Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Prehistoric Rock Art from Painted Bluff and the Landscape of North Alabama Rock Art

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Prehistoric Rock Art from Painted Bluff and the Landscape of North Alabama Rock Art

Article excerpt

Prehistoric open-air rock art in southeastern North America has been known and written about since early in the history of Euro-American settlement in the region. Fray Ramón Pané, accompanying Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493, was the first European to describe images carved on standing stones and on rock walls outside and inside caves on the island of Hispaniola (Pané 1999:17). In 1673, Père Jacques Marquette recorded the famous Piasa pictographs near modern Alton, Illinois, on the Mississippi River; he described them as "two painted monsters which at first made Us afraid, and upon Which the boldest savages dare not Long rest their eyes" (Grant 1981:4, capitalization in original).

John Haywood (Haywood 1823) was among the first to describe rock art sites in the continental Southeast, in the drainages of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers of modern-day Tennessee and Alabama and in the mountains of western North Carolina. But after Haywood's initial descriptions, Southeastern prehistoric rock art received little attention for more than a century, with those national and regional overviews that did appear simply reiterating Haywood's short catalog (Mallery 1893:114-115). The (mistaken) impression that the Southeast contained little rock art of interest, especially compared to western regions of the United States, was widespread and continues to this day, at least by implication through omission (Bostwick 2001; Grant 1981; Turpin 2001; Wellmann 1979).

In this paper, we will describe a remarkable Southeastern rock art site known as Painted Bluff in northern Alabama. This open-air site has one of the richest rock art assemblages (outside a cave) in the Southeast. It contains more than 80 pictographs, several of them polychromatic, including a variety of anthropomorphic figures, animal effigies, and abstract signs. The iconography of some of these images, and a single associated radiocarbon age determination, suggest a Mississippian age for the art. This paper provides an introduction to the rock art of Painted Bluff, essentially descriptive, as we believe that this site deserves detailed documentation so that its wealth of imagery is available to scholars of Mississippian iconography. We also try to place Painted Bluff into the context of rock art in northern Alabama and the surrounding region, where we believe that patterns in the landscapes of prehistoric rock art are beginning to emerge as sample sizes and analytical studies increase.

Previous Work at the Painted Bluff Site

As previously noted, the great nineteenth-century jurist John Haywood (a principle in the development of statutory law for both North Carolina and Tennessee) discussed prehistoric painted rock art within the Cumberland and Tennessee River drainages in his 1823 book, The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee. There Haywood cataloged six open rock art sites in Tennessee and two sites in the mountains of western North Carolina; we have relocated all but one of the Tennessee sites in recent years (four can still be seen and one has been destroyed). Haywood also reported one Tennessee River site that today is in the state of Alabama and was perhaps observed by Andrew Jackson's troops, among whom Haywood had corresponding informants, as they moved south against the Redstick Creeks in 1813. Here is how Haywood (1823:148) described its location:

Upwards of 80 miles below the Lookout Mountain, on the Tennessee River, boatman as they descend the river see painted characters on what is called the Paint Rock, in the neighborhood of Fort Deposite, not far from John Thompson's. These characters are of difficult access, owing to the extraordinary height of the rock on which they appear. The characters are said to have stood there for ages.

Fort Deposit was a temporary munitions and supply facility that Andrew Jackson established in 1813 on the south side of the Tennessee River near present-day Guntersville, Alabama (Melish 1815), to support his troops moving south toward their confrontation with the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend; on the north side of the river was John Thompson's station, a private frontier post at the boundary with Indian country. …

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