The Prayer Bone
Ancient Painted Bone Artifact
Found near Sanger, Texas
(Duck Creek, Denton, County)

by Steve Ashley

“When we look at prehistoric representational work we should not be so arrogant
as to think that we can understand it with the esthetic tools of our own culture.” 
Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankindby Randall White
During August of 1995, I was visiting friends who live in Sanger, Texas (Denton County), which sits astride Interstate Highway 35, 10 miles north of Denton and 43 miles north of Dallas. I was eagerly anticipating fossil collecting hikes to nearby Clear Creek and Duck Creek, streams that both flow in a southeasterly diagonal across Denton County. Here I had previously found large ammonite fossils, some as big as dinner plates. Both creeks are located due west of Sanger and Interstate Highway 35 and Duck Creek joins Clear Creek, continues eastward under I-35 and then empty into Lake Dallas. The interstate follows the old migration path where the buffalo once roamed: deer and antelope played here, too. This trail extended down the center area of North America from the present Midwest: from Kansas to Mexico. This buffalo road was sometimes miles wide, as hundreds of thousands of the huge beasts passed through an area, eating all the grass and scrub in sight (thus controlling the spread of junipers, and other plants that would later become invasive pests), leaving fertilizer behind to enrich the soil. The earth was tilled by the passage of so many of these rather large animals and the pounding of their sharp hooves. Also, the close cropping of the grasslands encouraged the proliferation of the rich environments of the savannah-like grasslands that once filled the open spaces between almost every creek and river in what we now call Texas. The buffalo, would, for thousands of years, return to browse on the new crop of grasses they helped to propagate and thus the cycle would continue unbroken for millennia: millions of buffalo once roamed here. Early Americans followed the migrations of the animals and prayed for plenty: plenty of everything, coming our way.

A poke with a sharp stick

The post glacial melt savannahs teemed with a profusion of animals, most of them good to eat: antelope, buffalo, deer, ground sloth, horses, boars, opossums, turkeys, turtles: all were processed for dinner. Food on the hoof, where generations of men and women just had to go out and get it. Strap a sharp piece of chipped flint on the end of a stick and jab something with it. Build a fire pit, stoke up a fire, cook up the days' kill and sit back and chip some flint tools around the campfire.

Camp activities must have centered around the campfire work and processing: using manos to grind grains and berries, hammerstones to split open bones for marrow and reduce cobbles of flint into cores. Heat treatment of flint in special fire pits, chipping and shaping flint tools to final form using the reductive percussion flaking process. Flint knapping, food preparation, hide tanning, garment production, shelter construction, all were centered around the fire pit circle, leaving artifacts and debitage scattered in a circular pattern around these rock lined pits.

A hammerstone sits on a nutting stone which sits atop a metate.

Opportunity for discovery

The Early American hunters followed the animals for their nutritious, high energy and savory meat. They utilized the skins for clothes, shelter, and used the bones for specialized tools. The discarded broken bits of bone are one of the most common objects recovered in Central Texas archeological excavations. When erosion rather than excavation acts as the agent of change on the landscape, one of the side-effects is often the chance discovery of archeological materials by a random passerby. This is exactly what has happened to me, and more than once. Perhaps that is because I indulge my hobby: hiking. I have spent for a lot of years walking Texas creeks and studying the geology of the landscape through which I am passing. Collecting fossils, bones and other interesting things along the way, but mainly, to be outdoors and get some exercise. I have an extensive archive of photography of creek images gathered during my years of creek walking.

I learned to pay attention to detail when I am out walking. Things out of the ordinary catch my eye, I tend to look down a lot and have to consciously look up and see where I am in the midst of the natural landscape. An internal compass that is reliable is a good advantage for the determined trekker.

I’m a creek walker, creek talker and an inveterate hiker. I enjoy long exploratory walks over the landscape and through the creeks. Some of these hikes have turned up unusual stuff: a huge molar tooth of a Mammoth, flint arrows and spear points, lots of animals bones: prehistoric buffalo and deer bone, historic pioneer materials, old metal farm implements, and hundreds of fossils.

