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The White Shaman Comes To The Witte Museum

The ancient rock art painting known as the White Shaman has fascinated Texans for generations. The mysterious painting was created by the native people of Texas thousands of years ago but now it's digitally coming to the San Antonio Witte Museum as part of their new expansion and the People of the Pecos exhibit.

Standing in front of the White Shaman there is a sense of awe and wonder. Thousands of years ago a mysterious people painted this other worldly image on a West Texas cliff face. Today visitors make the journey to this rock shelter on the Mexican border outside of the town Comstock – to gaze in wonder.

“Oh it’s absolutely gorgeous”

Christina Alvarado is struck by the paintings scale and composition. Its 20 feet across with multiple animal-human stick figures painted in red, black, yellow. The central figure in white. 

“This is a unique experience,“ said Gary Hightshoe, a retired professor of landscape architecture. He says it’s clear that this is a sacred message but today it is indecipherable.

“I think the layers of meaning are lost,” said Hightshoe.

But archeologist Carolyne Boyd has spent years researching and analyzing the painting. She says its story is finally being revealed.

“This painting has so much significance that goes beyond the symbols themselves.“

She says the mural tells the story of the first people of Texas and their ideas about the creation of time and the universe. And White Shaman tells it’s story over and over again each year.  

“At Winter Solstice in the mural at sunset the sun climbs up the panel up until it reaches this White Shaman figure – lunar deity – and at that point the line stops. And essentially the sun decapitates the moon.“  

Get to the White Shaman mural is not easy. Be prepared to walk about two miles on narrow rocky trails that climb up and down the cliff faces of the lower Pecos river valley. But the view is worth it.

The Rock Art Foundation has long maintained the land here known as the White Shaman Preserve, giving tours, studying the images and keeping them safe from vandals.

But at the state of this year the Witte Museum took over ownership. The two groups will work together maintain the site.

“The critical thing about this is it’s going to allow access to the property over the generations and also protect it and conserve it, ” said Harry Shafer, the curator of archeology for the Witte.

“It’s not just the rock shelter itself it’s the contact of it. The canyon lands, the landscape, that is all going to be protected. It’s not going to be built over. It’s not going to be paved over. It’s going to be raw, just like it was in the past,” he said.

Marisa McDermott, president and CEO of the Witte Museum, said they have been researching the early people of the Pecos since the 1930’s.

“We are particularly proud of the over 20 thousand artifacts that we have from the people of the Pecos. This is actually a very rare collection of hunter gathers materials in the world, ” she said.

And until now the Witte was largely unable to show much of the collection but with the museum’s new expansion it’s being put on center stage with the People of the Pecos exhibit.

“Some people think that the role of the museum is showing old stuff but here at the Witte we believe that what we are doing is revealing lifeways and this new gallery is an immersive experience of the spiritual space of the rock art narratives that people lived and ate and played music together.

In the exhibit there are multiple digital replicas of the rock art – including the White Shaman – making it available to museum goers without having to scramble up the cliffs of West Texas.

Credit David Martin Davies

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi