictograph site appear to utilize
sunlight and shadow to complement the pictures in depicting whatever meaning
the artist intended. This "multi-media" rock art includes story panels as well as
those with calendric aspects such as marking the summer and winter solstices.
Several others may be depictions of actual astronomical events.
The Paint Rock Pictograph Site (41CC1) is located in north central Texas
in the northern part of Concho County, one mile north of the town of Paint Rock
on the Fred and Kay Campbell ranch. The site consists of an east-west trending
bluff of broken limestone about one kilometer long and about 100 m north of the
The pictographs occur on the southern faces of light colored ledges for
about 500 m. The paintings depict animals, human figures, and abstract designs.
Paint coloring is primarily red with some black, yellow, and white. While the age
of the oldest paintings is not known, some later ones depict historical scenes such
as missions, horses, and people with European clothing. Artifacts from test
excavations near the bluff indicate an earliest date of Late Prehistoric. The
pictographs seem to agree with this dating as there are many depictions of bows
and arrows but none of atlatls.
The people who painted the pictographs are also not known. This area is
within the range of many historical groups of Native Americans –
Jumano,Tonkawa, Caddo, Lipan Apache, Kickapoo, Comanche, Kiowa, and
undoubtedly others. Discussions with Indian visitors to the site has produced
Members of the Comanche Nation recognize some
geometrical designs that they still use in beadwork and think that the pictograph of
a large buffalo headdress may also be Comanche. A member of the Kiowas gave
us interpretations of two other panels that seem to fit.
The bluff faces south and extends laterally in an almost east-west line. The
many broken, irregularly protruding, rock ledges and cracks cause angular
shadows and beams of light to move across most of the paintings from fall
equinox through spring equinox (September through March). In summer, the sun
is high overhead, and the bluff is mostly in shadow all day. Thus, the occurrences
of "multi-media" phenomena are generally in winter, with most of them
happening around the time of winter solstice (December 21). This results in the
winter "multi-media" happenings being visible over a period of several weeks as
the path of the sun changes little, whereas those occurring at the equinoxes are
visible for only one or two days when the sun’s path is rapidly changing.
Part of the limestone bluff at Paint Rock
This report catalogs the pictograph panels that are most likely to have been
deliberately placed to include interactions with sunlight and shadow. The criteria
we used to determine this was as follows. First, we included only those with sun
symbols - circles, concentric circles, and circles with rays (Williamson 1984). Any
light spear piercing or tangent to a circle had to happen only around a significant
solar day and not at other times of the year. Finally, we watched for subtle clues
such as small jogs in the shadows that might conform to an arc of the circle while
the shadow bisects the center of the circle.
Calendric markers are fairly common throughout the southwestern United
States but have rarely been reported in Texas and the south plains. The nomadic
Indians of the plains were thought to have a very detailed starlore but little
concerning the sun and moon. Indeed, the idea of using the sun in a calendric
manner was considered to occur only in agricultural societies. So, not only are the
calendric markers at this site unusual, but the multi-media story panels described
in this paper have not, to my knowledge, been reported anywhere else.
It was probably this constantly changing interplay of light and shadow that
made this site special to some of the groups of people who lived in the area. The
light occasionally produces the shapes of animals, and Paint Rock might have
been considered an opening into the spirit world or some type of power point.
CELESTIAL MOTIONS AND THE CALENDAR
All calendars have their beginnings in the movements of heavenly bodies.
The daily change in position of the sun in relation to “fixed” positions such as the
stars and the earth’s horizon enabled early astronomers, using only their eyes, to
determine an accurate calendar. The sun shifts along its background of stars about
one degree a day as well as changing its sunrise and sunset positions on the
horizon daily. If there are prominent landmarks on the horizon, by observing the
positions of sunrise or sunset a calendar can be determined. The sunrise (or
sunset) point moves over an angle of 60 degrees during the year (at about 36
degrees North latitude). This results in the sun rising in the northeast in summer
and the southeast in winter. These two extremes are called the solstices (solar
stand-stills) as the sun’s horizontal movement seems to stop for several days
before slowly moving back the other way. Most ancient societies had fears that
the sun would not return (winter solstice) leaving the land frozen. Elaborate
ceremonies including sacrifices were performed to entice the sun to move back
again (Williamson, 1984).
