Nature Notes: “Boulder Glyphs” Evoke a History of Violence and Conquest in the Big Bend

Erika Blecha, archeologist with Alpine's Center for Big Bend Studies, is leading research into “boulder glyphs” found in the badlands and breaks below the Sierra Vieja mountains.
Erika Blecha, archeologist with Alpine's Center for Big Bend Studies, is leading research into “boulder glyphs” found in the badlands and breaks below the Sierra Vieja mountains.

Below the Chinati Mountains, “Boulder Glyphs” Evoke a History of Violence and Conquest in the Big Bend

By Andrew Stuart

Rock art is a powerful expression of the Native American past here. From Palo Duro Canyon to the Pecos River, the region’s first peoples painted and carved countless images – vast murals, shapes aligned to celestial cycles, renderings of creatures – like bighorn sheep – that were central both to survival and ceremony.

Now, archeologists are studying another distinctive rock art phenomenon. In the Sierra Vieja breaks, north of the Chinati Mountains, they’re cataloging scores of images pecked into small, volcanic boulders. These “boulder glyphs” are mysterious, but they evoke a pivotal period in Big Bend history – one defined by violence and conflict.

In its archeological work, Alpine’s Center for Big Bend Studies has fruitful partnerships with private landowners. One of them is Jeff Fort, whose Pinto Canyon Ranch stretches from the Chinatis north along the Rio Grande.

In 2002, Fort and ranch manager Jason Sullivan were exploring a box canyon, when they noticed carvings on a boulder above the canyon floor. Bob Mallouf, then Center director, came to investigate.

He found images, from a few inches to a foot high, on five “vesicular basalt” boulders – stones pitted with natural cavities, or vesicles. They included a horseback figure, a riderless horse and two figures joining hands, their free hands upraised behind them. Mallouf interpreted the last as a dancing pair, and the site was called Dancing Rocks.

It was a novel find – but in the ensuing years, Fort and others found dozens of similar glyphs.

Center archeologist Erika Blecha is leading new research. She’s documented more than 150 boulder glyphs.

“They’re concentrated in a 3-mile area along the Rio Grande,” Blecha said. “Some of them go more inland. They’re usually on ridge lines, so they kind of have good visibility. One area has 15 that are clustered pretty tightly together.”

There are geometric designs, and figures with headdresses and hats. She named one site “Sin Cabeza.” Glyphs here depict headless figures. One boulder is propped over a flat rock. It features a figure holding a weapon. A headless figure is carved on the rock below – as if the boulders were carved and arranged to depict a decapitation.

As at Dancing Rocks, there are figures with hands clasped. But these figures are holding clubs in their free hands, apparently engaged in hand-to-hand combat. It casts a different light on the initial find.

“So these figures we once thought were dancing – now I think I’ve convinced Bob that they’re probably not dancing,” Blecha said. “It’s probably depicting something more violent.”

The Sierra Vieja breaks are a landscape as rugged, and as stunning, as any in the Big Bend, a labyrinth of hoodoos and canyons. The first Europeans found it daunting, to say the least. But Native people knew its pathways, its springs and streams – and, in the 19th century, it was a sanctuary for insurgents. U.S. military leaders referred to it as “the runway of the Indians.”

But the history goes back further. For many Native people here, the introduction to Europeans came in the form of Spanish slave raids. Resistance followed. Allied Apache and La Junta people launched attacks on nearby Spanish missions from the breaks as early as 1760.

The glyphs may reflect this history – as images memorializing success in combat. Horse images were certainly produced after European contact. But Blecha thinks some images depict conflict among tribes – and may predate European arrival.

“I believe this is indigenous-on-indigenous, because they both have clubs,” she said. “They’re not holding guns – they have clubs. It’s kind of interesting.”

It’s known that the period around 1300 CE was “a pretty violent time across the Americas,” Blecha said. Prehistoric defensive structures here reinforce that theory.

In a twist, the greatest number of images carved on the vesicular boulders are livestock brands. Some date from the area’s earliest ranches. Others may be more recent.

Perhaps Apaches or others carved them, after stealing livestock from local ranches. But upon encountering Native rock art, white settlers often felt compelled to leave their mark. Some brands are found near old fence lines. Perhaps cowboys saw Native glyphs, and paused from their labors to peck the brands of their outfits.

So far, research has been confined to Fort’s ranch. Blech is interested to hear from people who’ve seen these glyphs elsewhere in the area.

And she’s hoping, with additional research, to better understand the story behind these strange, arresting images.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.