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,, 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 rock outcrop.
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 life.