Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 9, 2018
Carolyn E. Boyd and Kim Cox The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016. 219 pp.; 195 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Paperback $43.55 (9781477310304)

Ancient American rock art studies and mainstream art history have long maintained an awkward, often uneasy scholarly relationship. Ancient American rock art typically receives only occasional passing mention in mainstream art-historical publications. In The White Shaman Mural, Carolyn E. Boyd, associate professor of anthropology at Texas State University and founder of the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center in Comstock, Texas, endeavors to narrow this scholarly gap through a highly detailed analysis and interpretation of the White Shaman mural, an ancient polychrome rock art panel situated along the Rio Grande in west Texas. The mural is associated with the Pecos River style, which is dated between ca. 2000 BCE and 400 CE. Boyd is widely regarded as the leading authority on this particular rock art style. The style encompasses several dozen large polychrome painted panels attributed to semisedentary hunter-gatherer societies that occupied various alcoves and caves along the Rio Grande and several tributary canyons.

The White Shaman mural is currently dated between ca. 200 BCE and 200 CE. The composition consists of more than one hundred distinguishable anthropomorphic figures, animals, geometric motifs, and abstract forms spread across approximately twenty-six feet of the alcove wall. The mural’s name is based on one of its more visually prominent figures, a white anthropomorphic figure tentatively identified in early scholarship as a shaman. The visual complexity of the mural and the lack of any direct ethnographic associations to modern tribal peoples led early scholars to characterize the mural (and other Pecos River style panels) as, Boyd tells us, “a random collection of images painted over a course of time” (21), lacking any discernible overall compositional structure or narrative. Early scholarship focused primarily on basic questions of dating and identification of individual motifs and figures. Through cutting-edge techniques for recording and analyzing rock art pigment, and the application of Uto-Aztecan linguistic models for iconographic interpretation, Boyd challenges this simplistic interpretation, asserting a rich and complex narrative and intellectual understanding of the mural’s production and purpose.

The book is organized into seven chapters. In chapter 1, “Archaic Codices,” Boyd presents an introduction to the history of research on the Pecos River style and the White Shaman mural, including her own rather extensive personal engagement, and her basic methodological approaches to interpreting the mural. One of the great strengths of this work is Boyd’s highly ambitious, synthetic application of a number of interpretive approaches drawn from different disciplines (anthropology, ethnography, linguistics, environmental sciences, digital and scientific recording and analysis, astronomy, and art history). Chapter 2, “The Painted Landscape,” provides an updated analysis of the key formal elements and iconographic features of the Pecos River style, including descriptions of various major panels, the works’ relationship to the landscape, and current dating. Chapter 3, “Transcribing and Reading Visual Texts,” focuses on the cutting-edge recording techniques Boyd and her colleague Kim Cox employed, such as DStretch photo-enhancing software, digital-field microscopy, and portable X-ray fluorescence to acquire specific digital and often microscopic levels of technical data regarding the composition and application of mural pigment. These data in turn allow Boyd and Cox to reconstruct a highly detailed temporal sequence of pigment application and specific pigment types, a rather remarkable contribution in and of itself to studies of this style. Within chapter 3, Boyd first introduces her use of a linguistic model, based on Southern Uto-Aztecan dialects, for constructing a unified reading of the overall composition, in terms of both narrative structure and formal organization. An impressive and valuable result of the work described in the first three chapters is the presentation of a vast, extensively detailed visual record of the entire mural, through numerous color photographs, paintings, and black-and-white drawings, including a large (ca. fifteen- by twenty-four-inch) separate color foldout of the entire mural in a back cover pocket.

