Archaeologists Find Large-scale Mud Art in Alabama Cave

Shamans and snakes, perhaps: The subjects of the glyphs on the ceiling of the ‘19th Unnamed Cave’ in Alabama are hard to make out, but then, they were drawing in the dark

Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Anthropomorph in regalia, with a rayed circle in the midsection (0.93m tall) from 19th Unnamed Cave
Human figure in regalia, 0.93m tall, with something around its midriff; from 19th Unnamed Cave Credit: S. Alvarez / Antiquity Publications
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf

Deep inside a cave in Alabama, the location of which remains secret, archaeologists have discovered strange mud glyphs on the ceiling.

There are hundreds of glyphs incised into the mud coating of the cave ceiling, showing animals, humans, and images that are hard to interpret. Most were discovered in 1998 but now, while mapping the cave in three dimensions, archaeologists have discovered five more, and they’re big.

The newly discovered are the largest-known examples of art to be found inside any cave in North America and are associated with pre-contact Native Americans, Jan Simek from the University of Tennessee reported in Antiquity on Wednesday.

There are bigger prehistoric examples of rock art in North America but they are outdoors, not inside cramped caverns.

Mud glyph that looks like a birdCredit: A. Cressler / Antiquity Publications
Man's best proto-friend? Images of canids in 48th Unnamed CaveCredit: A. Cressler / Antiquity Publications

The newly reported glyphs incised into the mud of the cave ceiling had been previously missed partly because they’re in the cave’s dark zone and partly because they were created on the ceiling, a very low ceiling. They were detected in “19th Unnamed Cave” (named as such to protect its location) in the course of mapping it, Simek explains.

In some instances, the artists couldn’t even see their full work while creating it because of the low ceiling, Simek believes.

“The implication of that is they were drawing with a plan,” he explains. “[The images] were composed in the maker’s head and the maker could execute these works even though they couldn’t see all of it. I think it’s not a lot different than it was to create a mural in the Sistine Chapel in the Renaissance. You climbed up on scaffolds and you were painting one little bit of it, but you knew in the back of your mind that you had this great composition you were formulating.”

All the glyphs were incised into the mud on the cave ceiling and altogether, cover about 400 square meters – almost as big as an American basketball court. Following the discovery of the previously invisible ones, Simek says that the 19th Unnamed Cave with its hundreds of images is the richest cave-art sites in the southeast U.S.

Anthropomorph in regalia (2.08m tall) from 19th Unnamed Cave Credit: S. Alvarez / Antiquity Publications

So far, over 100 sites of pre-Columbian cave art have been found in the southeastern U.S., dating from as much as 7,000 years ago to about 1600 C.E.

Most date to 800 C.E. or less. In the case of our Unnamed Cave, ceramic sherds found on the cavern floor are characteristic of the Woodland period, which spans 3,000 to 1,000 years ago, but radiocarbon dating a piece of charcoal and a sliver of river cane narrow the suspected date range for the glyphs down to somewhere between 600 to 1,000 C.E., according to Simek.

There be snakes

Three of the five large, recently discovered glyphs are anamorphic: distorted humanoid forms with crisscross markings that could be meant to represent garb or regalia. These five range in size from .9 to 3.3 meters.

Enigmatic figure of swirling lines, with a round head at one end and a possible rattlesnake tail at the other (2.12m wide) from 19th Unnamed CaveCredit: Photograph by S. Alvarez / illustration by J. Simek

Each entity seems to holding an object in hand, or claw, or paw. In some instances, the figures seem to have been etched to include the natural facets of the ceiling in the design. For instance, one figure seems to be holding an indentation in the ceiling. Examples of this style in other forms of rock art include arms or other appendages reaching out of cracks, according to Simek.

“There is a connection between the natural surface that they are using to make these images and their conceptual ideas about the images,” Simek posits. “If these are spirits, they are connected to the cave, physically connected.”

One glyph shows a chaotic jumble of coils and loops that may represent a serpent, an interpretation supported by one end of it vaguely resembling the tail of a rattlesnake. The biggest glyph is 3.3 meters or 11 feet long and also seems to represent a snake. It too has cross-etched lines like on the humanoid images, though in its case, that wouldn’t indicate garb but the pattern of its scaly skin.

What or who the images actually show is debatable. “That they are powerful and important is pretty clear by their context and how they are drawn, that they are important characters is evident, but who they are is not evident,” Simek said. Nothing similar has been found in the archaeological record, he says.

Anthropomorph in regalia (1.81m tall), 19th Unnamed Cave Credit: S. Alvarez / Antiquity Publications

Archaeology by Photoshop

The largest ceiling glyphs were only discovered in the cavern, which has over 5 kilometers of tunnels, after archaeologists began to further investigate and archive previously identified and documented smaller glyphs. The small and large glyphs occupy the same ceiling, but due to the cramped conditions, Simek and his team had not been able to make out the expansive designs beforehand.

But in 2017 Stephen Alvarez of the Ancient Art Archive came, took 16,000 photographs of the cave interior and created a 3-D model of the cave and its glyphs. And thanks to that model, Simek and Alvarez began to suspect there was something bigger on the ceiling because they were able to view the whole surface without the spatial constraint of the cave’s low ceiling.

Using Adobe Photoshop, they could enhance the etchings they originally failed to notice.

Petroglyphs interpreted as birds and armed humans, from 11th Unnamed CaveCredit: A. Cressler / Antiquity Publicat

One question is why these glyphs were created in such a small, dark and cramped space. The artist would have been lying on their back amid the stalagmites and stalactites, painting by the light of river cane torches (the source of the radiocarbon dates). Why they went to this effort, we do not know for sure but one may speculate.

It has been postulated, for example, that prehistoric peoples viewed caves as passages to an underworld. Simek postulates from years of archaeological and ethnographic work in the Southeast woodlands, that art in inaccessible locations is a hallmark of shamanism and ritual, not necessarily an art gallery for the whole village.

It’s worth adding that a study by Prof. Ran Barkai and colleagues published in March 2021 put forward a novel theory regarding dark-zone art in Upper Paleolithic Europe: The study theorizes that poor ventilation paired with the combustion of torches (which uses up even more oxygen) may have caused hypoxia. That and the overall sensory deprivation of the caving experience raised dopamine levels, causing hallucinations and even out-of-body experiences, they suggest.

Simek hopes future photogrammetry ventures will find even larger glyphs in America, and looks forward to comparing his findings with a wealth of ethnographic data from indigenous groups.

“When we talk about archaeology, the impression we give is that the people who made this are dead and gone, that this is the remnant of a disappeared culture, but in this case that is just not true,” Simek says. “It’s an ancient culture, but the descendants are still here, the ideas, the intellectual context of this art is carried on by artists, thinkers and even archaeologists among the descendant communities today.”

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