A Recipe for Success: Experimental Archaeology and Paint Making

By Amanda Castaneda and Charles Koenig

One of the most frequently asked questions during a rock art site tour is, “How did these ancient artists create the paints they used?” And we usually throw the question right back and ask, “How would you create a paint if you were a hunter-gatherer living 4,000 years ago without Home Depot, Walmart, or a Sherwin Williams store around?” This usually gets people to ponder the question, at which point we give hints like, “There are a few basic components of any liquid paint: the pigment, the binder, and an extender or emulsifier. What natural resources do you think could be used for these purposes?” 

We know Lower Pecos hunter-gatherers made paint not only because of the pictographs, but also because of artifacts like this paint palette from recent excavations at Eagle Cave. Note the dribbles of paint running down the edge (Image courtesy of Ancient Southwest Texas Project).

Understanding how the paints were created is valuable information because it reflects how people interacted with their environment. Around the world and throughout time there have been many different ingredients used in the creation of paints, always depending on the resources available and cultural trends. For decades, archaeologists working in the Lower Pecos were focused on understanding the meaning or function of the pictographs. However, in the 1980s archaeologists began investigating how the paints were made.

The following blog takes the reader on a journey of a paint-making experiment carried out by Dr. Carolyn Boyd in her undergrad days at Texas A&M University, and addresses the question, “How did these ancient artists create the paints they used?”

The Pigments


The first task Carolyn undertook was to find her pigment source. A pigment can be any colored material (organic or inorganic) and gives the paint its color. Organic pigments can be made from things like plants, blood, or charcoal, while inorganic pigments are rocks or minerals. Several chemical studies determined the Pecos River Style paints (red, black, yellow, and white) contained mineral-based pigments (Hyman et al. 1996; Zolensky et al. 1982). Further, they also identified what minerals were used to create each paint color: hematite (red ochre) to produce red, limonite (yellow ochre) for yellow, and manganese oxide to produce black. We are still uncertain what was used to create white pigments (possibly gypsum, calcite, or clay), but that’s a blog for another time. Importantly, all of these minerals are found in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands.
A variety of minerals were ground into a fine powder to produce red, black, yellow, and white pigments.
Ideally, you want to find a soft mineral that is easy to grind into a fine powder and can be dispersed into a liquid. At the time, Carolyn had a collection of very hard minerals she had acquired from the White Mountains in Arizona, and she still recalls how difficult it was to pound them into an acceptable state.
In 2011 Jack Skiles took the team to a manganese vein, where the mineral pools up from the ground and hardens. These manganese rocks were incredibly soft and workable. There are several recorded manganese veins west of the Pecos and Rio Grande confluence.

The Binder

The next step in the process was to add a binder to the finely ground pigment. A binder holds all of the pigment particles together, and also allows the mixture to adhere to a surface (in our case, a limestone shelter wall). In other words, you need something sticky. Indigenous peoples in North America used a variety of organic substances as binders: blood, egg whites, sap from plants, or animal fat (Christensen and Dickey 1996). As an artist, Carolyn knew the paint needed to be slow-drying to remain workable for extended amounts of time as well as homogenous and fluid to execute delicate, continuous lines. The binder also needed to be colorless for the creation of yellow and white pigments. Finally, the size of many Pecos River Style murals necessitated large amounts of paint to be made at one time. These criteria eliminated blood, egg whites, and sap from the list of potential binders.

Ethnographic accounts from California reported the use of deer bone marrow as a paint binder (Malainey 2010). Bone marrow in a healthy deer is white or has no color, is almost pure fat (95%), and the greatest concentration exists in the long bones (Boyd and Dering 2013). Armed with this idea, Carolyn started frequenting the College Station meat market and would request fresh deer legs with no meat attached – she got a few strange looks to say the least!

Once at home with her fresh deer leg, Carolyn broke open the leg with a hammer stone and collected the gelatinous marrow. With great excitement and anticipation, Carolyn added the sticky mess to the crushed ocher and very quickly realized that these two ingredients alone would not give her the paint she desired. Instead she had a thick glob of pigmented fat sitting on her work surface.
The deer leg is stripped of all muscle and is broken with a hammer stone to access the marrow in the middle of the long bone. The marrow is then added to the crushed mineral pigment.
The bone marrow and crushed pigment alone create a thick, uneven mess that is not effective for painting.

The Extender/Emulsifier

Carolyn knew she needed to add an extender to the mixture, something that would add volume and liquid to the paint to make it more fluid. One of the easiest extenders is water, and since it was in ready supply at Carolyn’s house, she added it to the pigmented marrow. Once again, it became apparent that water would not adequately thin the paint since bone marrow is not water soluble. As is typical with experimental archaeology, we often find that our initial ideas do not pan out as we might expect, and we are forced to think about other solutions.

