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Artistic Expression

The coastal prairies and marshlands region of Texas retains only traces of the rich artistic endeavors of its native peoples, tantalizing reminders of the creativity, imagination, and traditions prevailing over thousands of years. Unlike the Trans-Pecos and Lower Pecos regions, where massive canyon walls served as canvasses for paintings in the past, the Texas coastal region had no comparable medium for expression. A variety of natural resources, however, enabled fine artistry on a smaller scale.

The region's artistic wealth is primarily shell ornaments, bone artifacts, and clay pottery. Using simple tools and innovative technologies, native artisans transformed marine and freshwater shells and animal bones into intricate ornaments and ritual objects, and clays and natural pigments into pottery vessels and body paints. Although less abundant in this region, chert, sandstone, and quartz materials were sometimes chipped, pecked, or carved into items clearly intended for ritual purposes. Another form of artistry—the elaborately tattooed and painted bodies of native peoples of the region—is often mentioned in the journals of 17th- and 18th-century Europeans.

Coastal artists used a variety of designs and motifs in their crafts. Although some were merely aesthetically pleasing; others carried important symbolic messages. Given the region's location, some of the iconography may have been influenced by cultures in nearby regions: especially those of the Lower Mississippi Valley and southern Louisiana to the northeast.

These diverse expressions of the region's artisans reflect cultural and religious traditions of their time. Lacking written records and living traditions, almost all of the precise meanings have been lost. It is apparent, however, that the production of art and ritual items played an integral role in the lives of the native peoples of the coastal prairies and marshlands.

Numerous ornaments and decorated objects have been recovered from archeological sites along the Texas coast. These "portable art" objects—necklaces, musical instruments, pottery, and other items—likely were carried from camp to camp and sometimes traded or exchanged over long distances. Other objects, including some of the most intricately designed and unusual, were placed in graves of the dead in coastal cemeteries. These offerings indicate the importance of artistic and symbolic expression in coastal funerary rituals.

Shell Artifacts

Worked shell is the hallmark artistic expression of the coastal prairies and marshlands. The estuaries, river deltas, bays and beaches provided a diverse array of shell for the natives to utilize. The sparkling interior of the freshwater mussel and radial symmetry of the lightning whelk caught the eye of the coastal natives. Leaving aside the use of shell for toolmaking (see Marine Shell Tools), shells were also made into necklaces, "tinklers," and gorgets. Shellfish are found in various contexts along the Texas coast and range in size from the large lightning whelk (Busycon perversum pulleyi), to the diminutive minute dwarf olive (Olivella minuta). Throughout North America, many native peoples associated shells with death, fertility, and rebirth; therefore, it is not surprising that most artistically modified shells have been found in funerary contexts. (See Marine Shell Ornaments, Icons and Offerings to learn more and see other examples.)

To judge by quantity, quality, and diversity of form, native artisans favored one shell over all others from the Texas coast: the lightning whelk. This rather large carnivorous gastropod, unlike almost all others, is sinistrally spiraled (counterclockwise, to the left), a peculiar geometry that is said to have given the shell special symbolic importance. Ornaments made from these shells are found are in both prehistoric and historic contexts along the length of the Texas coast as well as in sites hundreds of miles inland, indicating their importance in trade. Whelk shell was used to make disk beads, tubular beads, "danglers," pendants, and gorgets

Avocational archeologist Bill Birmingham of Victoria has reconstructed the technique of making a whelk pendant similar to the ones found at the Early Archaic Buckeye Knoll site on the central Texas coastal plain. Using simple tools—a bifacial stone knife and wood and leather pump drill equipped with a chipped-stone tip—Birmingham used a groove and snap technique to create and decorate nearly identical pendants with patterns of lightly drilled impressions. He arrived at this technique through several experiments: using an alternate tool—a sandstone abrader—took nearly twice as long to cut a groove in the shell.

