The author examining
pictographs in 60th Unnamed Cave, Tennessee. Alan Cressler
Human figure from Mud
Glyph Cave with raised right hand and Chunkey game piece in
left hand. Alan Cressler
On a cold winter's day in 1980, a group of recreational cavers
entered a narrow, wet stream passage south of Knoxville, Tennessee.
They navigated a slippery mud slope and a tight keyhole through
the cave wall, trudged through the stream itself, ducked through
another keyhole and climbed more mud. Eventually they entered a
high and relatively dry passage deep in the cave's "dark zone"
beyond the reach of external light.
On the walls around them, they began to see lines and figures traced
into remnant mud banks laid down long ago when the stream flowed
at this higher level. No modern or historic graffiti marred the
surfaces. They saw images of animals, people and transformational
characters blending human characteristics with those of birds, and
those of snakes with mammals.
Ancient cave art has long been one of the most compelling of all
artifacts from the human past, fascinating both to scientists and
to the public at large. Its visual expressions resonate across the
ages, as if the ancients speak to us from deep in time. And this
group of cavers in 1980 had happened upon the first ancient cave
art site in North America.
Since then archaeologists like me have discovered dozens more of
these cave art sites in the Southeast. We've been able to learn
details about when cave art first appeared in the region, when it
was most frequently produced and what it might have been used for.
We have also learned a great deal by working with the living descendants
of the cave art makers, the present-day Native American peoples
of the Southeast, about what the cave art means and how important
it was and is to Indigenous communities.
From the outside, these
caves betray no hint of the ancient art that might be inside.
Cave art in America?
Few people think of North America when they think about ancient
A century before the Tennessee cavers made their own discovery,
the world's first modern discovery of cave art was made in 1879,
at Altamira in northern Spain. The scientific establishment of the
day immediately denied
the authenticity of the site.
Subsequent discoveries served to authenticate this and other ancient
sites. As the earliest expressions of human creativity, some
perhaps 40,000 years old, European paleolithic cave art is now
justifiably famous worldwide.
But similar cave art had never been found anywhere in North America,
although Native American rock
art outside of caves has been recorded since Europeans arrived.
Artwork deep under the ground was unknown in 1980, and the Southeast
was an unlikely place to find it given how much archaeology had
been done there since the colonial period.
Nevertheless, the Tennessee cavers recognized that they were seeing
something extraordinary and brought archaeologist Charles Faulkner
to the cave. He initiated a research project there, naming the site
Mud Glyph Cave. His
archaeological work showed that the art was from the
Mississippian culture, some 800 years old, and depicted imagery
characteristic of ancient Native American religious beliefs. Many
of those beliefs are still held by the descendants of Mississippian
peoples: the modern Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coushatta, Muscogee,
Seminole and Yuchi, among others.
After the Mud Glyph Cave discovery, archaeologists here at the
University of Tennessee, Knoxville initiated
systematic cave surveys. Today, we have cataloged 92 dark-zone
cave art sites in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia
and West Virginia. There are also a few sites known in Arkansas,
Missouri and Wisconsin.
What did they depict?
There are three forms of southeastern cave art.
- Mud glyphs are drawings traced into pliable mud surfaces preserved
in caves, like those from Mud Glyph Cave.
- Petroglyphs are drawings incised directly into the limestone
of the cave walls.
- Pictographs are paintings, usually made with charcoal-based
pigments, placed onto the cave walls.
Sometimes, more than one technique is found in the same cave, and
none of the methods seems to appear earlier or later in time that
Archaic Period pictograph
of a hunter and prey dated to 6,500 years ago. Alan Cressler
pictograph showing an animal with talons for feet, a blunt
forehead and long snout, with a long curving tail over the
back. Alan Cressler
southeastern cave art is quite ancient. The oldest cave art
sites date to some 6,500 years ago, during the Archaic Period (10,000-1000
B.C.). These early sites are rare and seem to be clustered on the
modern Kentucky-Tennessee state line. Imagery was simple and often
abstract, although representational pictures do exist.
Cave art sites increase in number over time. The Woodland Period
(1000 B.C. - A.D. 1000) saw more common and more widespread art
production. Abstract art was still abundant and less worldly. Probably
more spiritual subject matter was common. During the Woodland, conflations
between humans and animals, like "bird-humans," made their first
The Mississippian Period (A.D. 1000-1500) is the last precontact
phase in the Southeast before Europeans arrived, and this was when
much of the dark-zone cave art was produced. Subject matter is clearly
religious and includes spirit people and animals that do not exist
in the natural world. There is also strong evidence that Mississippian
art caves were compositions, with images organized through the cave
passages in systematic ways to suggest stories or narratives told
though their locations and relations.
Cave art continued into the modern era
In recent years, researchers have realized that cave art has strong
connections to the historic tribes that occupied the Southeast at
the time of European invasion.
In several caves in Alabama and Tennessee, mid-19th-century inscriptions
on cave walls in Cherokee Syllabary. This writing system was
invented by the Cherokee scholar Sequoyah between 1800 and 1824
and was quickly adopted as the tribe's primary means of written
On a cave wall in Alabama,
an 1828 Cherokee syllabary inscription relating to a stickball
ceremony. Alan Cressler
Cherokee archaeologists, historians and language experts have joined
forces with nonnative archaeologists like me to document and translate
these cave writings. As it turns out, they refer to various important
religious ceremonies and spiritual concepts that emphasize the sacred
nature of caves, their isolation and their connection to powerful
spirits. These texts reflect similar religious ideas to those represented
by graphic images in earlier, precontact time periods.
Based on all the rediscoveries researchers have made since Mud
Glyph Cave was first explored more than four decades ago, cave art
in the Southeast was created over a long period of time. These artists
worked in ancient times when ancestral Native Americans lived by
foraging in the rich natural landscapes of the Southeast all the
way through to the historic period just before the Trail of Tears
saw the forced removal of indigenous people east of the Mississippi
River in the 1830s.
As surveys continue, researchers uncover more dark cave sites every
year in fact, four new caves were found in the first half
of 2021. With each new discovery, the tradition is beginning to
approach the richness and diversity of the Paleolithic art of Europe,
where 350 sites
are currently known. That archaeologists were unaware of the
dark-zone cave art of the American Southeast even 40 years ago demonstrates
the kinds of new discoveries that can be made even in regions that
have been explored for centuries.
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