A Thousand Years of Indian Pictographs at Paint Rock

Bob Anderson Last updated on Jul 12, 2024 by

Solar and Stellar Observatories Still Work Centuries Later.

A little over an hour's drive west of our place, Paint Rock is a little dried up old West Texas town that looks like it's about to blow away with the next dust devil. It has only a couple of antique stores and a fabulous rugmaker, a cafe that is sometimes open and a post office that is usually open. When the cotton empires and local small farms collapsed, like most small towns out here, it dwindled to a shadow of its former self, but the people are warm and friendly. If you are allergic to crowds and are content within yourself, Paint Rock, 16 miles south of Ballinger on US 83 in west central Texas is a great place to be. The entrance to the pictograph site is easily found being located right on the highway just north of town. The pictographs are on private property up on the steep canyon-like walls of the bluff above the flood plain of the the Concho River.

To get to the pictographs, open the main gate, drive through it and then be sure to close it behind you so that the two bison bulls don't wander out into traffic. Drive to the visitor's center and make tour arrangements or just follow the signs on the solstice. You will drive on an old, gravel ranch road which will wind its way down to the riverside canyon where there is a parking area. A pictograph is an ancient image painted onto stone whereas a petroglyph is an image carved into stone.

As soon as you get out of your car a sense of peace and quiet descends upon you and you feel yourself relaxing and the tensions of driving and modern life in general sort of melt away and the sounds of birds bring a feeling of serenity. The tranquility settles in almost immediately upon seeing your first pictograph as you become mesmerized and you can feel yourself becoming quietly swept up in an almost ageless world of ancient art, the meanings of most of which have been lost for hundreds of years. It's easy to become so caught up into staring at a pictograph as to completely lose track of time and forget where you are. Walking toward the crowd gathering a couple of hundred yards down the path, you begin to see more of the pictographs as you walk to where the tour is in session.

Fred and Kay Campbell, owners of the ranch, are genial hosts and conduct the tours themselves and point out as many of the interesting pictographs as can be seen from ground level and explain the meanings of those that have explanations. Of course, you see more than ancient art, you also see the graffiti of a couple of hundred years of European-Americans writing their names. Even if these Indians could write, they would never have written their names on the rocks as they believed it was bad to ever again say the name of a person who has died as that would disturb their rest - that's one reason why much of Indian history has been lost.

Visit Paint Rock on December 21 to see The Winter Solstice Marker

I first saw the pictographs in December of 2002 when I brought my cedar flute to play at the solstice observance. My flute playing was a big hit and I kept getting invited back and now have sort of become a fixture on solstice days. Being such a frequent visitor, I had many opportunities to see the paintings with my binoculars, since no one is allowed up on the sides of the palisades or cliffs where the paintings are. They are easily seen from the ground level even though they are 20 or more feet above you up the steep walls of the river canyon. Some of the images seemed somehow hauntingly familiar or reminded me of something but I didn't know what.

On the solstice we gather at the appropriate marker and wait for the ray of light and I play my flute for a while leading up to the event, a triumphant song during the event and a nice long closing song. They're not songs you've heard before, they're things I have made up, but the crowd loves them and I get lots of compliments and even a few requests for a CD. Who knows? one of these days I may record some of my flute music and make a recording available.   It is unique.

There are hundreds of paintings spread out over about a thousand feet - it's a great way to spend a day that you won't forget anytime soon.

It's spring again and the wildflowers are everywhere on the ranch in dense clumps and in dazzling arrays of colors. Even Mother Nature celebrates my annual spring haircut. Because I work outside, I let my hair and beard grow long for warmth during the fall and winter and get sheared short in the spring since that's cooler. I play my Choctaw cedar flute at Lake Brownwood as a prelude to the Easter sunrise service every year and the mountain-man look kinda adds to the aura of the flute music drifting through the woods in the gray predawn. The incredibly rich and soothing flute music makes the long wait of the early arrivals go easier and I have received many compliments.

I also played the Choctaw cedar flute at the Winter Solstice of 2002 and Vernal Equinox of 2003 celebrations at the pictographs site at Paint Rock, Texas. Paint Rock is a place which many native peoples over the centuries have treated as a holy place and painted many symbols on the cliff walls above the banks of the Concho River. Observations have confirmed some of these rock paintings to accurately predict the solstices and equinoxes and some that appear to be astronomical/astrological sky charts as well.

Chiefs, Shamans and spiritual practicioners of several tribes still come here to this special place to perform their rituals, usually alone because it's not done for show, though sometimes one will chant his chant and make his offerings oblivious to the presence of others. Over the centuries, Paint Rock has been home to many different cultures and so no restrictions are placed on native religious ceremonies nor is any form of disrespect permitted.

Fred and Kay Campbell have done everything they could to preserve and protect this place and these rock paintings. They lead personally guided tours at $5 for adults and $3 for children but they encourage the observance of the solstices and equinixes; however, so there's no admission or other charges at all for the solstice celebrations. Call them at 1 - (325) 732-4376 and make a reservation for a tour and plan to spend some quality time in a special peaceful place on the banks of the cool Concho river. You'll learn some things about the Indians who lived here long ago that will surprise you. Feel free to bring a picnic basket and leave nothing but footprints in the dust and take nothing but memories and photographs. You'll come away with a peaceful feeling that might even change your life.

I hope this does not sound like a commercial; it's not. Paint Rock is not for entertainment like a powwow, but is a special place where one can commune with nature and meditate in a place that lets you feel an uncommonly strong connectedness with Mother Earth and all her other children. It feels as if some part of the spirits of those who were here before are still here. It is an invitation to open the eyes and ears of your soul to hear the stories of those whose innumerable campfires dot the night sky and whose names can never be said again. One comes away with a feeling of spiritual fulfillment and personal contentment. There are some places that just seem to have some kind of spiritual electromagnetic attraction. This place is one and so is "the Garden of the Gods" rock formations in Colorado.

I played my Choctaw cedar flute one year at the Paint Rock Pictograph site during the winter solstice and discovered the meanings of some of the pictographs. Some of them were ritualistic, such as the paintings that honored the Green Corn Moon and the Ripe Corn Moon, two of the biggest celebrations of the year among corn growing Indians and perhaps a summer solstice marker.

Some of them were of astronomical significance, such as those depicting the supernovae of 1054 and 1572 and one that was a beautiful map of the winter/spring sky. Another was already known to be a reliable marker for the winter solstice. It's a real "Aha" moment when you finally figure out a pictograph. What was a mystery for centuries is suddenly clear and lucid.  Sometimes such moments can be emotionally overpowering as you realize that someone from long ago left a written message on a wall and you just figured it out even though you don't speak the same language.  That's the power of symbology.  Sometimes it made me feel really giddy to finally figure out what was said in paint so long ago.  

What irony that the deity gives us the longest days only when the sun is at its hottest as if daring us to use the time for being outside. When I was young and strong and wanted to rule the world, I could have easily worked out in it all day. But now that I am older and just want to get away from the world, I can no longer tolerate being out in the Texas sun all day, so I cower inside during the heat of the day and work outside in the mornings and evenings. During siesta time in the information age, we surf rather than nap, most days.