This daily shift of the sun’s path results in daily changes in the angles of
light and shadow. Thus, the angle of a shadow at a particular place would not
repeat on any other day of the year with the sole exception of the equinoxes when
the sun’s position is repeated again in six months. So, an alternative to horizon
observing is to mark the position of a shadow or band of light on a particular day.
Where suitable shadows or light bands occur, this can be done with rock art.
Artificially produced shadows can be built using poles, piles of rock, or even
incorporated in architecture.
Whether the solar features at Paint Rock are calendrical or ceremonial in
nature has not been determined. Some researchers contend that to be considered
calendrical, the feature should be useful for anticipatory observations (Zelik,
1983), i.e. to be able to predict when the particular event will occur by several
days or weeks. One of the winter solstice markers at Paint Rock appears to have
an anticipatory feature and, indeed, could have been used as a crude daily
calendar during 6 months of the year.
In this report we will look at the rock art showing “multi-media” effects.
Several appear to only mark solar significant days. Others, while occurring on
special solar days, seem to be more elaborate in that they may tell a story. Finally,
there are others that may actually depict astronomical events.
SUMMER SOLSTICE MARKER
The bluff at Paint Rock is not well suited for summer solstice markers.
Most of the pictographs are in shadow all day in the summer. Figure 2 shows the
only known summer solstice marker at the site, and it is weak and unspectacular.
The only reason it was considered is because the pictograph is almost identical to
the one in winter solstice marker number 1 (Figure 3). The figure consists of a
circle with stylized rays and may represent a shield. The figure in the center was
interpreted by a Kiowa gentleman as being a turtle or tortoise with a small sun
symbol on its back.
Summer solstice marker.
There is apparently a story that at the solstices, the sun is riding on the
turtle's back so it is moving very slowly. The sun does not shine directly on this
figure as it is recessed between two protruding rock layers. A vertical crack above
the panel puts a narrow beam of light on the rocks above and below the painting
pointing to the center of the turtle. An observer must be directly in front of the
shield to see the alignment.
There is some ethnographic evidence linking the Kiowa or KiowaApaches to this marker. The main ceremony of this group was an annual sun
dance (Newcomb 1961) that was held around the summer solstice. The central
figure of this dance was the sun dance idol, and the religious society charged with
guarding this idol was called the Sun Dance Shields.
WINTER SOLSTICE MARKER NUMBER ONE
The pictograph in Figures 3 and 4 is similar to the summer solstice marker
in that it consists of a shield containing the figure of a turtle with a rayed sun
symbol on its back.
The shield measures about 34 cm across and the turtle about 20 cm long.
This very striking marker is beautiful, elegant, and simple, and there is no doubt
that it was deliberately planned around the spear of light.
At 12:10 PM around winter solstice, a spear of light begins to form below
and to the left of the shield. (Figure 3a). The spear continues to grow until at
12:37 it reaches its maximum length of about 18 cm and touches the center of the
sun symbol (Figure 3b) before moving down and to the right.
a. 12:10 pm. A light spear
forms and grows toward
the center of the painting.
b. 12:37 pm. The light
spear reaches the center of
the sun symbol on the
moving off to the right.
Figure 3. Winter solstice marker number 1.
The light spear forms every day from fall equinox through spring equinox and
could be used as a crude day to day calendar. It certainly fulfills the basic
requirements of prehistoric astronomical calendars - it indicates both equinoxes,
winter solstice, and midway between (Preston 1983). It is well suited for an
anticipation function if a ceremony were to be held on winter solstice (Zelik
1983). Forty-five days before and after the solstice, the light spear touches the
right edge of the shield (Figure 4a), and there are points along the turtle that could
provide an even finer time before the solstice. At spring equinox, the light spear
just touches briefly the lower right hand corner of the rock, and then disappears
until the fall equinox after which it moves up and to the left towards the shield.
