1st Unnamed Cave: A Mississippian Period Cave Art in East Tennessee, USA

By Faulkner, Charles H.; Simek, Jan F. | Antiquity, December 1996 | Go to article overview

1st Unnamed Cave: A Mississippian Period Cave Art in East Tennessee, USA


Faulkner, Charles H., Simek, Jan F., Antiquity


Mud-glyphs and 1st Unnamed Cave

In 1979, an amateur speleologist discovered and explored a small cave in eastern Tennessee. Deep in the cave, in the 'dark zone' beyond the reach of all light, he saw scratches and lines incised into thick clay banks on the floor and on the wet clay-covered walls of the cave. Those lines sometimes formed abstract linear and curving designs; images of animals, humans, and strange mythical creatures could also be discerned. One of us (CHF) began study of this previously unknown 'mud-glyph' art in the cave that came to be known as Mud Glyph Cave (Faulkner 1986), at that time the only cave known to contain this prehistoric Native American art form. Over the past decade, 16 sites in the southeast United States have been discovered that contain incised decorations of various types in the dark zone of caves. Seven contain these remarkable mud-glyphs. This paper reports the most recent discovery of one of these mud-glyph sites. In order to protect the cave, which remains open without a gate at the present time (although one will be built soon), we call this new site '1st Unnamed Cave'. Like Mud Glyph Cave, 1st Unnamed Cave contains an impressive group of prehistoric decorations incised into wet clay covering the cave's walls (Simek et al. in press).

Before discussing 1st Unnamed Cave, we offer two observations concerning the art itself and its more general archaeological context. First, we must note that, while sometimes complicated and obscured by overlapping lines and modern graffiti, mud-glyphs in the southeast US are quite purposefully drawn. The images are generally sharp, and the subject matter is relatively clear when one is familiar with the art associated with prehistoric groups in the region. Thus, we are confident in our identifications for 1st Unnamed Cave.

Second, the mud-glyph art in 1st Unnamed Cave (as in other mud-glyph caves) is part of a wider iconography associated with the Mississippian culture in the region (1000 AD-1700 AD) called the 'Southern Cult' or the 'Southeast Ceremonial Complex' (SCC). First defined by Antonio Waning in a series of papers (especially Waring & Holder 1945), the SCC is a body of icons that emphasize war, animals and the spirit world. Images associated with the SCC are found in nearly all Mississippian contexts, but they are particularly frequent in obviously religious ones (burials, public areas within large sites, structures at the top of pyramids) and on religious paraphernalia (gorgets, ceremonial pottery, carved marine shells). They are also common in other rock-art contexts, as pictographs (paintings) and petroglyphs (engravings), on open surfaces like cliff-faces and shelters, and in dark-zone caves. In mud-glyph art, we see many of the most typical and striking images that occur in these other contexts. FIGURE 1 shows examples of some SCC iconography from various contexts and locations within the vast range of Mississippian sites.

The site

The mud-glyphs in 1st Unnamed Cave were discovered in 1994 by a team of University of Tennessee archaeologists. The cave is located on the south side of the Tennessee River in the modern US state of Tennessee [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. A central passageway extends several hundred metres into a limestone outcrop; lateral galleries join the central one at several points, and from one of these, a shallow stream still flows from the cave interior to the Tennessee River, which is now impounded by a dam in this area. The cave is periodically flooded to a depth of 1 m in some places. The stream has eroded the floor of the cave so that only recent sediments are present through most of the interior passageway. Toward the cave mouth, the stream flows through a wide channel in vestibule sediment deposits. At the north side of the vestibule, however, an area of uneroded sedimentary deposits remains. We excavated two test pits into these sediments to detail the cave's depositional history. …

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