Freshwater mussel pendants and beads from the Oso site in Nueces County. Notice the fine denticulation on the edges of the pendants. TARL Archives.
This ocher-covered shell found at the Caplen Mound site likely was used as a container for mixing pigment. TARL Collections.
Strand of olive shell beads from the Mitchell Ridge site. The spire and lower part of the snail's shell were cut off and ground down to create a suspension hole through the central whorl. Photo by Robert Ricklis.
Necklace from the Bolivar Peninsula made from long tubular conch shell beads spaced with smaller beads. The conch shell pendant has been worked to a near-perfect circle. TARL Collections.
Very large lightning whelk gorget decorated with cross-shaped rows of lightly drilled impressions and nicked edges. From Rio Grande delta area, Tamaulipas, Mexico, A.E. Anderson Collection. TARL Collections.
Prehistoric artists made fine shell ornaments using simple technologies and tools, as reconstructed in this experimental study by archeological steward Bill Birmingham. In this example, he creates a pendant from the shell of a large marine lightning whelk, using the groove and snap method. In the top two photos, he uses a chipped stone biface with sharp edge to create a "V"- shaped groove. The pendant "blank" is then snapped apart from the larger shell. Finally, Birmingham uses a pump drill with a pointed chipped-stone tip to drill holes into the pendant. Photo montage courtesy of Robert Shook, from a display in the Museum of the Coastal Bend, Victoria.

The central spire, or columella, of the whelk was also used to make ornaments. The coiled, elongate structure of the spires made for interesting hair ornaments; they also could be drilled lengthwise into long beads and strung into necklaces or "dangled" from a drilled hole through one end of the columella. Several graves at Mitchell Ridge contain whelk columella beads. These ornaments may be indicators of status or wealth, thus it is interesting to note that at that site whelk beads are found primarily in the graves of adult males and children.

Decorated Bones

Bone was another important artistic medium utilized by the natives of the Texas coast. Some of the most skillful craftsmanship is found on bone artifacts made from a diverse range of animals. The bones of bison, deer, whooping cranes, and even humans were carved into ornaments, ritual objects, and musical instruments in prehistoric and historic times.

An unusual example of artistry comes from several graves at Mitchell Ridge. Delicate bird-bone whistles were made from whooping crane ulnas (wing or forelimb bones). Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric flutes were engraved with a variety of geometric patterns. Chevrons, hour-glasses, and rectangular designs are found mid-shaft on these ornate instruments. These unusual grave offerings are only known from the Galveston Bay area and farther north and east in southern Louisiana and southeast Texas.

Conch columella "danglers" from the Rio Grande delta. TARL Collections.
Necklace of conch shell and glass beads from a grave at the Mitchell Ridge Cemetery on Galveston Island. Photo by Robert Ricklis.
These whooping crane ulna whistles were found in a grave at the Mitchell Ridge site. The precise geometric engravings may represent tribal affiliation or symbolic meaning. Image from Ricklis 1994 (Fig. 18).
Coyote teeth ornaments, on display at Museum of the Coastal Bend. Photo by Susan Dial.
Carved and painted deer antler from the Kirchmeyer site near Corpus Christi. TARL Collections. Photo by Thomas R. Hester.
Tubular beads made from human bone, Baffin Bay, Kleburg County. TARL Archives.
This small carved bone ornament from the Caplen site may represent a feather. The five horizontal incised bars enclose punctations made by a drill. Feathers in North American ideology can symbolize various phenomena such as the power of predatory birds and flight in trance. TARL Archives.
Bone objects, with drilled punctations and finely carved lines and hatchure marks. Found in a grave at the Harris County Boys' School Site (41HR80), the small objects may have been used as dice, or gaming pieces. TARL Archives.
Decorated bison scapulae found in a grave in Nueces County (41NU29). The elaborate patterns of punctuations likely were made with a chert drill. Click to see additional examples. TARL Archives.
Detail of finely decorated bone hairpins found in a grave at site 41AS96, now on display at the Museum of the Coastal Bend, Victoria. Drawing by Richard McReynolds. Enlarge to see full images.

A small bone ornament from the burial of a woman at Caplen Mound cemetery site (41GV1) was carved into an elongate shape resembling a feather. The piece has incised horizontal bars bracketing a series of punctuations as well as carefully serrated edges. Because it was found near the skull, investigators speculated that it may have been a hair ornament. Another interesting Caplen Mound grave offering was a decorated turtle carapace laid in the burial of an infant. Drill holes in the shape of a "U" suggest the carapace served as a breast plate or rattle. As a rattle, the carapace may have been used in shamanic rituals. Achieving a trance state through repetitive music, which typically involved rattles and chanting, often accompanied shamanic ceremonies. Thus, decorated bone grave goods probably served a function in this life and the next.