Look Up, Look Down, Look All Around

A mild drought was still lingering in the north Texas area and creeks and ponds were much lower than normal and water flow in the creek was drastically reduced from normal flow, a typical Summer cycle. This allowed me to walk a much further distance along the creek than I had expected. Walking southwest, the creek banks rose higher and higher around me, with the late afternoon sun in my face. Only a thin trickle of water flowed down the center of the creek bed, allowing me to just step over it in passage. No luck finding any fossils that were keepers, others folks had passed this way before me and picked up all the fossils that I remembered seeing here months ago. I had walked a few miles downstream, following the meandering twists of the creek, then a sharp bend ahead revealed a wide pool of deep water that blocked my way. I decided not to continue further downstream and began the return journey. I walked only a short way when I saw a rust red feather from a red tail hawk laying at my feet. I picked it up and thought of it as a good omen.

Scattered along the streambed, shining bits of flint mingled with the gravel but sparkled like diamonds in the late afternoon sun. I saw many small pieces of gray and black flint, chunks of shattered quartz stones, small chunks of bone. These flakes seemed to indicate a pattern that led back upstream. I followed the line of flakes a short distance to a humped area jutting like a staircase down into the streambed. The ramp was crumbling down and being slowly eroded away into the creek bed, revealing a dark rich deep black soil and the contents spilled out and lay scattered along the creek bed. That big hole is where the stuff washed out of this camp is ending up. The ramp created by the collapse of the bank appeared as if it had been used by cattle and erosion was shearing it off and reducing it gradually during each episode of rain.

Recent erosional events had exposed a previously hidden archeological feature. A spill of typical campsite debris fanned out from the base of the dirt ramp. It revealed a large flint scraper and bits of worked flint and some pieces of yellow orange bone. I walked up to the top of the ramp and found myself entering the upper world, that world that exists outside and above the creek bottom. Reemerging from the underworld, momentarily I mistook the dark shapes of the grazing animals I saw before me on the savannah as being buffalo, when actually, it was only the cattle that have taken their place. I surveyed my surroundings to remember this spot for future reference and documentation. There is most certainly a buried campsite there, the profile on the creek side showed fire rock and grinding stones as well as flint chips and more bone. A classic archaic creek side midden deposit, indicating a buried site that remains undisturbed, except by the constant work of erosion.

Painted pebbles from Shumla Cave.


The stratigraphy in the rich dark soil of the eastern cut bank showed bits of bone and flint flakes could be seen insitu in the sidewalls and spilled into the erosional material. The passage of cattle had broken down the creek bank as they used this ramp for easy egress and access. An image persisted in my mind, of a National Geographic special showing a herd of wildebeest passing down a steep bank and breaking it down, the animals falling over each other, until they had created a chute, a cut in the bank. Perhaps this was the remnant of an old game trail, appropriated in modern times by the domestic cattle. The ramp of packed dirt spilled down into the creek and would one day be washed away when the seasonal rains once again returned. About halfway up the ramp, embedded in this dark black loam I spotted a bone protruding, a small leg bone, probably deer. A white bone standing out in the dark soil, spotlighted in the late afternoon sunlight. I tried to pick it up and it was held fast in the tightly packed dirt. I took a knife from my pack and dug around the bone and loosened it from the surrounding soil matrix. I rescued the bone from an imminent damaging plunge downstream during the next flood which would almost certainly result in the total destruction of this unusual example of a rare art form. I tried to imagine the creek in times of flood, with raging waters churning from bank to bank. The water would be over my head by 20 or 30 feet, churning and ripping into the bank, undercutting and dumping more archeologically rich soil into the water.

The Remains of the Day

The bone is 8 inches in length and an inch or so thick. It is only whitish were it had been exposed and damaged, the rest of the bone being an amber color. One end is broken away, damaged by being stepped on by passing animals as it lay slowly becoming more and more exposed. I could see that the bone had sustained damage from this exposure to the elements and the hooves. I carefully removed it and wiped it off, expecting it to be just another discarded bone from a long ago meal. It was a long bone of a deer and it appeared to be highly polished and seemed to be old. Washing it in the creek water revealed a few faint lines. I had often seen similar meander marks on stones and bones from the stain of roots, a natural occurrence. Linear patterning could be detected in a faint meander pattern over the surface of the bone, so many marks pointed to naturally occurring root staining. Then additional markings came to light and I thought I could make out a figure, a purposefully drawn image rather than an accidental root stain. I sensed this was something different, something I had no experience with, something outside my own frame of reference. A meander winds and turns in a course, a rambling zig zag movement, like the twisting streambed of a Texas creek. The free form linear image meanders over the surface of the bone, forming an abstract pattern that is partially obliterated and smudged.

