Sunday February 3, 2019
This is probably the fifth or sixth time I’ve done the Fate Bell Shelter Tour at Seminole Canyon State Park & Historical Site. Every time, I gain some new insight about the peoples who lived in the area from 10,000 years ago to a few hundred years ago. Sometime between 2,500 BC and 500 AD, artist shamans developed paint and techniques to paint durable murals at literally thousands of similar sites within a 90 mile radius. The sites are connected by similar paints, artistic themes and iconic representations with panthers, rabbits and deer. The Fate Bell Shelter is one of these sites.
The Fate Bell Shelter can only be seen by going on a guided tour. Sandy, the tour guide for the White Shaman Tour, was leading Sunday’s tour. The early tour is at 10:00 AM everyday except Monday and Tuesday. It made sense to show up ½ hour early because sometimes the tours are exceedingly busy and fill up.
While waiting for the tour to begin, it made sense to check out the museum section of the ranger station. There is quite a bit of general and natural history information about the immediate area. Rock shelter pictograph sites are all over Texas. There are more pictograph sites than just rock shelter ones.
The tour begins on the back porch of the ranger station. Sandy gave some some introductory remarks about what tour tour was about to see and do.
The paintings in the Fate Bell Shelter go back some 4,000 years. The shelter itself had been used from 10,000 BC to 800 AD.
Normally the view from the back porch is excellent but the canyon was shrouded in fog. Nothing to see.
Just below the ranger station is a commissioned artist creation depicting a shaman. The artwork blends many of the same themes found in the rock art itself.
With the tour group facing the shaman, Sandy described the symbolism embodied in the statue. In the shaman’s right hand is an atlatle and spear. An atlatle is a spear thrower that greatly increases the velocity and power of a thrown spear. This is the tool of the hunter. The deer head and antlers on the shaman signifies peyote, gateway drug into the spirit world. The deer/peyote connection is odd. Deer were used to find peyote buds as they emerged after rains. As a result, deer are sacred animals as were rabbits and panthers.
To reach the Fate Bell Shelter site, the tour has to climb down into Seminole canyon. Then they walk down the canyon ½ mile or so and the shelter is up the canyon wall on the right.
It turns out, this area has been on a human transit route for thousands of years. The Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers were part of a larger network of trails that became The Kings Highway or Camino Real.
The average lifespan of the ancient inhabitants is thought to be between 38 and 40 years. 10,000 years ago, the climate was wetter than it is today. It wasn’t a desert like today. Lots of big game to hunt. Lots of large trees to provide fuel and cover. Then, 1,000 years ago the rains stopped coming quite so often. Verdant grasslands remained. Since the Europeans came, cattle, sheep, goats and fences have taken the verdant grasslands and remade them into dusty dry desert.
Moving down canyon, the Fate Bell Annex is the first stop. This area is much smaller than the shelter area. It has the same type of artwork as the shelter area.
Oddly, there is graffiti in the Fate Bell Annex that has been in place long enough to be considered part of the historical record. So it will be part of the rock art until at least the end of our civilization.
Next, the tour went further down canyon to the shelter. The shelter is a third of the way up the canyon wall. There are steps to climb up.
At the top of the stairs are rubber mats for visitors to walk on so no damage or erosion occurs on the trash from 10,000 years of continuous human habitation.
It is a good walk hugging the canyon wall to get to where the art is.
Fate Bell Shelter isn’t the only rock shelter in the Lower Pecos. This article, Lower Pecos Rock Shelters, discusses a number of nearby rock shelters. The Fate Bell Shelter is special mainly because of its size. It is larger than most.
The artwork in this shelter is similar in many respects to the artwork found on the White Shaman Tour.
There is more than one shaman depicted. The above shaman has the wavy line through its middle. The line is a representation of the boundary between the real and spiritual worlds.
In the upper left hand side of the above photo is a drawing that looks like a square tunnel with railroad tracks leading out from it. Sandy asked the tour group to speculate on its meaning.
There was a lively discussion on possible meanings. As it stands, archaeologists have yet to assign an accepted meaning to that piece in the drawing. There are still mysteries to solve.
In one area, the shelter floor was dug away revealing layers of human habitation built up over time. The woody plant looking fibrous stuff are yucca leaves which were used to make mats. As mats wore out, new mats were made and placed on top of layers of dirt, garbage, etc. Over time, the floor level was raised as more and more junk got buried and hidden under the mats. By carbon dating the mats at different layers, scientists and archaeologists can get a clear idea of when each layer of mats was made.
Sandy, standing in a part of the shelter that must have served as the community kitchen, described this large rock with a flat polished smooth surface. The dark coating on the top of the rock was formed by centuries of fat coming into contact with the semi-porous stone surface. This is where animals were cut up prior to cooking and/or where cooked meat was cut up before eating. One would think the rock would be gross, disgusting given its historical use. Quite the opposite. Today it doesn’t seem to have held dead animal flesh at all. No signs of blood. Without being told, one would never guess the stone top’s glossy black surface was from eons of animal fat contact.
The area around Seminole Canyon was previously ocean bottoms that were pushed up during some geological age. The rock is relatively soft so that erosion forms canyons over eons of time. The fossils seen in the rock can be used to identify which geological period the rock was made from.
From the shelter, the canyon views are amazing. Truly a magical place on many levels. The tour returned as it had come. Down to the bottom of the canyon. Up the canyon to where the steps lead back to the ranger station.
Special thanks to Sandy for giving an awesome tour.
Hope to see you on the road ahead!