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On a breezy April morning, five Comstock high school seniors clamber around boulders and hop across a stream in Seminole Canyon on their way to inspect some of the finest examples of rock art in the world.
After a 20-minute hike, they reach the foot of Fate Bell Shelter, a curved hollow midway up a cliff wall that’s big enough for a game of baseball. The students, along with science teacher Kayme Tims and chemist Karen Steelman, scramble up to the rocky amphitheater, where they can see faded red, yellow and black images painted there more than 2,000 years ago.
“This place is so special, and it’s not just because of the rock art,” says Steelman, science director of the plasma oxidation lab at Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center in Comstock, explaining that ancient fiber mats, sandals and rabbit furs have been found in the rock shelters that line this canyon in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. “This is one of the best places to study hunter-gatherers. We can see more than stone tools. We can see how they lived.”
The rock shelters—more than 300 have been identified in Val Verde County—also serve as valuable classrooms for students in their final year of high school in Comstock, a tiny, one-school town of fewer than 300 people about 30 miles northwest of Del Rio. Every senior in the Comstock Independent School District—there are seven for the 2020–2021 school year—works alongside archaeologists and chemists as they study the region’s renowned rock art.
In the past few years, students from the school have helped build a plasma oxidation instrument that scientists will use to extract organic material from paint flakes so they can date the rock art. Previous classes have labeled rock art murals, measured painted images, entered data into computers and learned how to use imaging software. In short, the program, introduced in 2013 and structured as an interdisciplinary internship, allows the students from a small school in South Texas to learn sophisticated archaeological analysis and physical sciences from the pros.
The class not only helps Shumla, a nonprofit organization founded more than 20 years ago to study and document rock art in the region, but also gives the students hands-on experience in a working laboratory.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, class looks a little different this year. Steelman and Tims meet with the students two or three times a week via Zoom. Besides studying various styles of rock art and learning how ancient people used animal fat and crushed minerals to make paint, the students study plants that were used for food, clothing and shelter. They learned, for example, that cochineal, a type of scale insect that lives on prickly pear cactus, was used to make red and orange dyes.
“I have two goals: first, teach some chemistry using the archaeology of the Lower Pecos as a framework. Second, teach students an appreciation for the amazing cultural archaeology that’s right in our backyard,” Steelman says.
That plan is working. At Fate Bell Shelter, the students use a smartphone app called DStretch to photograph the artwork and then enhance its color so the images are more clearly visible.
“I think it’s pretty cool that it’s right here in our backyard,” says Sammy Isaac, 18, of Comstock as the images jump into focus.
“Can you imagine painting something and it lasting that long?” Steelman says as the students point out features of the Lower Pecos River style artwork—anthropomorphic figures with outstretched arms, holding bundles of what look like darts. “These were master artists; they were good.”
Scientists at shumla recently helped secure National Historic Landmark status for the rock art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, one of the most important archaeological regions in the world, according to French prehistorian Jean Clottes. And last year they completed comprehensive documentation of 233 rock art sites for the Alexandria Project, their effort to preserve these oldest “books” of painted texts in North America.
Together Steelman and Tims have taught successive groups of Comstock seniors about concepts from pigment analysis to radiocarbon dating. The educators say they hope the basic chemistry knowledge will give students an edge in college and an appreciation of the cultural importance of where they live.
“I hope they realize what we have here, that it’s unique; they grew up somewhere with significance,” Tims says.
Back in the Fate Bell Shelter, the students gather in front of the faint outline of a figure, one hand holding what looks like a bundle of sticks. They note that some of the figures’ hair looks like it’s standing on end—a characteristic known as piloerection that has various interpretations.
At one point, the five students line up in front of one section of the mural, laughing a little as they re-create a scene on the wall depicting five figures, one with its arms reaching skyward. Experts don’t know for sure, but some believe paintings like this represent spiritual or religious beliefs.
“The rock art tells stories about family, religion and past events,” says Courtney White, 18, of Del Rio. “When I found out about it, I learned more respect for the people who made it. What they painted was heartfelt. What was important to them should be important to me.”
After 45 minutes of exploring the Fate Bell Shelter, the group climbs down and hikes another mile along the rugged creek bed, scrambling through underbrush, hopping over streams and climbing up smooth rock to another shelter, known to scientists as 41VV75. This site, Steelman tells the students, has been used for more than 8,000 years, although the images painted on its walls are half that age, according to radiocarbon testing. The students explore the site, noticing fibers from ancient mats made of plants. A few look down the canyon, talking about what it must have been like to live here.
Only a fraction of the rock art in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands has been radiocarbon-dated. “That’s one thing students are helping me with—developing a laboratory at Shumla so we can do more research and study the ages of different styles of art and how [the style] may have changed through time,” Steelman says.
After breaking for lunch next to huge boulders in the canyon, the students load up and head back to Shumla headquarters, housed in what was once a U.S. Border Patrol building in Comstock. There, they file into the lab to check out a plasma oxidation instrument built by the previous year’s students. The instrument spans nearly an entire wall, its row of orangey-red lights reminiscent of the heating lamps used to keep fried chicken or pies warm at a fast-food restaurant.
But this $83,000 piece of equipment, funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, won’t be used to warm lunch; Steelman and Lori Barkwill-Love, a college intern, will use it to extract organic material from dime-sized flakes of paint carefully obtained from rock art murals. That material will be sent to another lab for radiocarbon dating.
“The instrument is custom-built with all these parts, basically like Lego blocks,” Steelman says. “It was the perfect opportunity for students to come into the lab and help.”
This year’s class will build on the work of last year’s seniors. Before the school year ends, they will assemble a new electrode array for the plasma oxidation instrument in this world-class lab. The project requires scientific design as well as practical skills such as drilling through PVC pipe, threading copper wire through the piping and measuring twice so you only have to cut once.
And those are lessons that most students never get in high school.
Pam LeBlanc has been fascinated with rock art in South Texas since first visiting Shumla about 10 years ago, when she also learned (sort of) how to use an atlatl to throw a spear.