I was unsure of what I had found and didn’t really understand the true rarity of what I had collected. Linear markings form a pattern clearly, but sometimes faintly visible, running over and around the surface of the bone, meander patterns similar to the Linear Style of Texas Native American art found in rockshelters.The marks and meandering lines coil around the bone, some criss crossing, others straight, some zigging, some zagging and several anthropomorphic figures and cosmological symbols are evident.

The Bear Clan Panel, San Cristobal Ranch, Lamy, New Mexico shows some 
nice star renditions and mudhead and horned gods.

An interactive piece of art: hold me, read me, tell the story again: a mnemonic or memory device. It is hot, my hands are sweating, I am back in the sweat lodge, thinking about how the smudging of the image on the bone, corresponds to where it would be most natural to hold it in my hand. I finished talking and invoked a prayer for all my relations before passing the bone to the person sitting on my left.

The Lightning Snake summons power from the lightning strike and the snake clan resonds to the call.

Making ones mark in the world

Later, I carefully cleaned the surface of the bone with tap water, mild soap and a soft toothbrush. The odd patterns appeared to be deliberate marking applied by the hand of man. I repaired the damaged area and took some photographs and scans that convinced me of a conscious human endeavor and ruled out accidental root staining. Photographs were taken with varying contrasts and were manipulated to isolate the linear work which covers much of the surface, but has become worn and faded. I was holding a painting done centuries ago by an Indian. A practiced hand held a crude brush and dipped the thin tip into a mussel shell containing a dark ink. A preconceived cosmology provided the source for the images that were drawn using this special ink. I hear the rhythmic chanting of voices in prayer as the marks are slowly drawn as black marks on a white bone, bold marks, distinct marks, the bone is set aside and dried before painting can continue.

Deer bone object

This unusual object that I had found is only a common leg bone of a deer, no big deal. But, this particular bone was treated differently than just any leg bone discarded after an animal was consumed, this was curated, that is, specifically chosen to be given special attention. It was carefully scraped smooth with sharp pieces of flint, then polished with abraders, removing all the ridges where the muscles attached and giving the bone an overall smooth surface to the touch. An oil or grease was rubbed into the surface of the bone to prep it for paint application. Some time was invested preparing the bone to receive the painting. Some careful thought went into the creation of the painted elements represented on the prayer bone.

The painting was applied onto this specially prepared surface, by drawing an ink charged brush over the surface tracing out a mystery whose meaning we may find impenetrable. The linear drawings meander over the entire surface of the bone following an abstract fluidity of purpose. Was this object perhaps a “handle” for a feather fan or some other ceremonial piece? A viewer has to hold the bone in both hands and roll it to reveal the painting in its complexity.

The linear work reveals the use of a brush and a skilled hand. The painted lines and other designs are smudged in some areas, in others, almost faded away, some retain the original dark linear markings. In the area which could have served as the grip area of the handle, faint stains may be the remains of previous episodes of renewal by over painting of the symbols and signs. Do the marks display an unsteady hand or is it the crude brush? The linear design work is simple in its drawing style and complex in its possibility of meanings.

The Irrigation Prayer Rock found at San Cristobal Ranch, Lamy, New Mexico

A detailed depiction of the cycle of corn sprouting and growing in rows in a field, wtih irrgation canals or furrows, hand print, animal shamans, squash plant vines twine beneath the corn plants. Horned god mask is found top center above the tripod holding the sacred bundle.

A Comanche Shaman’s Prayer Bone?