Other activities are represented in three pairs of bone gaming pieces incised with crosshatched triangles recovered from a prehistoric grave at the Harris County Boys School site. Besides sport, gaming pieces may also have been used as divining tools by shamans to interpret messages from the gods. The oracular nature of these gaming pieces is enhanced by the choice of bone as a medium.


Ideological motifs are dynamic expressions, changing with time and cultural contact. Ceramics provided native artists another medium for expression. On the upper Texas coast, Tchefuncte pottery, with cultural ties to the southeastern United States, appeared in the area as early as 400-500 B.C., followed by the Goose Creek and San Jacinto series in the early centuries A.D. On the central Texas coast, Late Prehistoric groups ancestral to the Karankawa produced a distinctive pottery termed by archeologists as Rockport ware. The Karankawa continued producing vessels of this type into Historic times.

Goose Creek and San Jacinto ceramics are found mainly north of Matagorda Bay and appear to have common motifs with Lower Mississippi Valley and southern Louisiana ceramics. The artist either used a rocker stamp or a fine incising tool to decorate the ceramic with culturally important motifs. Stamped ceramics date as early as A.D. 100, while incised ceramics date as early as A.D. 750. For example, ceramic sherds recovered from Mitchell Ridge have horizontal, vertical, and cross-hatched lines below the rim as do sherds recovered the Lower Mississippi Valley and southern Louisiana. These shared motifs suggest these two cultures were in close contact. Perhaps the common motifs express commonalities in cosmological and religious views.

The peoples of the central Texas coast produced a diverse array of ceramic forms, including narrow-mouthed ollas, wide-mouthed jars, and bowls. These Rockport ceramics were usually made from a sandy paste clay body and often decorated with black paint made from asphaltum, a naturally occurring tar produced from petroleum leaks in the Gulf of Mexico. Motifs were either incised or painted near the rim of the vessel. Vessels treated with asphaltum and/or painted are called Rockport Black-on-Gray. These vessels have a grey slip and are painted with black asphaltum. Vessels with incised motifs are known as Rockport Incised. The two most dominant motifs are the horizontal line and chevron, which was sometimes cross-hatched.

One unusual Rockport Polychrome vessel was reconstructed from the Kirchmeyer site in Nueces County. It has red ochre and black asphaltum pain over a white slip. A wide variety of Rockport pottery motifs has been identified by archeologist Richard Weinstein based on the large collection of sherds recovered from the Guadalupe Bay site, a Karankawa campsite visited over hundreds of years. A gallery of Rockport pottery is provided in the TBH Guadalupe Bay exhibit.


Artistry in Stone

Water jar likely traded into the Rio Grande Delta area from the Huasteca region of Tampico, Mexico. Note the offset looped handles to aid in strapping the vessel to one's back with rope or cordage. The jar was found in pieces and has been glued back together. Much of the painted design has faded due to exposure to the winds and sand before the vessel pieces were discovered. TARL Collections.
Idealized decorated Rockport pottery vessels from central Texas coast. The top row and the pot on the middle left are ashaltum painted, while the other vessels are incised. All of the incised vessels and the top middle bottle are based on large sherds from Guadalupe Bay. CEI graphic.
Image of Rockport Polychrome pottery.
Rare example of Rockport Polychrome pottery from the Kirchmeyer site (41NU11) on Oso Bay about 60 miles south of Guadalupe Bay.
Enlarge to see drawing and details.
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Quartzite and limestone grooved stones from the central coastal plain on display at the Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria.

In part because stone resources are limited in the coastal prairies and marshes, stone was an infrequently used medium for artistic expression. Nonetheless, there are a number of stone artifacts attesting to the range and skill of native craftsmen including gorgets, ceremonial knives, and pipes. Perhaps the most stunning example is a unique ceremonial knife from an Early Archaic grave at Buckeye Knoll. Not only was it made by a master craftsman from a previously unseen variegated chert, but its fluted and edge-ground stem resembles early "fish-tail" Paleoindian projectile points known from Central America. How and when this unique item found its way to the lower Guadalupe valley on the central Texas coast is unknown. Robert Ricklis believes that "Big Fish" likely served as a symbol of authority and that it was an heirloom piece passed down through many generations. Thus, this precious grave good marked the elevated status of the interred.