The ability to anticipate the ceremonial date by enough time to prepare was
probably more important than marking the actual day.
a. 45 days before and after winter
solstice. The light spear touches
the edge of the shield before
moving off to the right.
b. At fall and spring equinoxes,
the light spear forms just on the
lower right point of the rock.
Figure 4. The movement of the light spear between fall and
spring equinoxes could be used as a crude calendar.
WINTER SOLSTICE MARKER NUMBER TWO
The second winter solstice marker consists of a nearly perfect circle of
about 70 cm diameter obviously drawn with the use of a mechanical device such
as a string. It also resembles a shield. The center is faded but once had a stylized
sun symbol. (Newcomb 1967). At 10:10 AM, a beam of light begins to form at
the edge of the circle at about its 260 degree point and grows toward the center.
By 10:17 (Figure 5a), the light beam reaches the opposite edge and begins to
expand laterally until, at 11:15, it frames the circle (Figure 5b) before moving
down to the right.
Figure 5a. At 10:10 am , a beam of light begins to grow across the circle. By
10:17, it reaches the other edge of the circle and begins to expand.
Figure 5b. At 11:15, the light has expanded to frame the circle before moving
down and to the right.
This marker shows some sunlight interaction at equinoxes and midway between
solstices and equinoxes, but it is not conclusive and may be only coincidental.
Figure 5c. This interesting circular feature appears midway between winter
solstice and equinox but is probably only coincidental.
WINTER SOLSTICE MARKER NUMBER THREE
This marker, a sun symbol, consists of two small concentric circles (7 and
12 cm) inside a larger circle (48 cm) with rays. At 10:52 AM, (Figure 6b), the
shadow of an overhanging ledge bisects the two small circles while a small jog in
the shadow just touches the edge of the large circle. The shadow does not move
any further downward but slides to the right. At 11:52 a secondary alignment
occurs when the small jog in the shadow reaches the center of the small circles
and a second larger jog touches the edge of the large circle and the edge of the
rays on the left side of the painting.
Figure 6. Winter solstice marker number 3.
A small painted bison to the right of the sun symbol has two interesting
multi-media aspects. First, its horns are formed by shadows of two small ledges
(Figure 7). Second, on particular days, the painted bison is framed by a "spirit
bison" of light and shadow. Its back is formed with the suggestion of a hump by
the shadow of the overhanging ledge. The face and body front is formed by a
broken rock ledge, and its legs are light patterns hanging down below the painted
ledge. It is likely that the "spirit bison" was the inspiration for the painted bison.
We don't know whether the times that the spirit is visible have any specific
Figure 7. The painted bison on the right of solstice marker 3 exhibits two
interesting multi-media features. First, the horns are formed by shadows of small
ledges where a rock has broken off. Second, the painted bison is framed by a
“spirit bison” of light, shadow, and rock color that was probably the inspiration
for the pictograph.
WINTER SOLSTICE MARKER NUMBER FOUR
This marker (Figure 8) was discovered only recently as it is hidden by a
fallen rock. It consists of a slightly flattened circle (35 by 40 cm) with two
straight lines radiating from the upper right side of the circle into the corner of a
protruding point of rock. A band of light illuminates the panel below the circle
until it just touches its lower edge. At 10:35, light suddenly spills into the upper
left side of the circle forming a pointed shadow aligning at three points on the
pictograph: the bottom edge, the center, and along one of the straight lines. Then
the pointed shadow recedes and the whole panel is lighted.
Figure 8a. This pictograph of a circle with two straight lines is hidden from the
bottom of the bluff by a fallen rock.
Figure 8b. Winter solstice marker number 4. A band of light rises from below to
the bottom of the circle. At 10:35 am., light floods in from above casting a
shadow from the protruding angular rock on the right. In about 5 minutes, the
shadow aligns with the straight lines and the bottom and center of the circle.
