Tech helps solve mystery behind 4,000-year-old rock art

Archeologist team verging on new discoveries

COMSTOCK, Texas – High above the banks of the Pecos River, just before it merges with the Rio Grande, a nearly 4,000 year-old message sits on a canyon wall. 

There are more just like it throughout the area, which is better known as Seminole Canyon. Those messages are pictographs, left behind by a prehistoric people who once called the area home.

"It's remarkable what they did and the stories that they left behind," said Dr. Carolyn Boyd.

They are stories that Boyd has been preserving and attempting to decode for over 20 years. It is also a passion that brought her to the small, desolate town of Comstock, which sits near Seminole Canyon, two decades ago.  She serves as the research director and founded the Shumla School, an archeological research center.  

After many years of slow, tedious work to understand and exactly what the pictographs meant, along with preservation practices, Boyd and her fellow archaeologists believe they may have recently turned a corner.

"We are breaking the code," she said.

Huge strides in technology have perhaps been the difference, leading the researchers to understand the rock art like they never have before. That is especially true for one the area's most prized pictographs: the "White Shaman." 

It is believed that the art was painted on the rock walls nearly 4,000 years ago.

"There was a time that we thought we'd never know what it meant," Boyd said.

Devices such as digital microscopes, 3D imaging, and even a program that allows Boyd to recreate the art herself, have changed everything. According to Boyd, the technology has led to new discoveries just in the past six months.

"Can you imagine the amount of information that is just waiting for us out there to decode it?" she said.

The work remains painstaking, with a terabyte of data already recorded into the school's computers. However, archaeologists are now able to see never before seen patterns, including how the paint is applied, that has helped in new discoveries.

"Just like detectives, we use those patterns to solve the crime (or) in this case, to break the code," said Boyd.

But beyond decoding, there is a bigger goal technology is helping to accomplish: "To preserve the rock art for future generations, Boyd said. "We're losing it."

Pollution, floods, and humidity may soon erase these portals into our prehistoric past, meaning a 3D view on a computer screen may be all that is left.

Now, it becomes a race against time that Boyd and her fellow archaeologists are intent on winning. 

"We'll continue to give it everything we've got," she said.

About the Author

Justin Horne is a meteorologist and reporter for KSAT 12 News. When severe weather rolls through, Justin will hop in the KSAT 12 Storm Chaser to safely bring you the latest weather conditions from across South Texas. On top of delivering an accurate forecast, Justin often reports on one of his favorite topics: Texas history.

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