There are twenty documented pictographs at Paint Lick Mountain, ranging from
geometric designs to human and animal forms. Some pictographs even combine human
and animal characteristics or human characteristics and geometric shapes. While
the pictographs of a running deer and the profile view of a roosting bird were
executed with a degree of realism, most of the pictographs are more abstract. Of
note, the pictographs include a series of bird images ranging from single birds in
flight to a bird with two heads and a faded figure that appears to represent two
birds joined together. More abstract is a pictograph composed of concentric
circles with two L-shaped appendages that resemble human legs and feet. Some of
the pictographs remain vivid while others have faded, and a few areas of the
quartzite cliff contain discolorations that may be natural or evidence of
additional, more faint images.
An 1871 geologic report for Southwest Virginia contained the first published
reference to the "Indian Paintings" on Paint Lick Mountain, although the
pictographs likely were part of local knowledge much earlier. In 1888, a
Smithsonian Institution ethnologist wrote the first detailed account of the
images, incorporating it into a lengthy monograph on "Indian Picture Writing" in
North America. In 1969, in response to a report filed by Virginia Department of
Historic Resources archaeologist Howard A. MacCord, the Paint Lick Mountain
pictographs were listed on the
[Virginia Landmarks Register] and the
National Register of Historic Places. And in the years that followed,
archaeologists continued to assess the condition of the site, photographing it for
the first time in 1975 and making comparative photographic studies in 1980 and
2009. In the meantime, the property owners, who restrict access to the site, led
field trips that allowed the public to view the pictographs.
Throughout North American prehistory, Indians left direct artistic representations
in the form of decorations on bone, clay, shell, stone, and wood artifacts at both their domestic and
ceremonial sites. A less common medium for artistic representation is the
"decoration" of prominent topographic features in the regional landscape with
pictographs and petroglyphs (rock carvings). Even less common, fragile mud glyphs
sometimes survive on cave walls as nearly hidden cultural expressions in the
subterranean world. Unlike the glyphs incised into a mud lining on a cave wall or
those carved into rock, pictographs were created by applying a natural
[pigment], or paint, to a
On Paint Lick Mountain, soft mudstone containing a concentration of iron oxide, or
hematite, provides a readily available source of material for the red pigment used
to create the pictographs. Eroded fragments of the soft mudstone are found on the
mountain slope near the pictographs and are interspersed among the rocky outcrops,
cliffs, and "boulder fields" of quartzite and other dense rocks that form the
mountain. Pieces of mudstone may have been ground into a powder and mixed with a
binding agent to form a red paint applied with a brush or finger. Alternatively, a
piece of the soft mudstone may have been held in the hand and used to draw
directly onto the rocky outcrop.
Early historical records made during European exploration and colonization of
Virginia provide evidence for Indian artistic representations, such as body
painting, tattoos, and anthropomorphic carvings, but there is no record of
pictographs, petroglyphs, or mud glyphs. Of course, these records are sparse, and
most of Virginia's Indian cultures were poorly documented or never documented.
Indian knowledge combined with ethnographic and archaeological studies provide
evidence for widespread use of symbolic representations throughout North America
by Indians from the Historic Period (1600– ) back into prehistory. Painted,
incised, and carved examples grew from many origins, served many purposes, and
were made in many cultural contexts. For example, the Kiowa Indians of North
America used a series of realistic and abstract symbols to record important
people, places, and events in detailed and complex calendrical histories of their
Coy, Fred E., Thomas C. Fuller, James L. Swauger, and Larry G. Meadows. Rock Art of Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of
Egloff, Keith and Deborah Woodward, editors. First People:
The Early Indians of Virginia, Second Edition. Charlottesville: University
of Virginia Press, 2006.
Greene, Candace S. One Hundred Summers: A Kiowa Calendar
Record. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
Hranicky, W. J. "Virginia's Paint Lick Mountain Pictographs: A Study of
Comparison and Analysis." In Upland Archeology in the East: A
Third Symposium, edited by M. B. Barber. U.S.D.A., Forest Service,
Southern Region, Cultural Resources Report No. 87–1 (1987):
Hulton, Paul. America 1585: The Complete Drawings of John
White. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Leslie, J. P. "The Geological Structure of Tazewell, Russell and Wise Counties,
in Virginia." Proceedings of the American Philosophical
Society 12, no. 86 (1871): 489–513.
Mallery, Garrick. "Picture-Writing of the American Indians." Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the
Smithsonian Institution, 1888–89. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Klatka, T. Paint Lick Mountain Pictograph Archaeological Site. (2014, March 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Paint_Lick_Mountain_Pictograph_Archaeological_Site.
- MLA Citation:
Klatka, Thomas. "Paint Lick Mountain Pictograph Archaeological Site." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
18 Mar. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 22, 2011 | Last modified: March 18, 2014
Contributed by Thomas Klatka, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.