Chapters 1 through 3 might easily stand alone as a single monograph, but Boyd then extends her use of Uto-Aztecan linguistics and ethnography in chapters 4 through 7 to present a highly compelling interpretation of the mural as a reflection of Mesoamerican ideology and worldview. This reading differs significantly from traditional interpretations that placed the style in closer relationship to traditions from the more northerly (non-Mesoamerican) Southwest. Chapter 4, “A Primer: Abiding Themes in Mesoamerican Thought,” provides an overview of ancient Mesoamerican ideology and the Southern Uto-Aztecan language from central and northern Mexico, principally the Nahuatl (Aztecan) speakers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the more recent and historic Huichol speakers of north-central Mexico. Ample historic ethnographies from both regions are employed, as are late prehistoric and early colonial Aztec manuscripts and modern Huichol informants. Chapter 5, “Pilgrimage to Creation: A Reading of the White Shaman Mural Informed by Huichol Mythology,” is dedicated specifically to an iconographic reading of the mural’s imagery interpreted through Huichol sources, and chapter 6, “Return to Creation: A Reading of the White Shaman Mural Informed by Nahua Mythology,” offers a similar approach using specific Nahua sources. Chapter 7, “The Art of Transcendence,” serves as a summary of the overall impact of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic model as an interpretative method for the mural and style and defines this method’s great value (according to Boyd) and contribution to an understanding of the cultural context of rock art in general and the broader cultural relationship between the ancient Southwest and Mesoamerica. This last point is no small matter, as this issue continues to dominate much current scholarship on the prehistory of the region. Boyd’s revised reading of this mural is generally convincing and rather groundbreaking, effectively ascribing some deeper cultural context to the rock art. It will be interesting to see whether this approach works as well on other Pecos River–style imagery.

Given the complexity of the mural imagery and Boyd’s methodology, however, certain inevitable problems of interpretation merit some remark. Boyd is rather insistent on employing specifically the Southern dialect of Uto-Aztecan as her linguistic model. The resulting correspondences are impressive, but the Northern Uto-Aztecan dialect is essentially ignored completely, and no particular rationale is offered for this. Northern Uto-Aztecan includes historic Tarahumara and Hopi cultures, both of which share similar geographic proximity to the Pecos River–style area as well as linguistic ties to Huichol and Nahuatl. The omission does not directly weaken her argument for a Uto-Aztecan reading, but it does seem a bit forced and unjustified. More so, certain issues with her formal identifications of some elements suggest a similar forced interpretation. The most visually dominant element in the entire mural is a large (ca. six-foot), red amorphous figure near the center of the composition. Boyd is rather insistent that this image depicts a mythical earth goddess in catfish form cited in several Mesoamerican creation myths (84–86, 134–39). While this identification is certainly plausible, a “centipedelike” shape has been suggested (Harry J. Shafer, Ancient Texans: Rock Art and Lifeways along the Lower Pecos, Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1986, 142), and the figure might just as easily be seen as a caterpillar, which figures prominently in certain Hopi tales (Ekkehart Malotki, ed., The Bedbugs’ Night Dance and Other Hopi Tales of Sexual Encounter, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997, 271–73). Indeed, considerable historic correspondence between the Hopi and Aztec pantheons has been documented (M. Jane Young, “The Interconnection between Western Puebloan and Mesoamerican Ideology/Cosmology,” in Kachinas in the Pueblo World, ed. Polly Schaafsma, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994, 109). Again Boyd pushes a reading that feels a bit too forced, simply to comply with the Southern Uto-Aztecan mythology. Despite the convincing nature of most of Boyd’s methodology, the fact remains that the Pecos River style, including the White Shaman mural, still seems to bear stronger formal and stylistic similarities to other archaic rock art styles from the Southwest rather than those of Mesoamerica. Boyd acknowledges these similarities in passing (27), but, given her strong emphasis on a Mesoamerican connection, these formal and linguistic issues would seem to deserve more consideration.

These issues, however, do little to weaken the overall impact of Boyd’s approach. The depth and detail of her analysis is extraordinary and adds a much-needed level of twenty-first-century methodology to rock art studies of this region. Boyd employs a relaxed, familiar tone in her writing style, making extremely analytical details easily accessible for readers at most levels. Nevertheless, the complexity of the subject matter and the recording techniques makes the book best suited for readers already familiar with the art of ancient America and the related field of rock art research. Novice readers are not the prime target audience, but for specialists and researchers this volume will most certainly become standard required reading.

James Farmer
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University