10 Days in Fate Bell Shelter

The Shumla Research Team spells out F A T E B E L L
By Jerod Roberts and Vicky Roberts

We knew from the beginning of The Alexandria Project that documenting Fate Bell Shelter was going to be a monumental task. A typical rock art site may take us only a few hours to complete our baseline level of documentation, while a larger site will turn into a multi-day endeavor. By the end of it, Fate Bell took 10 days of field work to complete. If we had tried to tackle this site at the beginning of the project it easily would have taken us twice as long. Thus far we have recorded over 136 sites for the Alexandria Project and have found each site presents very specific challenges such as poor lighting, odd viewing angles, obstructions blocking the rock art, low or high ceilings, and many more occur regularly—and that’s ok. When dealing with a handful of problems, especially at relatively small rock art sites, you can manage; however, when tackling a site like Fate Bell you are presented with all of these challenges at once and it can become a bit overwhelming. It was a good thing we had so many sites under our belt (95 when we started Fate Bell) and we were as prepared as we could be, but there are always surprises. Throughout those 10 days, we worked hard, sweated hard, laughed, cried, shouted with excitement, and shouted with frustration. In the end, it was all worth it… This is our story of the Alexandria Project documentation of the pictographs at Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park.

Fate Bell Shelter

Panoramic view of Fate Bell Shelter from across the canyon
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Fate Bell Shelter, It is located within Seminole Canyon State Park (https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/seminole-canyon) and is considered the largest rockshelter in the region. Fate Bell spans approximately 157 meters across by 30 meters at the deepest point and contains countless shelter wall faces and angles. For our non-metric friends, those measurements are about 515 feet by 98 feet! The sheer volume of archaeological features is truly astounding: a massive burned rock midden occupies the interior section of the site, bedrock grinding features and deeply incised grooves adorn the tops of boulders scattered across the site, and the majority of the shelter wall is covered in rock art. That’s right, the majority of a shelter that is over 157 meters long is almost completely covered in rock art! Add to that a small collection of figurative petroglyphs, and Fate Bell truly has it all. Fate Bell is incredibly important for a handful of reasons including (but not limited to): its size, its location within in a major canyon with springs feeding into the Rio Grande, and the preserved perishable artifacts recovered in various excavations.
Bedrock features found on an isolated boulder
Shumla researchers Charles (left) and Jerod (right) surrounded by fire cracked rock from earth oven baking
Groove marks and heavy sheen on a large boulder
Dense grouping of rock art along the back wall
Well over a decade has passed since the last intensive documentation of the rock art was conducted at Fate Bell, and we were excited to include Fate Bell as part of the Alexandria Project. The first step was a request to Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Cultural Resource Management Department and the current superintendent for permission to step off the rubber mats for a closer look. A few days later, we obtained authorization and fieldwork was scheduled.

Field Work

Day One – Preparation is the Key to Success

During the documentation of any given site for the Alexandria Project it always begins by the crew walking in, placing our packs down, and taking a look around. This usually takes about 10-15 minutes, and is followed by another few minutes to set up a plan of attack (see Satan Gallery blog post).

Our typical 10-15 minutes turned into the entire first day to develop a plan. Fate Bell’s rock art seems chaotic due to the sheer volume of imagery, the positioning (ceiling, floor, boulders, etc.), variation in figure size (from 1 inch to 15 feet tall in a single section), and angles of the rock surface. In order to logically document the site, it became clear we first had to divide the panel into more manageable pieces. Our solution was to divide the panel into 41 smaller sections using natural features in the wall, gaps between rock art figures, or ideal surfaces for gigapanoramas (see SfM/Gigapan blog post). Each section was assigned a number, marked with flagging tape, and photographed for reference (map provided at the end of this blog post).

