To Iconography… And Beyond!

By Amanda Castañeda and Charles Koenig

This blog post focuses on a key aspect of Shumla’s documentation methods and the Alexandria Project: iconography. Iconography includes the documentation, study, and interpretation of images and symbols. Archaeologists working across the world are studying the iconography from many cultures, including the Moche in Peru, Mississippian in the American Southeast, and the various symbols and artworks of the Egyptians. Further, as anthropologists, we take the historical and cultural context of the pictorial motifs into consideration. In other words, we think about how the iconography fit into the culture that created it.

What is Iconography?

The Lower Pecos, as you all know, hosts an amazing and diverse iconographic dataset in the form of rock art that we are just now beginning to understand. To do this, we loosely follow a multi-step approach of iconographic study called “Panofsky’s Method.” Erwin Panofsky was a renowned art historian that pushed iconographic study into the realm of what he termed iconology. Panofsky ([1939] 1972:3) defined iconology as “that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to form.” For Panofsky, art carries three levels of meaning: natural, conventional, and intrinsic. Each of these levels require a progressively deeper understanding of the culture that produced the imagery.

The natural meaning of an image comes from identifying physical forms that we already recognize. For example, when we see atlatls depicted in the rock art, we recognize it as such based on the shape, location (at the hand of a human-like figure), and through atlatls in the archaeological record.
The conventional subject matter goes a step further and brings cultural and iconographic knowledge into the equation. In the example of the atlatl, we know atlatls were used by prehistoric peoples all across the world, so we can surmise that the atlatl is being used by the anthropomorph that it belongs to.
Intrinsic meaning, the third and final level of meaning, is the deepest and most difficult to identify. Intrinsic meaning is understood by “ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion—unconsciously qualified by one personality and condensed into one work” (Panofsky [1939] 1972:7). Essentially, this requires a deep understanding of the culture who produced the artwork. For archaeologists this requires insight from ethnographic studies, or if we are lucky enough, from descendant communities. Going back to the countless atlatls depicted in Lower Pecos rock art, we may not always know the intrinsic meaning of these items. Are they strictly for hunting? Do they have more complex symbolic values? Unfortunately the hunter-gatherer groups who produced Lower Pecos rock art are no longer around to help us understand any deeper meanings. In our situation, we have to look at ethnographies and other iconographic studies from probable descendant groups in Mesoamerica. Dr. Boyd’s most recent book, The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, is the most extensive interpretative work for the region and has gotten us closest to understanding the intrinsic meaning of the Lower Pecos rock art.
Left: Pecos River Style anthropomorph with a bundle of darts in the left hand and an atlatl with possible feathers on it in the right hand (DStretch LDS). Right: Mixcoatl, the Aztec God of Hunting, with a plumed atlatl in one hand and bundle of spears in the other. Just as Mixcoatl and other Aztec deities used their atlatl for supernatural tasks, it’s possible this meaning is also intended for Lower Pecos atlatls in the rock art.
In this depiction of the Mesoamerican cosmos the Aztec Lord of Fire, Xiuhtecuhtli, is wielding an atlatl in one hand and a bundle of spears in the other. Xiuhtecuhtli used his atlatl for various supernatural tasks, such as throwing spears at the sun. (Image courtesy of Boyd 2016)

Iconographic Analysis and Shumla

Ever since Dr. Carolyn Boyd started Shumla, we have emphasized iconographic documentation as a way to not only document the rock art, but also analyze and study the figures (see Shumla Method). The first step in this analysis was to categorize the types of figures we see in the rock art. We settled on three major categories: 1) anthropomorphs (human-like figures), 2) zoomorphs (animal-like figures), and 3) enigmatics (neither human nor animal-like figures). We then compiled a list of iconographic attributes that we record for any single figure type. We collect over 70 individual attributes for anthropomorphs, over 50 attributes for zoomorphs, and over 30 attributes for enigmatic figures.




