Location, Location, Location: The Lewis Canyon Petroglyphs

Article excerpt

In the last 10 years, excavations at the Lewis Canyon site have exposed hundreds of petroglyphs buried beneath a mantle of modern sediment that has been redeposited from the surrounding hills. The new glyphs are radically different from the assemblage recorded in the 1930s, which were predominantly abstract geometric designs augmented by a few realistic animal tracks, projectile points, and human figures. The emergent style is dominated by nested serpentine lines, atlatls with greatly exaggerated weights, human and animal tracks, and a small number of human figures. Some of the latter bear a strong resemblance to warriors depicted in the Red Linear style, a miniature local art form with a very limited distribution. The motivation for the expenditure of so much effort in the production of petroglyphs at this location has long been questioned, but excavation has now also uncovered a large tinaja, capable of holding more than 800 gallons of water and once fed by an underground conduit. The supernatural power of water, and especially water that emerges from a subterranean source, provides the rationale for the production of the older, serpentine glyphs, if not the entire assemblage. The tinaja links Lewis Canyon to a series of smaller sites on the Eldorado Divide, over 100 miles to the northwest and, more subtly, to arid-lands rock art traditions in northern Mexico and the Greater Southwest.

Keywords: prehistoric petroglyphs; Archaic rock art; water-inspired ritual; Texas

The Lewis Canyon petroglyphs are an anomaly in the Lower Pecos region, an area best known for its long series of elaborate polychrome and monochrome pictographs. Over 1,000 glyphs etched into flat limestone bedrock high above the confluence of Lewis Canyon and the Pecos River (Figure 1) are a unique testimonial to the pervasive influence ritual had on the production of rock art throughout the prehistory of the Lower Pecos region. Now, after years of excavation, a feature at the core of the site provides a motive for site selection and a rationale for the prodigious output of glyphs. A capacious natural bedrock pond, once fed by an underground chute, provides the explanatory context for this monumental effort to consecrate a sacred place in the supernatural landscape.

Lewis Canyon has been well-known since the 1930s (Jackson 1938:199-205; Kirkland and Newcomb 1967:98-104), and 70 years of survey and rock art recording have failed to produce a comparable array of petroglyphs at any other site in the region. The few other petroglyphs that have been recorded are pecked into freestanding rocks or the walls of caves, and they lack a unifying iconography (Labadie 1992). The Lewis Canyon glyphs are contextually and symbolically different from the innumerable petroglyph sites in northern Mexico and New Mexico as well. To the north and northwest, smaller sites with bedrock glyphs share some salient characteristics with Lewis Canyon, although the iconographie repertoire varies from site to site (Turpin 1992a). To add to the conundrum, innumerable such flat bedrock expanses overlook the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, but Lewis Canyon is the only one known to have served as the medium for thousands of petroglyphs, in at least two periods, in prehistory. The search for an answer to the enigma of Lewis Canyon has consequently inspired years of exploration and documentation.

In the past decade of work at Lewis Canyon, hundreds of buried glyphs that are radically different from the corpus first recorded in the 1930s have been uncovered (Figure 2; Turpin and Bass 1997). The new style of glyphs differs from the 1930s inventory in theme, iconography, technique, and relative elevation. The latter is also an indicator of age, with the buried glyphs older than those above the sediment line. After the removal of tons of dirt, the downward trend of the bedrock, and hence the glyphs, finally led to the core of the site, a large tinaja or bedrock tank that was once fed by an underground conduit. …