Rock art imagery on the ceiling
Rock art imagery on the floor
Rock art imagery at eye level

Day Two – The Recording Began

The crew continued the grueling task of identifying and describing the rock art while we had the Gigapan photographing the upstream sections. Our typical plan is to work from one end of the site and move towards the other, but because of the massive scale of Fate Bell, it was impossible. The light varied across the site so much that the operator of the Gigapan had to hop around out of order to ensure high quality photography.
Amanda working the gigapan on the downstream section
Amanda changing locations to follow the light
Amanda getting low to get the right angle for the gigapan
Charles, Vicky, and Jerod working together to fill out the Rock Art Site Form
Jerod pretending to pick up Amanda by the head

Day Three – The Menagerie

Usually at less complex sites each team member would separate and focus on a given task (Gigapans, Rock Art Site Form, Context Photos, Feature Photos, etc.) and help others when needed. The scale of Fate Bell forced us to change our strategy and team up to tackle only a couple of tasks at once: Gigapans and the Rock Art Site Form (RASF). For the RASF, two crewmembers would examine the panel using DStretch to try and make sense of the images, while the third person typed what was being described. After a couple of hours the RASF crew would rotate tasks so that everyone had a chance to describe the rock art and type. From our work on the first day we already knew where the Gigapan sections would be, so only one person was needed to operate the camera. Both teams started on the downstream area and began working their way through the site.
Charles, Vicky, and Jerod working together on the Rock Art Site Form
We also received our first visitors! The normal 10 am and 3 pm Fate Bell tours began to run for the week and the Park Interpreter, Tanya Petruney, brought the groups down to see archaeologists in the wild! The crew took turns talking to the groups, explaining our rock art documentation process, and answered any questions they had. With permission, we were able to take the smaller tours off the mats to show them pictographs too difficult or impossible to see from the designated path. This wasn’t just a special treat for the tours; we love being able to interact with the public, show examples of the art, and discuss some of the new things we noticed just prior to their arrival! These tours truly heard the latest updates on our work. It was an interesting and new experience to have tours come through while documenting a site. Only two sites are open to the public that give weekly tours: Fate Bell and the Rock Art Foundation White Shaman Preserve of the Witte Museum (http://www.wittemuseum.org/rock-art/), which is only open to guests once a week.
Vicky discussing the "Triad" panel with Tanya and a group of visitors
A group of visitors getting a special look up close
Charles discussing the "Triad" panel with a group of visitors

Day Four – VIPs in the LPC

In addition to our usual crew members, Mario (our IT expert) joined us for his first day in the field. Mario does a great job handling all of our data and gained a newfound appreciation of its importance after working with us in the field. He also gained an “appreciation” for hauling equipment in and out of the canyons as we loaded him down with gear!  Tim Roberts, the Regional Cultural Resource Coordinator, and Michael Strutt, TPWD’s Cultural Resource Director joined us as well. They came down to check on the progress and hear about what we have been finding out so far. Like us, they couldn’t pass up the chance to walk off the mats and get a closer look, as it is a rare opportunity even for the officials that gave authorization in the first place. We also had park staff member Amy Alvizo-Dawson stop down at the site making the day full of guests!
Mario an Vicky watching the gigapan on the upstream section

Day Five – The Zone

We were in the groove and continued to make progress on the Gigapans and filling out site forms.  It was one of those days that everyone focused on the task in front of them. One amazing scene we noticed was a set of felines facing each other.  What makes them interesting is not only that there are portions of the figures implied, but it also appears as if they are screaming at each other! We jokingly named these figures “the dueling kitties”.
Amanda babysitting the gigapan
Vicky and Jerod trying to discern an area with complex imagery
The "Dueling Kitties" seen in real-color (top) and DStretch LDS enhancement (bottom)

Day Six – An Unexpected Surprise

It started like any other day. We were describing a section on the ceiling right in front of a major stopping point on the guided tours, an area we’ve seen dozens of times. A shout from the Rock Art Site Form team echoed through the canyon and we all gathered quickly under the section.  We all worked together to DStretch the large area and started to notice some claws, then a tail, then more claws, then dots!  What we were looking at was a scene of at least three felines.  The icing on the cake was two of the felines are covered in spots, a first known to us in the region and possibly indicating this feline was not just a mountain lion or panther, but possibly a jaguar!!
Amanda and Charles looking at a section on the ceiling

Day Seven- Hidden in Plain Sight

It was business as usual for the crew and Seminole’s Park Law Enforcement officer, James Hestilow, came down for a visit to learn about what we were finding on the upstream end of the shelter. Intermixed with the giant Pecos River Style Figures are dozens of examples of Red Linear Style (RLS) figures. While we knew of a few examples of RLS in this area, we didn’t know to what extent. Some of the most interesting examples were found quite high up on the panel.