EQUINOX STORY PANEL
This panel seems to be more than a simple equinox marker. It consists of
several figures (Figure 9) painted at an angle. Twice a year on the spring and fall
equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), an angular band of light moves upward
and to the left until about 3:15 PM, the light just touches the feet of the shrouded
figure so that he appears to be walking up a ramp of light. The light does not
reach any higher and touches the figure's feet only on the equinoxes. An
interpretation, again from a member of the Kiowa tribe, is that the figure is in a
funeral shroud and is walking to the "happy hunting ground" or heaven. The other
items in the panel are things he will need to take with him: a hatchet, a bird, a
beaver (or beaver pelt), and two bison livers (a delicacy).
Figure 9. Equinox story panel. At 3:15 pm, on the spring and fall equinoxes, the
angular shadow moves up and stops just touching the feet of the funeral shrouded
figure so that be appears to be walking up a ramp of light.
Another panel shows a stick figure walking up a light ramp (Figure 10).
This one occurs midway between equinox and winter solstice, but we are not sure
if it has any calendric meaning.
Figure 10. Another figure walking up a ramp of light occurs midway between the
equinoxes and winter solstice.
Several pictograph panels, such as Figure 11, are of geometrical designs
that align with the angular shadows passing over them. The alignments occur
daily from fall equinox through spring equinox but are most accurate around the
Figure 11. Several pictograph panels of geometric designs align with the
shadows moving across them. Although they occur mostly during the winter, no
calendric aspects have been observed. This photo was taken at 10:44 am on
WINTER SOLSTICE STORY PANEL
This panel (Figure 12a) on the west end of the bluff exhibits solar
interactions that are extraordinary in both duration and number of alignments
around the time of winter solstice. An 18 cm circle is connected to a 24 cm circle
to its right which has a smaller 9 cm black colored circle in its center. This may
represent a solar eclipse. Two other figures, a bison (now badly damaged), and a
15 cm anthropomorphic figure with upraised arms and no feet (shamanic?) also
seem to be part of the panel. The solar alignments consist of bisections and
tangents. There are at least 15 alignments with two or more of the panel figures
simultaneously over a period of five hours and three different shadow systems.
The first alignment at 9:55 AM (Figure 12a) bisects the left circle, is tangent to
the center black circle, and a curving jog in the shadow exactly matches the curve
of the larger circle. At the same time, the shadow touches the back of the bison
and the top of the head of the smaller figure.
Figure 12a. Winter solstice story panel. This pictograph panel has solar
interactions that are extraordinary in both duration and number of alignments. A
series of 15 alignments with two or more of the figures in the panel occur over a
period of 5 hours with three different shadow patterns.
Since the panel is faded and badly vandalized, we used a 1934 sketch by
Forrest Kirkand (Figure 12b, Newcomb 1967) to illustrate the alignments. In
Figure 13, the shadows are added to Kirkland's sketch along with the times of
Figure 12b. Forrest Kirkland’s 1934 sketch of the winter solstice story panel.
FIGURE 13. The major alignments of shadows with the story panel. Times of
occurrences are noted.
POSSIBLE DEPICTIONS OF SOLAR ECLIPSES
A pictograph panel near winter solstice marker number 1 seems to depict
two occurrences of solar eclipses. Figure 14a shows the panel consisting of a
circle with angular extensions on each side (we call it the wrist watch). To its right
is another circle shaded with cross hatching, and above it are four (possibly five)
tally marks. It has long been speculated that the shaded circle represents a solar
eclipse, but the nature of the “wrist watch” was unknown. Samuel P. Langley’s
sketch of a fairly rare eclipse appearance in 1878 (Brewer, 1978) shown in Figure
14b may provide a clue. This eclipse occurred at the absolute sunspot minimum
(or low point in solar activity). The bright corona that shines behind the moon
blocked sun was almost gone so that a pair of equatorial streamers was visible.