The Indians are mostly gone from Texas now, but their signs and symbols sometimes make themselves known to us. Scraped and polished to a smooth surface, this specially chosen leg bone of a deer was used as a canvas by an original Texan, a Native American. It has been suggested by the late Native American ceremonialist, Servando Trujillo that the piece belonged to a Comanche shaman and it represents a type of Water Prayer. This group of Indians would have been mounted on horse back and could easily carry bundles of sacred object and pouches of rocks and flint spalls. Such mobility encouraged wide spread trade routes and trading centers. Servando based his suggestion on similar prayer bones that he has seen in possession of Native American sacred societies, first hand knowledge which he gained while growing up as a reservation Indian. The artist was attempting to paint the profound, to make known the unknowable. It serves as an invitation to an infinite invisible world accessed by means of a specialized cosmology of symbols and signs that we can hold in our hands. These images are similar to paintings of the Texas Rock Art Tradition usually found painted on the walls of rock shelters and caves and reinterpreted on painted and engraved pebbles. Memory devices were created to serve as a way of remembrance. To begin a story each evening around the campfire, the old one unwrapped a special object and then he held the painted bone aloft before the group and as he began to shake it, he started the telling, his hands sweated and he shook the remembering bone at them, walking among the group and holding the bone out for them to see, long did he tell the story, the counting moons were many.

Buried near to the creek bank, next to a campsite area, hidden for millennia, finally the prayer bone was revealed once again by the dynamic power of nature, eroding away the bank of the creek to uncover this most unusual object of ancient North American art. It is almost as if the prayer bone carried its message through the space-time-continuum and returns from the within the earth to bring this message to us in troubled times. This idea has parallels in several Native American creation myths. The Tonkawas, a historic group of Central Texas Indians, relate the story of their first people being trapped inside a sacred red mountain, the people are in darkness and content to just exist. They chant and sing and talk. The coyote hears the noise of them talking amongst themselves there inside the mountain and he digs into the sacred mountain and uncovers, “The People”, who come out into the world and discovering that they are mortal and suffer from hunger, they ask creator for the knowledge of procuring food. They tried to run after and catch rabbit and found they were exhausted from the chase and had no food to show for their efforts. Creator sent them on a journey to the sacred flint mountain where flint nodules lay exposed in the sides of gullies and shattered into sharp pieces that lay scattered over the landscape. They had to make a deal with the mountain spirits for the flint they gathered, and they subsequently gained the knowledge of working flint and making tools. The mountain spirits at first, tossed down upon them sharp flints cutting them confirming their mortality through blood letting and it was in this way that they gained knowledge of flint for use as tools and hunting weaponry. They quickly learned how to hunt the animals using the throwing stick tipped with razor sharp spearpoints.

Mammoth molar found in Walnut Creek near Austin.

Close-up of main figure on Prayer Bone

What is the Message?

What are we to make of this strange object and the images it holds? How can we look at them and assume to know what they mean and not be entirely mistaken in our belief that our own interpretations are a rational explanation for something we might call, the universal mind of man. What do I see there on the bone? I see a figure facing to the left, standing in boots, a symbol of the morning star above his head, a symbolic umbilical/phallus protrudes from his body. Connections are made by lines which meander over the surface of the bone, a meandering line zig zags around, marks are hashed. Is it a mere doodle or a carefully thought out and fully realized piece of art linked to the cosmos?

The bone measures 8 inches in length, and due to its shape is an inch and a quarter thick to three-quarters of an inch thick. Deer bones, broken and complete are a very common artifacts in Texas archeological sites. Modified deer bone was a common tool resource and deer bones were shaped into an array of hand tools for flint knapping, leather and wood working, and also for use as fish hooks and personal adornment.

Sweat Lodge rock art from Heuco Tanks, Texas

The concept of the bone possibly uses as a handle looks like only one of several interpretations. Is the handle motif too obvious an assumption? Or was it a sacred speaking stick, to be passed from one individual to another inside the sweat lodge or council meeting, allowing the one person holding it to speak in turn before the assembled group? It is a wonderful and curious object to ponder. Some viewers say to hold the bone this way or that way, others say no, this side is up, obviously, no? Really, is it the flip side or which way is up? I am simply using my own limited knowledge of ancient symbolism to make certain assumptions and temporal connections as to what we might be seeing when examining the Prayer Bone.

Take care of the waters and revere them, pray for the rain and rejoice in its blessing, do not despoil the land or the animals; take care of earth mother, where the earth is healed, so are the people. Bless the children. Honor the ancestors. Aho, Mitakye Oyasin (God Bless All My Relations), a Native American Blessing. This is an imaginative musing but pure invention on my part, blending Sioux mythology and Gaia Earth Mother reasoning, a flight of fancy.

He asked the Shaman these questions?