Day Eight- Marooned in the Rain

The day was cold, wet, and a little uncomfortable, but that didn’t stop us from continuing on with our documentation efforts. One of our tasks this day was to attempt to Gigapan the ceiling sections where we found the felines two days earlier and we were somewhat successful. We did however get a little dizzy trying to get the camera set up while laying upside down! We had also noticed some unusual dark red/maroon horned figures that that do not fit in any of the established rock art styles. We’ve seen them at several sites within Seminole Canyon now including Fate Bell, Fate Bell Annex (just next door to Fate Bell!), VV75 (a mile downstream of Fate Bell), Black Cave in nearby Presa Canyon, and Panther Cave.

Day Nine – Lasers for Science

We brought down a Total Data Station (TDS) in order to help us prepare for creating the 3D model for the site. This is not a tool we usually haul around during baseline documentation, but in order to properly scale a site this massive, we needed to establish a coordinate system within the shelter. Sort of serendipitously, we began to notice numbers written in pencil along the back wall on the upstream end of Fate Bell. They were evenly spaced and sequential, causing us to suspect they corresponded to the excavations conducted by Pierce and Jackson in the 1930s. They were marking their grid system in increments of 5 feet and we decided to also shoot them in using the TDS. This will allow for someone in the future to correspond items found in the deposits with the actual location in the site. Park staff member, Ashley Patiño came down and we were glad to show what we had been learning. All of the photography and forms were completed and all that was left was the SfM.

Day Ten- The Photographic Workout

The last field day and the last baseline task: the SfM. It took approximately 3 hours to photograph the entire site. For context, a typical site may take about 20 minutes, while larger sites may an hour. Can you imagine having the take photos for 3 hours nonstop? By the end of the day, we had taken about 4,500 photos and our arms were noodles.
Charles doing the SfM of the back wall
Jerod doing the SfM of a petroglyph boulder

Closing Remarks

Fate Bell is an incredible archaeological treasure and before our documentation work we were so excited to have the chance to see the rock art up close. Forrest Kirkland’s renderings do a great job making sense of the seemingly chaotic arrangement of images but they did not prepare us for how much rock art truly is at the site. One particular mystery we hoped to solve is that of the extremely tall figures on the far upstream end of the site. The largest figure at Fate Bell is roughly 10 meters (about 30 feet) tall and Kirkland painted it as having two large infilled dots for a head. This head type is not seen in any other Pecos River Style figures and just didn’t seem to make sense. Its size and position on the wall make it almost impossible to really study it in person, even with ladders.  After looking at the gigapan of this section back in lab, the shape of the dots are actually flat on the bottom side and it appears they are the tips of a u-shaped headdress, which is very common especially in Seminole Canyon!
Location of large anthropomorph in upstream section
The large U-Shaped headed figure
During our investigations we were blown away not only by the amount of paint present at the site, but the amount of yellow paint specifically. By far the two colors we see the most across the landscape are black and red, but Fate Bell has an unusually high amount of yellow paint with a surprisingly low amount of black paint. This is something we didn’t really realize until we had spent a few days describing sections of rock art.
It has taken months for us to comb through the data and process the 3D models and gigapans for Fate Bell, and there is still so much more to be analyzed. Seminole Canyon and the nearby canyon systems have a very unique aspect to them from the density of well-preserved rock art sites to the clustering of particular attributes. Fate Bell offers an amazing opportunity for us to learn more about the ancient peoples of this region. There are very few sites that have been as well documented with respect to both archaeological deposits as well as the rock art on the walls and we are truly humbled by the chance to help shed light on the amazing culture groups that have passed by over the course of the past 10,000 years.
End of our field work crew photo!