The Buckeye Knoll cemetery also has examples of a rather elaborate ground stone industry that includes bannerstones, perforated plummets and elegantly shaped and polished quartzite grooved stones. The bannerstones and plummets are thought to reflect extensive interaction with cultures of the Southeastern U.S., where similar objects occur. The grooved quartzite (and sometimes hard limestone) stone artifacts are more common in the central coastal plain, suggesting local manufacture.

Similar to whelk shells, stone was also worked into gorgets. A slate gorget found in Kleberg County has three suspension holes. Since slate is a non-local material, this gorget was probably traded in from northern Mexico. Other artistry is seen in carefully shaped and faceted quartzite plummets, some of which have been in grave contexts.

Body Art

Tattoos and body paint are another facet of artistic, cultural, and ritual expression. Body ornamentation such as hair styles and piercings also fall under the category of body art. Most of our information concerning body art comes from 17th- and 18th-century accounts of European travelers and priests passing though the area. While the exact function of body art and ornamentation is still unclear, certain markings were probably used to align the person with a specific clan, ethnicity, or social rank. In other cases, body markings were applied before going into battle or performing a specific ritual.

According to several accounts, tattoos and body paint were commonplace among the coastal natives. The Spaniards called the natives of the Rio Grande delta Borrados—which loosely translates to "those smeared with ink"—because of the predominance of body paint and tattoos. In this region men tattooed their face, while women tattooed their face and body. According to Gatschet's 1891 study, the Karankawa had face markings consisting of "a small circle of blue tattoo over either cheek, one horizontal line extending from the outer angle of the eye toward the ear, and three perpendicular parallel lines on the chin." Gatschet notes that Karankawa boys were tattooed in their tenth year as a rite of passage. For the natives of the Prairies and Marshlands, the body was a canvas adorned with a variety of artistic expressions.

Artistic Expression was written by Barry Kidder, graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Texas State University.


Aten, Lawrence, E.
1983   Indians of the Upper Texas Coast. Academic Press, New York.

Gatschet, A.S.
1891   The Karankawa Indians: The Coastal People of Texas. Archaeological and Ethnological Papers of the Peabody Museum. Harvard University, Cambridge.
View manuscript online through The Portal to Texas History.

Ricklis, Robert A.
1996    The Karankawa Indians of Texas: An Ecological Study of Cultural Tradition and Change. University of Texas Press, Austin.

2004   The Archaeology of the Native American Occupation of Southeast Texas. In The Prehistory of Texas , edited by Timothy K. Perttula, pp. 181-202. Texas A&M University Press.

2004   Prehistoric Occupation of the Central and Lower Texas Coast: A Regional Overview. In The Prehistory of Texas, edited by Timothy K. Perttula, pp. 155-180. Texas A&M University Press.

Salinas, Martín
1990   Indians of the Rio Grande Delta: Their Role in the History of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico. University of Texas Press.

Weinstein, Richard A.
1992    Archaeology and Paleogeography of the Lower Guadalupe River/San Antonio Bay Region: Cultural Resources Investigations Along the Channel to Victoria, Calhoun and Victoria Counties, Texas. Coastal Environments, Inc. Submitted to Galveston District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This ceremonial knife, dubbed the "Big Fish", found in an Early Archaic cemetery measures almost 12 inches long. This extremely skillfully made artifact is fashioned from a highly unusual chert material of unknown source. Its fluted and edge-ground stem resembles early "fish-tail" Paleoindian projectile points known from Central America. How and when this unique item found its way to the lower Guadalupe valley on the central Texas coast is unknown. Robert Ricklis believes that "Big Fish" was likely valued as a symbol of authority and that is was a heirloom piece that had been passed down through many generations. Artwork by Alexander Cox, from Ricklis 2007, courtesy U.S. Corps of Engineers, Galveston Division.
Polished stone gorget with drilled holes from site 41KL57 near the mouth of Baffin Bay. This artifact closely resembles gorgets found in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys that are considered part of the Hopewell interaction sphere. TARL Archives.
A Karankawa man displays ornate tattooing and a shell necklace in a depiction by archeologist Frank Weir. According to 19th- century French traveler Albert Gatschet the motifs on the face identified the man as a Karankawa. Painting courtesy of Sea Grant College Program, Texas A&M University.
Enlarge to see full scene.