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May 11, 2011
Lasers to be Used to Help Document, Preserve Ancient Rock Art
Project Beginning Soon at Seminole Canyon State Historic Site
COMSTOCK – Fragile and fading rock art painted thousands of years ago in rock shelters and caves by indigenous peoples at Seminole Canyon State Historic Site will soon benefit from the latest in laser technology.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, working in partnership with the National Park Service and SHUMLA Archeological Research and Education Center, has embarked on a technologically advanced program of documenting, monitoring, and preserving the rapidly deteriorating prehistoric rock art at Panther Cave.
Beginning on May 19 contractors at Seminole Canyon west of Comstock will employ LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) mapping techniques to create a 3-D map of Panther Cave, a large rock shelter just above the point where the canyon intersects the Rio Grande River along the banks of Lake Amistad. Panther Cave in Val Verde County is well-known for its dramatic Pecos River Style pictographs, including a large leaping cat and a number of anthropomorphic, or human-like, figures. The site is jointly managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and National Park Service.
Tim Roberts, TPWD’s cultural resources coordinator for the region, says extremely detailed digital photos of the site’s rock art will be overlaid onto a 3-D model of Panther Cave. The rock art site can be accessed by boat, but a chain link fence across the mouth of the shelter protects the fragile paintings within.
“The model will be used to help monitor the deterioration of the rock art and be available to visitors who are otherwise unable to access the site, initially at computer stations, at Seminole Canyon State Park and Amistad National Recreation Area,” Roberts explains. “It also will be available to researchers at SHUMLA in Comstock and the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory.”
The Panther Cave pictographs, which date as early as 4,300 years old based on available radiocarbon dates, have faced increased deterioration in recent years due to apparent increased wasp nesting activities and possibly higher humidity levels within the shelter since the impoundment of Lake Amistad in the late 1960s.
Each year thousands of visitors from all over the world find their way to the limestone canyons of the Lower Pecos River country. The main reason most visit is to see the large, vibrant, multicolored paintings of pictographs of shamans, animals and other fantastical figures decorating the walls and ceilings of rock shelters in the area. Guided tours are available to some of these sites, including one to the Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Historic Site, that requires a short hike down from the park’s visitor center on the canyon rim.
“Scientists will be able to compare the imagery resulting from this project with previous photographs to monitor weathering and other damage to the pictographs,” Roberts says. “LiDAR’s accuracy will allow us over time to not only see differences in the rock art, but also to better quantify the damage.”
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