Links to Gigapan Sections and 3D Models

Section locations for the gigapans

Use the image above to locate the correct Gigapan section to view within the gallery below

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213605 (Panel 1 Section 00 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213604 (Panel 1 Section 00 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213603 (Panel 1 Section 01 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213602 (Panel 1 Section 01 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213601 (Panel 1 Section 02 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213600 (Panel 1 Section 02 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214691 (Panel 1 Section 03 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213598 (Panel 1 Section 03 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213596 (Panel 1 Section 04 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213595 (Panel 1 Section 04 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214690 (Panel 1 Section 05 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214688 (Panel 1 Section 05 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213587 (Panel 1 Section 06 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213586 (Panel 1 Section 06 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213585 (Panel 1 Section 07 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213584 (Panel 1 Section 07 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213583 (Panel 1 Section 08 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213582 (Panel 1 Section 08 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214685 (Panel 1 Section 09 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214678 (Panel 1 Section 09 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213579 (Panel 1 Section 10 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213578 (Panel 1 Section 10 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213576 (Panel 1 Section 11 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213575 (Panel 1 Section 11 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213573 (Panel 1 Section 12 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213571 (Panel 1 Section 12 DStretch 1)\

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213569 (Panel 1 Section 12 DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213568 (Panel 1 Section 13 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213563 (Panel 1 Section 13 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214676 (Panel 1 Section 14 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214673 (Panel 1 Section 14 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213560 (Panel 1 Section 15 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213559 (Panel 1 Section 15 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213558 (Panel 1 Section 16 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213557 (Panel 1 Section 16 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214672 (Panel 1 Section 17 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214652 (Panel 1 Section 17 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213554 (Panel 1 Section 18 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214651 (Panel 1 Section 18 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213550 (Panel 1 Section 19 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/214650 (Panel 1 Section 19 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213548 (Panel 1 Section 20 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213547 (Panel 1 Section 20 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213546 (Panel 1 Section 21 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213545 (Panel 1 Section 21 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213541 (Panel 1 Section 22 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213539 (Panel 1 Section 22 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213538 (Panel 1 Section 23 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213536 (Panel 1 Section 23 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213534 (Panel 1 Section 24 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213533 (Panel 1 Section 24 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213532 (Panel 1 Section 25 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213531 (Panel 1 Section 25 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213517 (Panel 1 Section 26 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213516 (Panel 1 Section 26 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213515 (Panel 1 Section 27 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213514 (Panel 1 Section 27 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213512 (Panel 1 Section 28 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213511 (Panel 1 Section 28 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213510 (Panel 1 Section 29 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213509 (Panel 1 Section 29 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213506 (Panel 1 Section 30 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213505 (Panel 1 Section 30 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213504 (Panel 1 Section 31 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213503 (Panel 1 Section 31 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213502 (Panel 1 Section 32 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213501 (Panel 1 Section 32 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213498 (Panel 1 Section 33 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213496 (Panel 1 Section 33 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213495 (Panel 1 Section 34 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213493 (Panel 1 Section 34 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213492 (Panel 1 Section 35 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213491 (Panel 1 Section 35 DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213490 (Panel 1 Section 35 DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213488 (Panel 1 Section 36 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213481 (Panel 1 Section 36 DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213480 (Panel 1 Section 36 DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213479 (Panel 1 Section 37 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213478 (Panel 1 Section 37 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213476 (Panel 1 Section 38 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213475 (Panel 1 Section 38 DStretch)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213632 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213631 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2 DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213630 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2 DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213629 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2A real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213628 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2A DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213627 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2A DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213626 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2B real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213625 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2B DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213624 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2B DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213623 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2C real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213622 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2C DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213621 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2C DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213620 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2C2 real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213619 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2C2 DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213618 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2C2 DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213617 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2D real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213616 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2D DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213615 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2D DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213614 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2E real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213613 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2E DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213612 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2E DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213611 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2F real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213610 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2F DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213609 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2F DStretch 2)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213608 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2G real-color)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213607 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2G DStretch 1)

http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/213606 (Panel 1 Ceiling Section 2G DStretch 2)


  1. Wow. That is some amazing recording. Absolutely in awe of your work.

  2. This will take a month to even look at. Marvelous! I remember crawling around in the excavated part for about a week with Teddy Stickney’s TX arch group trying to hand draw whatever we could see which wasn’t much. How things have changed and improved in just 10 years. Thank you for doing this important work.

  3. Strange how Kirkland missed the spotted cat since he copied the figures on each side of it.