Sacred Landscapes of the South-Eastern USA: Prehistoric Rock and Cave Art in Tennessee

By Simek, Jan F.; Cressler, Alan et al. | Antiquity, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Sacred Landscapes of the South-Eastern USA: Prehistoric Rock and Cave Art in Tennessee


Simek, Jan F., Cressler, Alan, Herrmann, Nicholas P., Sherwood, Sarah C., Antiquity


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Introduction

This paper concerns a complex prehistoric rock art tradition that has come to light over the past two decades in the Appalachian Plateau of south-eastern North America and is particularly well represented in the uplands of Middle Tennessee. The tradition has two elements: open air rock art that was recognised in the nineteenth century (Haywood 1973 [1823]), and dark zone cave art first identified in 1979 (Faulkner et al. 1984). Today, there are 71 known prehistoric cave art sites in the greater south-eastern USA (Simek & Cressler 2009), and many more open sites in the region (Hensen & Martz 1979; Coy et al. 1997; Diaz-Granados & Duncan 2000; Faulkner et al. 2004; Sabo & Sabo 2005; Charles 2010). New sites are currently discovered every few months, a direct result of survey intensity. Caves are numbered in order of discovery, but generally unnamed to help conceal their location from looters (Simek & Cressler 2009).

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As our sample sizes increase, it becomes clear that open air rock art sites and cave art sites are not randomly distributed across the landscape. Indeed, there is strong spatial order among site locations centred on the Cumberland Plateau, a section of the Appalachian Plateaux physiographic province (Figure 1; Fenneman 1938: 279-342). This upland landscape, composed of dissected horizontal sedimentary rocks, rises more than 900m (c. 3000ft) above the surrounding river valleys in Tennessee and extends from Pennsylvania in the north-east (as the Allegheny Plateau) to the Gulf Coastal Plain margin in central Alabama. In Tennessee, prehistoric open and cave art sites extend down the western Plateau escarpment in precise and, we believe, intentional relations to elevation, orientation, and to each other. We propose that rock art reflected modifications of the natural landscape according to cosmological models that underlay late prehistoric Mississippian period religion. In this paper, we will describe these distinctive south-eastern rock art sites, illustrate their content, and make some comparisons among sites that illustrate a regional scale of site location, variation and composition.

Background

John Haywood was the first to discuss Tennessee rock art in his 1823 book, The natural and aboriginal history of Tennessee. In that treatise, wherein lost Hebrew tribes are 'proven' to have occupied Tennessee, Haywood catalogued six open rock art sites in Tennessee and one site each in Alabama and North Carolina. One of the sites reported by Haywood was observed by Andrew Jackson's troops as they moved south across the Tennessee River against the Native American 'Redstick' Creeks in 1813 (Haywood 1973 [1823]: 148). After Haywood's initial descriptions, Tennessee rock art received little attention for more than a century, with those national and regional overviews that did appear simply reiterating Haywood's catalogue (Mallery 1893:114-15; Cambron & Waters 1959; Carstens & Knudson 1959; Wellmann 1979).

Interest in south-eastern rock art grew in 1979, when recreational cavers explored a cave in eastern Tennessee and noticed prehistoric religious iconography, known from Mississippian period (AD 900-1600) contexts outside caves, traced into the wet mud on the cave walls (Figure 2b). This was a key discovery, expanding the variability of regional rock art to include dark zone cave contexts (Faulkner et al. 1984). With the publication of Mud Glyph Cave (Faulkner 1986), it became clear that a prehistoric cave art tradition was present in the American south-east (Faulkner 1988). In the succeeding years, south-east cave art has been shown to have significant time depth and complexity in technique, media and subject matter (Faulkner & Simek 1996; Simek & Cressler 2005, 2009). There were thus two contexts of rock art production in the south-east USA, caves and open air, and regional survey work began to focus on both types. …

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