Saturday February 2, 2019
Linda and I have been coming to Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site for 15 or more years now. During our first stay, I noticed that there were a number of different tours offered by the Rock Art Foundation that we could sign up for at the ranger station. The White Shaman Tour was one of them. I never got around to signing up for that tour. This year is different.
We arrived in the park on Wednesday. Thursday morning I was at the ranger station inquiring about the tours. When asked about the White Shaman tour, the ranger said those were being offered through The Witte Museum. The Witte Musuem is a natural history museum located on Broadway Street in San Antonio. I used to drive by that museum during my daily commute.
Google provided search results led to Rock Art Foundation White Shaman Preserve of the Witte Museum. On this page, near the top, is a REGISTER FOR TOURS link leading to the Calendar of Tours. The White Shaman Tour is offered most Saturdays during certain times of the year. The embedded link for registration was broken. The registration telephone number was found at the bottom of the White Shaman Tour PDF linked to on the calendar web page.
“If you have any questions, please contact us at the Witte Museum Reservations Desk: 210-357-1910.“
The museum reservation desk was helpful and I was signed up for Saturday’s tour in no time.
Finding the tour location was easy because the two primary landmarks were familiar. Driving west from Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site, look for the first landmark on the left.
The first landmark was familiar. A dilapidated gas station on the left. If you get to the second landmark, the bridge over the Pecos River, you’ve gone too far.
Just before the dilapidated gas station is the White Shaman Preserve gate on the right.
The tour started at 12:30. I was at the gate by 12:00 noon. Within five minutes, another person arrived followed by the tour leaders, a husband and wife team. We were instructed to follow the ranch road into the property and stop when we reached a few out buildings. Henny, one of the tour leaders rode with the other person, leaving Sandy, the other tour leader behind at the gate with their truck. After all the tour members had arrived, the gate was locked and Sandy drove into the marshaling area.
Driving into the 300 plus acre preserve was a treat. The ranch road wound around the canyons providing some great views.
After reaching the area where there were buildings, it became obvious where the parking area was. While waiting for the others to arrive, Henny had people sign the necessary release forms.
At the beginning of the tour, Sandy, the tour leader, gathered everyone around and shared some important items. Everyone needs to be carrying water. Everyone should have good solid shoes for hiking. The hike to the site is strenuous and requires climbing at least 70 steps straight up at the end. Hats are useful for protection from the sun. Walking sticks are useful to maintain balance.
Then Sandy started talking about the significance of this site and the peoples who lived here. Sandy talks passionately about these peoples as if he knew them well. In a sense, he does know them well through the archaeological record. There are literally thousands of similar sites within a 90 mile radius that were painted between 2,500 BC and 500 AD. Many of the sites are across the Rio Grande River in a National Park in Mexico. The sites are connected by similar paints, artistic themes and iconic representations with panthers, rabbits and deer.
The White Shaman, the most important painting at this site, has an unusual feature. A wavy line representing the real world below the line and the spirit world above the line is drawn through the shaman. At the winter solstice, the sun follows the line then cuts off the shaman’s head at sunset.
Then we headed off toward a statue of sorts. In a nearby burial site, a woman from 1,000 years ago was found. An artist used her bone structure to recreate her head.
Apparently, there were three bodies in the nearby burial site. Like nearly all of the other bodies found in the surrounding area, two of the bodies had similar genetic makeup and bone structure. The third was from somewhere else. This third man is different from all the other bodies found in burial sites in the entire area. A true mystery man. The same artist recreated a head based on the bone structure. He looks European to me.
Sandy also discussed the wikiups, wikiup foundations made from stone circles, earth ovens and dulling rocks.
Wikiups are smallish huts fashioned from sticks, grass and other native plant materials. Earth ovens were similar to how Luau pigs are roasted in pits on the beach in Hawaii. Rocks are heated on fires. A hole is dug and the food to be cooked is placed in the hole with the hot rocks. Then dirt is thrown down covering the food while it cooks. As the cooking mound cools off, the whole thing is dug up and eaten.
The ancient civilization relied on flint to create sharp edges for cutting knives. Flint gets dull over time. The dulling stone is used to remove the sharp edge/blade from a flint cutting tool so that a new edge/blade can be made.
Next, the tour group was led to the edge of the canyon with the trail to the White Shaman site. The US-90 bridge over the Pecos River was clearly visible.
It is nearly impossible to appreciate the steepness of the trail until reaching the canyon rim.
Now it is official. The warning sign says it all about the trail the tour is about to take.
Then poof, the tour group disappears below the canyon rim.
Once over the canyon rim, the trail is consistently steep with uneven footing.
Some sections of the trail are narrow and seem a bit claustrophobic. The rock overhang doesn’t help.
Just when it feels like the trail couldn’t go down any further into the canyon, the trail turns uphill, up the side of the steep canyon wall.
The tour guide, Sandy, was the last one up the last section of 70 stair steps to reach the pictograph site.
After the entire tour group climbed into the site, Sandy started describing the scene on the wall and its cultural, social and religious significance to the people creating the artwork.
This isn’t a bunch of abstract paintings done at different times by different peoples. This is a mural that was carefully planned and painted. Reading the White Shaman Mural was not easy for archaeologists. The work took years of careful study by primarily one person – Texas State University archaeologist Carolyn Boyd, a former professional artist.
The wavy white line splitting the White Shaman in two represents the boundary between the real world on the bottom and the spirit world on the top. Peyote, a psychoactive drug, was used by shamans to bridge the two worlds and played a role in religious activities.
Sandy took his time describing the mural’s features and meaning while graciously fielding questions from the group.
The views looking out from the pictograph site are excellent. On the upper right hand side of the above photo, fencing can be seen. The site is fenced off. Not because of danger from humans desecrating the site. Before fencing, goats used the site to scratch themselves. The scratching on the painted walls removed the paint. In an above picture of the mural, the lower left hand side has been partially erased by goats. It is all fuzzy. The fence is to keep goats out.
After all the questions had been asked and answered, we left the way we had come. Down, the up and up and up.
This is a great tour and learning experience. All of the Rock Art Foundation tour guides over the years have been amazing and I would like to take a moment to thank (especially) Sandy and the Rock Art Foundation for their unswerving dedication to preserving our American historical and cultural record.
Hope to see you on the road ahead!