Why had the rains not come? Why does the water in the stream taste bad? Why are there fewer game animals this season? How could my woman still be barren after all our years together? It takes a fertile imagination to begin to venture a guess as to the meaning of the images painted onto the Prayer Bone. I can spin a good story, as my imagination runs wild.

Cosmological Basis for Imagery

The Prayer Bone was created not as “art” as we understand it but as an object to make real the supernatural world by depicting images seen in a vision, or trance, (sometimes induced by hallucinogenic drugs administered in ceremonial sessions). We have to put some distance between our precognition of what we are looking at and the real meaning of the signs and symbols. Unfortunately, there is no representative of that group of people who can explain this particular object to us, we have to depend on our powers of deduction, instinct and insight. A Kokopelli type figure could be conjectured, the hump back adds credence to image of the fabled wandering trader and licentious flute player? But, alas, The lingam on the bone figure seems to be awkwardly placed for a flute and has marks of an odd nature issuing forth in a downward arc. He has a pronounced humped back, almost a turtle-like carapace or shell that could be a pack or is this instead, a cradle board? The masculine interpretation fits more than the female. A traveler, trader or a madonna? Could it be a man with an erection, invoking procreation and fertility? Is the other discernible figure a female figure or another shaman? The horned god image is very similar to the buffalo horn heads from San Cristobal and other rock art sites. Are the lines moving over the surface of the bone meant to connect the power between the figures and to link the energy? Meandering energy lines linking one image to another are a common motif found in the rock art of Texas and the Southwest.

Zuni War God

The Zuni Indians have a particular God in their pantheon, a War God figure that is fitted with a detachable insert which is placed in the navel /genital area, like being plugged into to the cosmic connection. The Zuni maintain that it is the umbilical connection to the spirit world. Could it also still double as a phallus in some ceremonies, duality is also a common theme in Native American mythology.

Meander snake, bird image fights with a snake, and a lightning snake hover on this panerl 
from Sand Crisotbal Ranch, Lamy, New Mexico

Meander Rock Art

The meandering linear motif is a well known subject among researchers of ancient art found in the Americas. The meanders sometimes reach out and connect with other objects or become geometric. I think the lines that were drawn between places were to link them up, to bring them into contact with the spirit of one another, to plug them into the same matrix of energy. It is my hope that additional research on this and other painted bones will bring forth some answers.

What is the meaning of this?

What questions did ancient man seek answers to? Were their concerns really so different than ours? Food, shelter, warm clothes, sex and time for art and the exchange of ideas with our fellow human beings. I can see similarities within the Rock Art symbolism found in Texas and the Southwest, the meandering line or lightning bolt symbol, the masked figure, is that a deer antler headdress?. Is the symbol above the head of the walking figure representing the morning star, Venus rising? Venus sometimes appears low on the horizon and it does sometimes appears to extend a bottom ray that is visibly longer. (Personal note:I can attest to this atmospheric effect because I have observed this while watching the sky before dawn, it appears to lengthen the lower bar a noticeable amount and sometimes appears to be pointed rather than squared on the end. Look in the early morning sky for Venus, the Sacred Star of the East, The Morning Star, to appear on the eastern horizon, the atmospheric distortion is dramatic.

The Bell Gorget a Southern Cult Mound Builder 
Cultral artifact depicting a fight between the water panter or bear and the spirit hawk or falcon.

Which way is really up? The man with the erection, is he caught in the moment of orgasmic rapture? Or does he simply represent procreation, fertility and not sexual gratification? Or is it the cosmic connection, the navel of which mankind contemplates? A best guess is about all we can do when looking at the iconography found on the painted bone. Your guess is as good as mine. I have offered the Prayer Bone for study by the scientists and archeologists at the Texas Archeological Research Lab, University of Texas/Austin.

Most portable sacred images of Native American cultures have been lost to the ravages of time and the deterioration of the base materials. Long ago, a shaman prepared a special feather fan or prayer object, utilizing the leg bone of a deer as his canvas, decorating the bone with symbols inspired by his practiced cosmology. Created by a people whose lives and concepts remain untouched by modern civilization, how can we interpret the symbolism and the ceremonialism? It was only sheer luck and coincidence that revealed the bone to me and allowed me to salvage it and protect it from loss or destruction. This enigmatic object seeks a meaningful translation, until then, the mystery continues to elude.

Steve Ashley, 2004, all rights reserved. 
email Steve Ashley

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