Issues in the Study of Southeastern Prehistoric Cave Art

Article excerpt


Research on dark zone cave art in the Southeast has confronted archaeologists with a variety of technical and interpretive problems unique to the cave environment and to the subject matter encountered in the art itself. Six areas of concern treat solutions to challenges raised by cave dark zones as contexts for research as well as issues in the study of southeastern cave art in its cultural context. Logistics, documentation, variability in the art work, its chronology, its interpretation, and conservation are each considered in turn. A rich and varied expressive tradition, one beginning in the Archaic and continuing into the Mississippian, is now evident in the region.


For nearly 130 years, European archaeologists have confronted the problems posed by prehistoric dark zone cave art(1)-ancient art that was produced deep inside natural subterranean passageways well beyond the reach of external light (Piette 1894; Sautuola 1880). In North America, aboriginal art in similar deep cave situations was rarely encountered until 1979 (but see Barr 1961; Ellis and Hammack 1968), when complex images incised into wet clay were discovered in Mud Glyph Cave in East Tennessee (Faulkner 1986; Faulkner et al. 1984). The discovery of Mud Glyph Cave began a long-standing commitment on the part of University of Tennessee archaeologists to the study of southeastern caves. Since the discovery of Mud Glyph Cave, more than 30 other art caves have been found in the Southeast, including examples in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia. Most of these lie along the Cumberland Plateau escarpment of the Appalachian Plateau in Tennessee, but others are in the karsts of the eastern Ridge and Valley Province (Simek et al. 2001).

The context of dark zone cave archaeology, especially that dealing with art, presents a variety of challenges for archaeologists (e.g., Watson 1969, 1974), from technical and logistical difficulties in the field to interpretation of the imagery itself. In this article, we will describe some of our approaches to these issues. We stress from the outset that these techniques and approaches are neither especially novel nor necessarily the best solutions to the problems we have encountered in our work; they are simply our current solutions, and we offer them for the consideration of others working with dark zone cave art. Six problem areas will be discussed: logistics, documentation, variability in the imagery, its chronology, its interpretation, and conservation.

Logistical Problems

Logistical challenges in studying cave art in the Southeast begin with access to the sites, which, it seems, is never easy. Landowner permission is the first issue, and it must be obtained in every case. We have not met many owners who refuse our request to work on their property; in fact, most owners we encounter are fascinated by, and quite committed to protecting, the prehistoric resources on their lands. Some owners, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and certain private proprietors, have contributed material and financial support to our efforts. In all cases landowners have asked that we keep secret the names and locations of their sites in exchange for permission to work on their property. Thus, we refer to caves using pseudonyms rather than local or registry names. Physically reaching the sites and the decorations within the caves has proved difficult, at times even dangerous. In some cases, this is due to modern landscapes that are different than those present prehistorically. For example, 1st Unnamed Cave in Tennessee (Faulkner and Simek 1996a; Simek et al. 1997) today must be approached by boat, because river impoundment has brought lake water into the cave mouth. That was not the case in prehistory, when the river was 100 rn away and 10 m below the cave. With a vestibule that floods with rising lake levels, and additional ponding produced by beaver habitation inside the cave, conditions do not reflect the ancient situation. …