Frustrated, Carolyn stopped working with the goopy mess and went to the sink to wash up. As she added soap to her hands the thick, unworkable pigmented bits of fat on her fingers turned to a thin, silky, beautiful oil-based paint. Carolyn still remembers the scene vividly – Phil, her husband, was sitting at the kitchen table and she lamented to him, “Well if only they had soap…”, and to Carolyn’s surprise Phil quietly replied, “Of course they did – Yucca!”

During the original experiment, Carolyn tried several different ways to create the sudsy water but in the end, the easiest way to do this is to pound up pieces of the yucca root and swish it in water.
Phil Dering, a paleoethnobotanist, went on to explain that yucca is a well-known source of soap for numerous Native American groups. Yucca and other desert plants contain saponins, which are toxic compounds that create foam or suds when agitated in water. This soapy substance has been used for hair washing/purification ceremonies by the Zuni (Tedlock 1983) and for poisoning and killing fish by the Tarahumara (Gajdusek 1954). In Puebloan rain ceremonies the suds represented clouds and the yucca water would be dripped on a grinding stone when creating ritual pigment (Parsons 1996). Chemically, the saponins act as an emulsifier that helps the oil-based binder (marrow) mix with the extender (water). Who knew Dawn dish soap would create such a revelation!
After preparing the yucca root, add the yucca root juice to the mixture and watch as it turns to a silky, oil-based paint!

The Scientific Method, Experimental Archaeology, and Why Does This Matter?

This paint-making experiment took place in 1992/1993, and it became one of the activity stations during Shumla educational programs teaching the scientific method. For the last 20 years, children and adults have learned about prehistoric paint-making through the lens of question formulation, hypothesis creation, testing, analysis, and evaluation.
One of the important things about the scientific method and archaeological research is that we have to be open to new data or evidence that may or may not support our previous hypotheses. We now know that some black paintings styles in the region are charcoal-based (Koenig et al. 2014) and while Carolyn’s experiment demonstrated that ochre, bone marrow, and yucca juice make a viable paint- we are not certain they used this exact recipe every time. One study by Texas A&M chemists found DNA from an ungulate (a hooved animal- likely deer or bison) in the organic component of the paint (Reese et al. 1996). However, the identification of DNA in prehistoric paint has not been successfully replicated (Mawk 1999). 
2010 Shumla field school students creating paint and replica images inspired by Lower Pecos rock art.
Regardless of the paint recipe, Carolyn developed a testable hypothesis regarding the ingredients. She demonstrated that the process of making the paint required a knowledge of artistry, natural resources, and chemistry. Further, if Carolyn’s hypothesis is correct, it also required another thing from the prehistoric painters – sacrifice. Bone marrow and animal fat would have been an incredibly important food resource for Lower Pecos hunter-gatherers, and yet it appears they sacrificed copious amounts of it to create paint. This purposeful decision illustrates the great importance of paint making and the production of art.

References Cited

Boyd, Carolyn and J. Phil Dering

2013    Rediscovering Ingredients in Paintings of the Pecos River Style. In Painters in Prehistory: Archaeology and Art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, edited by Harry J. Shafer, pp. 180-181.  Trinity University Press, San Antonio.

Christensen, Don and Jerry Dickey

1996    The Pictographs of the Eastern Mojave Desert of California and Nevada: An Initial Investigation. Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly 32 (2 and 3):1-81.

Gajdusek, D. Carleton

1954    Tarahumara Indian Piscicide: Gilia macombii Torrey. Science 120 (3115):436

 Hyman, Marian, Solveig A. Turpin, and Michael E. Zolensky

1996    Pigment Analysis from Panther Cave, Texas. Rock Art Research 13(2):93-103.

 Koenig, Charles W., Amanda M. Castaneda, Carolyn E. Boyd, Marvin W. Rowe, and Karen L. Steelman

2014    Portable X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy of Pictographs: a Case Study from the Lower Pecos Canyonlands, Texas. Archaeometry 56:168-186.

Malainey, Mary E.

2010    A Consumer Guide to Archaeological Science: Analytical Techniques. Springer Publishing, New York.

Mawk, E. Joe

1999    Reexamination of Ancient DNA in Texas Rock Paintings. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.

Parsons, Elsie Clews

1996    Pueblo Indian Religion.  Vol. 1. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln

Reese, Ronnie L., Marian Hyman, Marvin W. Rowe, James N. Derr, and Sintrel K. Davis

1996    Ancient DNA from Texas Pictographs. Journal of Archaeological Science 23(2):269-277.

Tedlock, Barbara

1983    Zuni Sacred Theater. American Indian Quarterly 7(3):93-110.

Zolensky, Michael

1982    Analysis of Pigments from Prehistoric Pictographs, Seminole Canyon State Park. In Seminole Canyon: The Art and Archaeology, edited by Solveig A. Turpin. Texas Archeological Survey Research Report No. 83, pp. 277-284. University of Texas, Austin.