Saving An Ancient Library

Archaeologists have undertaken an ambitious project to digitally preserve millennia-old pictographs and the knowledge they contain.

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These anthropomorphic figures are part of a Pecos River-style mural known as Rattlesnake Canyon. This represents only about one-tenth of the enormous mural, which is more than 100-feet long and ten-feet high.
These anthropomorphic figures are part of a Pecos River-style mural known as Rattlesnake Canyon. This represents only about one-tenth of the enormous mural, which is more than 100-feet long and ten-feet high. Photo by Jean Clotte / courtesy Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center

Winter 2017: By Richard A. Marini.

Having scrambled about the shallow, open-air rock shelter known as the Wiley site in southwest Texas, six archaeologists took inventory of the many iconographic figures painted on the shelter wall. They prepared to make high-resolution photographs that will document, and possibly reveal new details, about these ancient, often indecipherable images. The archaeologists work for the Shumla Archaeology Research & Education Center, a nonprofit organization based in the dusty town of Comstock.

Shumla has recently begun the Alexandria Project, an ambitious effort to catalog and digitize more than 350 rock art sites scattered throughout Val Verde County, a three-hour drive west of San Antonio, hard by the U.S.-Mexico border. The project’s name is a nod to the ancient Egyptian library that was destroyed in antiquity. The archaeologists are racing against time to build a library of high-resolution images of the murals, some of which are 4,000 years old and are painted in what’s known as the Pecos River style. They have a busy schedule that calls for them to visit and record an average of ten sites per month.

The hope is that future researchers will be able to study these digitized images should the originals—facing threats both natural and man-made—ever be lost. Together, the paintings tell the story of the aboriginal peoples who inhabited this dry, windswept land thousands of years ago. “This is one of the most important regions in the world for archaeologists who study hunter-gatherer rock art,” said Karen Steelman, an archaeological chemist who directs Shumla’s research. Steelman is one of only a few people in the world with the expertise to extract organic compounds from paint samples in order to radiocarbon date the ancient paintings.

Excerpt.

Read More in our Winter 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4.             Browse Content of this Issue: WINTER 2017.

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