Ancient American art deep in the Southeast Caves



In 1980, a group of amateur cavers discovered the first ancient rock art site in North America in the dark areas of the caves south of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Jan Simek

Jan Simek, professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, recently explained the history and importance of this art form in The Conversation.

Since the first discovery in 1980, archaeologists have found dozens of rock art sites in the southeast. They were able to obtain details of when rock art first appeared in the area, when it was most frequently produced, and how it could have been used. Archaeologists have also learned a great deal from working with living descendants of rock art makers about the significance of rock art and its importance and significance to indigenous communities.

Rock art in America?

Few people think of North America when they think of ancient rock art.

A century before Tennessee cavers made their discovery, the world’s first modern discovery of rock art was made in 1879 in Altamira, in northern Spain. The scientific establishment of the time immediately denied the authenticity of the site.

Later finds have served to authenticate Altamira and other ancient sites. As the earliest expression of human creativity – with some examples perhaps 40,000 years old – European Paleolithic rock art is now rightly famous the world over.

But similar rock art had never been found anywhere in North America, although Native American rock art outside of caves has been recorded since the arrival of Europeans. Deeply buried works of art were unknown in 1980, and the southeast was an unlikely place to find them given the extent of archeology that had been carried out there since colonial times.

Nonetheless, Tennessee cavers admitted 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 has shown that the art originated in Mississippi culture, some 800 years old, and depicts images characteristic of ancient Native American religious beliefs. Many of these beliefs are still held by descendants of the Mississippian peoples: the modern Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coushatta, Muscogee, Seminole, and Yuchi, among others.

After the discovery of the Mud Glyph cave, archaeologists at UT initiated systematic studies of the caves. Today, archaeologists have listed 92 rock art sites in the Dark Zone of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. There are also a few well-known sites in Arkansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

What did they represent?

There are three forms of rock art in the southeast:

  • Mud Glyphs are designs drawn on soft mud surfaces preserved in caves, such as those in the Mud Glyph Cave.
  • The petroglyphs are designs incised directly into the limestone of the cave walls.
  • The pictograms are paintings, usually made with charcoal-based pigments, placed on the walls of the cave.

Sometimes more than one technique is found in the same cave, and none of the methods seems to appear earlier or later in time than the others.

Some rock art in the southeast is quite old. The oldest sites date from around 6500 years ago, during the Archaic Period (10,000 to 1,000 BC. These early sites are rare and appear to be clustered on the modern Kentucky-Tennessee state line. The imagery was simple. and often abstract, although representative images exist.

Rock art sites multiply over time. The Woods Period (1000 BC – 1000 AD Abstract art was still abundant and less mundane. Probably more spiritual subjects were common. Confusions between humans and animals, such as bird-humans , made their first appearance.

The Mississippian Period (1000-1500 AD is the last phase in the Southeast before the arrival of Europeans, and it is at this time that much of the rock art in the Dark Zone has The subject matter is clearly religious and includes spirits and animals that do not exist in the natural world. There is also strong evidence that the Mississippian caves of art were compositions, with images organized across them. cave passages in a systematic way to suggest stories or tales told through their locations and relationships.

Rock art has continued into the modern era

In recent years, researchers have realized that rock art has strong ties to the historic tribes that occupied the southeast at the time of the European invasion.

In several caves in Alabama and Tennessee, mid-19th century inscriptions were written on cave walls in the Cherokee syllabary. This writing system was invented by Cherokee scholar Sequoyah between 1800 and 1824 and was quickly adopted as the tribe’s primary form of written expression.

Cherokee archaeologists, historians, and language experts have partnered with non-Indigenous archaeologists like Simek to document and translate these rock writings. 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. Religious ideas reflected are similar to those represented by graphic images in periods prior to contact.

Based on all the rediscoveries researchers have made since Mud Glyph Cave was first explored over four decades ago, rock art in the Southeast has been created over a long period of time. time. Artists have worked from the ancient times when ancestral Native Americans lived foraging for food in the rich natural landscapes of the Southeast to the historical period just before the Trail of Tears saw the forced displacement of indigenous peoples to the east of the Mississippi River in the 1830s.

As investigations continue, researchers are discovering more and more dark cave sites every year. In fact, four new caves were discovered during the first half of 2021. With each new discovery, the tradition begins to draw closer to the richness and diversity of Paleolithic art in Europe, where 350 sites are currently known. The fact that archaeologists were unaware of rock art in the Dark Zone of the American Southeast even 40 years ago demonstrates the kind of new discoveries that can be made even in areas explored for centuries.

UT is a member of The Conversation, an independent source of news articles and insightful analysis written by the academic community and edited by journalists for the general public. Through our partnership, we seek to better understand the important work of our faculty.


Lindsey Owen (865-974-6375, [email protected])



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