Panther Cave is a rock shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas, named for a dramatic leaping cat that is the largest of its many pictographs. Copious overpainting indicates the site was used as a canvas by generations of rock painters. Cats, humans wearing headdresses, abstract figures from six inches to more than 10 feet high decorate the rock face.
The images are predominantly in the Pecos River and Red Linear styles and date back about 4,000 years. Pecos River Style is the oldest, starting around 5000 years ago. Its iconography features monumental polychrome designs of zoomorphic figures and of anthropomorphic figures called shamans. Pecos River art is thought to have had ritual significance, perhaps having been painted for ceremonial religious purposes. Red Linear style is characterized by small red stick figures engaged in a variety of shared activities like hunting, fighting, sex and childbirth. Red Linear figures often incorporated the older large Pecos River animal figures in their scenes.
The art of Panther Cave is not accessible to the general public. The rock shelter can only be reached by taking a boat down the Pecos River and the condition is precarious. Erosion has made it too dangerous for archaeological excavation and the construction of Amistad Reservoir has put the site in more immediate danger from flooding.
Acutely aware of the precarious situation Panther Cave and other rock art sites find themselves in, the SHUMLA Archeological Research and Education Center launched the Lower Pecos Rock Art Recording and Preservation Project in 2009. Its aim is to document ancient pictographs using the latest and greatest technology to preserve them digitally. So far they’ve completed work on 21 rock art sites.
In collaboration with the Amistad National Recreation Area, Seminole Canyon State Park, and Geo-Marine Inc., SHMULA has now recorded and laser scanned the art of Panther Cave. They used 3D modeling software to showcase the natural contours and shape of the cave, then used color enhancement to highlight the stunning complexity of figures that are not clear to the naked eye. The finished product is a riot of color, giving viewers whole new insight into the pictographs that layer the site.