Paint Lick History

We know Native American communities were  hunting mammals in these mountains of Southwestern Virginia over 10,000 years ago.


Paint Lick Mountain Pictograph

Contributed by Thomas Klatka on

The Paint Lick Mountain Pictograph Archaeological Site in Tazewell County consists of a group of twenty pictographs on a rock cliff. First investigated by archaeologists late in the nineteenth century, the geometric-, animal-, and human-form designs likely were made by Virginia Indians of unknown identity and at an unknown time. There are only two known examples of such pictographs in Virginia—the other is at Little Mountain in Nottoway County—and such representations were not recorded by the early settlers of the Virginia colony. The soft mudstone at Paint Lick Mountain, rich in iron oxide, provided the red pigment used to create the pictographs, which collectively likely reflect spiritual and cognitive aspects of Indian culture. As a tangible expression of a prehistoric social connection to the landscape of Southwest Virginia, the site retains a deep significance for Indian communities in Virginia and surrounding states.

Site Description

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.

The Investigations

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 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.

scenerywestof jefferson

In this view, the two peaks to the right are the ends of Paint Lick

and Deskins’ mountains and the high peak to the left represents Morris’s knob.

More History

Paint Lick mountain is a continuation of the House and Barn mountain in Russell county, and is separated from it by the Maiden Spring fork, of Clinch river.  There was once a great elk and deer lick, near its western end, and there are many paintings (still visible), supposed to have been executed by the Shawanoe Indians, or perhaps, by the Cherokees.  The paintings represent birds, women, Indian warriors, etc.  From these paintings, the lick was named, which was soon applied to the mountain.  It rises near the western county line, and runs in the general direction to near Jeffersonville: it here sinks, to admit the passage of another fork of Clinch river and again rises, forming Elkhorn mountain…. more info

A Museum Visit

For today’s visitor to Saltville, eight miles off I-81 in Smyth County Virginia, a compelling resource helps connect the dots.  Chronicling the area’s complex history in a comprehensive timeline, The Museum of the Middle Appalachians is a mecca for archaeologists, paleontologists, historians and the curious.

The museum houses thousands of artifacts and archival photographs from the area dating from 14,500 years ago to the present and visitors are greeted with a breathtaking full-size replica of a mastodon skeleton and the jaw of a woolly mammoth.  Mineral displays from geologic formations of the Late Ice Age show the earliest evidence of human activity in Eastern America.

The museum begins its American Indian displays in the Late Woodland Period (900 – 1600 BC) when the Chisca, also known as Yuchi, lived beside the nearby Holston River, which they called ‘Hogoheegee’ and their village ‘Maniatique’ where they established salt-powered chiefdoms and traded the precious commodity with tribes along the eastern US.  Museum manager, Harry Haynes, says, “There have been more than 20 native village sites found along the Clinch and Holton Rivers within 20 miles of Saltville.”

Clay pots, celts, copper and shell beads, including an astonishing 164-inch necklace of marginella beads make up a small part of the extensive Patricia Bass Collection.  Mastodon bones, a beautiful quartz crystal grooved axe, and javelin points are other intriguing objects that have been unearthed in the area.  Here a giant slothfootprint shares space with rare engraved gorgets, a type of medallion or mask with rattlesnake or turkey designs that were carved from marine shells.

Photographs of cliff walls at nearby Paint Lick Mountain show early pictographs of bird, man and snail.  Further testament to Native American skill and craftsmanship, are drawers filled with axes, celtsand arrowheads and a rare platform pipe of steatite, highly characteristic of the region…. more about Saltville, VA

miracleMiracle Is Born

August 20, 1994…  MIRACLE, the first white female buffalo calf in over a century, was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, to non-Native ranchers. The birth of a white buffalo calf was prophesied by Native people generations ago, and she is seen as a sign of tribal unity and peace by believers all across the country. Thousands pilgrimage to see her, and Miracle received worldwide media attention.


More Links

The Mississippian culture edged up the Tennessee drainage into Southwest Virginia, about 2,000 years ago… more info

Archaeological evidence for chief-doms in Southwestern Virginia… more info

Wagon Ride to see the pictographs… more info

Woodland Indians at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians… more info

Children’s outing in CT… more info

The three most important crops for the native people – Squash, Corn and Beans – called the Three Sisters & were grown together.

5 thoughts on “Paint Lick History

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  4. Very informative, my mother’s people are from Southwest Va. The area is rich in Native American and Early Post contact history. Virginia’s cultural history needs to refocus to this region as a start for the history of Virginia culturally speaking

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