Guidelines and examples of anthropomorphic attributes.
Guidelines and examples of zoomorphic attributes.
Guidelines and examples of enigmatic attributes.
This anthropomorph is centrastyled (has body decoration), has a snouted head, a mouth, a wrist adornment, hands, feet, two atlatls in its right hand, two staffs, and a powerbundle.
This zoomorph is a red deer with centrastyling, a single-beam set of antlers, ears, a prognathic mouth, and is impaled in the back leg. The front legs are obscured but hooves and dew claws are visible on the back legs.
This is an example of many enigmatic figures together. There are four boxes with legs and several serpentine arches surrounding these elements. There is also a large crenulated shape on the right.
For anthropomorphs, the attributes we record are focused on how the figure is depicted, what type of paraphernalia it is wielding, what kind of adornments it is wearing, does it have any animal attributes, and so on. Zoomorphs have another specific set of attributes that we recorded (e.g., what type of animal is it, is it impaled, what color is it, if antlers are present, how many tines on each side, etc.). Enigmatic figures are a bit more…enigmatic! This category of figures consists list of common non-human, non-animal shapes that we see in the region (e.g., box with legs, serpentine lines, single pole ladders, etc.). Sometimes enigmatic figures are conflations of many single elements.
We focused our documentation on single attributes because it allowed us to look for patterns in the iconography. One of the best ways to fully know and understand a complex artwork is to break it down into the smallest possible elements and then we can try to understand the combinations of these elements. This sentiment is best explained by Howells and Negreiros (2012:18), “By recognizing the attributes, we recognize the characters and the stories, and so help crack the codes of such mythological and religious painting. The attribute isn’t there because it is a casual part of the scene, but because it is deliberately included to indicate significance beyond its physical existence.”
When explaining this on tours or during presentations, we like to give the example of Thor. If you see an image of an individual with a red cape, a hammer, some armor, and a winged helmet, you probably have an idea of who the image is portraying. That’s because those attributes are characteristic of Thor and Thor is known in our culture.
If you had seen any one of these images alone, you would have mostly likely recognized the character as Thor, the Marvel God of Thunder, based on their characteristic attributes! Images courtesy Google.
This flowchart illustrates a simplified “day” in the life for a single figure at a site that is receiving full Shumla documentation. Depending on the number of figures at a site and/or the complexity of the mural, this could take months or years.

Iconographic Inventory and the Alexandria Project

During previous documentation efforts every identified figure would receive photographs, an illustration, copious notes, and meticulous documentation of the iconographic attributes. Depending on the density of the rock art at a site, this process could take weeks, months, or even a couple years. While preparing for the Alexandria Project, we knew that we would need a way to systematically capture the remarkable iconography across the region. After all, we are trying to document every rock art site in Val Verde County! This type of project affords a unique opportunity to create a detailed catalog of iconographic motifs across a large area that will inform countless future studies. However, the amount of iconographic data that can be collected at each site is limited by time constraints.

The first step was for the team to examine the symbols and motifs that Shumla records during full figure documentation, and decide which ones we would record during the Alexandria Project. Unfortunately we could not include the hundreds of iconographic details that we would normally document. For example, in a full documentation we count the number of digits on each hand and foot for every identified anthropomorph…This is not feasible with only one day at a site! Essentially, the Alexandria Iconographic Inventory aims to summarize the overall iconography present at a single site.
Shumla staff members working the iconographic inventory during the Alexandria Project.

The Final Inventory

We ended up settling on 36 attributes or symbols that are relatively common throughout Lower Pecos rock art. Some of the attributes we document include the kinds of paraphernalia and adornments present on anthropomorphs (e.g., atlatls, hip clusters, impalements, wings, antlers, etc.), the zoomorphs present (e.g., deer, felines, avians, etc.), and a large series of enigmatic elements (e.g., box with legs, impaled dots, handprints, single pole ladders, etc.). In addition, we also record the presence of 2 complex motifs that are comprised of several specific symbols in association with each other (see Alexandria Project blog post). All of these attributes are entered into our Rock Art Site Form, and are searchable within the Shumla Database.

A screenshot of the iconographic inventory tab in the Shumla Rock Art Site Form. The dropdown boxes offer a choice of Y for presence, N for absence, and Unknown if we highly suspect the element to be present but the image is too obscured/damaged.
Examples of feline figures that we have documented so far on the Alexandria Project.

Future Data Analysis

While the 3D models and GigaPan images (see SfM and Gigapan blog) are extremely important for preserving Lower Pecos rock art for future generations, the iconographic inventory is arguably more important for studying and understanding the rock art. Imagine you are a future researcher, and want to do a study on feline imagery. The iconographic inventory will allow you to search for felines across all known rock art sites in the Lower Pecos. From there you will be able to open the 3D models and GigaPan imagery to launch your analysis. In essence, we are creating a baseline dataset, a stepping stone to go further and beyond.


Throughout the over 50 sites we’ve visited thus far, we are constantly blown away not only by the variety of iconography, but also the diversity of how these symbols and motifs are portrayed. We are already seeing interesting patterns emerge, and we know the iconographic inventory will fuel countless studies in the future. In the meantime, we are slowly sharing small bits of these insights on Facebook with our weekly #Motif Monday posts and through future blog posts.

Weekly #motifmonday posts are created by our research team on the Shumla Facebook, check them out!


Boyd, Carolyn 2016  The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Howells, Richard and Joaquim Negreiros 2012  Visual Culture. 2nd ed. Polity. Malden, Cambridge UK.

Hultkrantz, Åke. Panofsky, Erwin 1972  Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. Originally published 1939. Icon Editions. Westview Press, Oxford.