These streamers are too faint to be photographed but are visible to the naked eye.
Our first thought was that if this painting depicted solar equatorial streamers
during an eclipse, we might be able to get a tentative date, but for various
reasons (the variability of the sunspot cycle, etc), it could not be reliably done.
Figure 14a. Pictograph possibly depicting solar eclipses.
Figure 14b. Samuel P. Langley’s 1878 sketch of an eclipse at sunspot minimum.
This panel also shows some apparent “multi-media” features,(Figure 15).
At winter solstice, a light spear forms tangentially to the left hand circle.
(Tangents as well as pointers have been reported as markers in the southwest U.S.
(Preston, 1983)). The light spear then moves from right to left across the panel
and seems to point to the tally marks above the shaded circle. Finally, the light
explodes around the right hand circle, perhaps indicating the sun emerging from
behind the moon during an eclipse.
Figure 15. Winter solstice features of the eclipse panel. A light spear forms
tangential to the left hand circle and moves across the panel to the right, seems to
point to the tally marks, and finally explodes around the shaded circle as if the sun
were appearing after an eclipse.
POSSIBLE DEPICTION OF THE AD 1054 SUPERNOVA
A pictograph hidden away in a small rock shelter at Paint Rock may be
one of a few in North America that are thought by some researchers to depict a
bright supernova (exploding star) that occurred July 4, 1054. This event was
recorded by Chinese astronomers and should have been visible in the United
States very near a thin crescent moon just before sunrise on this date. It was bright
enough to be visible in daylight for three weeks and can still be seen in telescopes
as a glowing mass of gas (Crab Nebula in the constellation Taurus). Crescents in
rock art are rare, and crescents with stars are rarer still. Only about 15 candidates
that may depict the event are known in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. An
example in New Mexico is shown in Figure 16b. One other in Texas (near
Breckenridge) is known. This one at Paint Rock has not been previously reported.
Evidence to support these pictographs and petroglyphs as depicting the
supernova is circumstantial at best, and they well may show, as others argue, a
common conjunction of Venus and the moon (Williamson, 1984).
Figure 16a. A thin crescent moon near a bright star (cross in the circle), hidden
in a rock shelter at Paint Rock may be a record of the AD 1054 supernova.
However, the pictograph at Paint Rock contains a compelling clue. The
triangular object above the crescent in Figure 16a possibly represents the asterism
that we call the head of the bull in the constellation Taurus. The remnents of the
supernova, now known as the Crab Nebula, lies, exactly as depicted here, near the
end of the upper long side of the triangle (one of the horns of the bull). The
people who painted this panel undoubtedly saw some other figure than a bull in
Figure 16b. Compare the Paint
Rock crescent panel with this
crescent and star in New Mexico.
(Brandt, et al, 1977)
While we may never know the true purpose of these “multi-media”
pictographs, we think that the evidence shows that they were deliberately created
and must have been important enough to justify the planning and effort. Will
these interactive paintings change our thinking about the people who lived in this
area? Probably not a lot, but it should give us a greater appreciation of the
sophistication of their rock art and re-enforce our perception of them as avid sky
Brandt, John C. and Williamson, Ray A.
Rock Art Representations of the A.D. 1054 Supernova: A Progress Report
IN: Native American Astronomy, edited by Anthony F. Aveni,
University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
Eclipse, Earth View, Seattle,Washington
The Indians of Texas, University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
The Rock Art of Texas Indians, University of Texas Press, Austin,Texas.
Preston, Robert A. and Ann L. Preston
Evidence for Calendric Function at 19 Prehistoric Sites in Arizona IN:
Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest, edited by
John B. Carlson and W. James Judge, Maxwell Museum of Anthropology,
Santa Fe, NM.
Williamson, Ray A.
Living the Sky, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Anticipation in Ceremony IN:
Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest, edited by
John B. Carlson and W. James Judge, Maxwell Museum of Anthropology,
Santa Fe, NM.