The largest cave drawings in North America were discovered in Alabama — five mud glyphs depicting three anthropomorphic figures and two rattlesnakes, the largest of which is nearly 11 feet tall. Because the cave is too shallow and dark for the drawings to be seen in their entirety, University of Tennessee professor and archaeologist Jan Simek and photographers Stephen Alvarez and Alan Cressler used a process known as 3D photogrammetry to discover and then digitally render the drawings. Their findings were published on May 4 in the journal Antiquity.
“They are so large that the makers had to create the images without being able to see them in their entirety,” the paper’s authors write. “Thus, the makers worked from their imaginations, rather than from an unimpeded visual perspective.”
The so-called 19th Unnamed Cave in Alabama, its location kept vague to ensure the drawings’ safety, contains more than three miles of underground passageways. Simek and Cressler, among other researchers, first discovered drawings there back in 1998. Radiocarbon dating showed that they were from the same period as those recently identified.
The discoveries date to around 133-433 CE (the Early and Middle Woodland prehistoric periods), when the region’s inhabitants were transitioning from a nomadic foraging society to a sedentary agricultural one. In the recent discovery, the team also found eight ceramic sherds in the cave that correlated to the same time period. They did not find bones or stone fragments, however, leading the team to conclude that the cave was infrequently used.
The first drawing was discovered deep inside of the cave, beyond the reach of sunlight. The cave is also so shallow that even when lying on the floor, the drawings cannot be seen in their entirety. To recreate the complete drawings, Simek, Alvarez, and Cressler used photogrammetry, which involves taking thousands of overlapping images of the drawings and then compiling them into a 3D rendering. These drawings are similar in scale to the expansive Horseshoe Canyon drawings in Utah, but unlike the artists who created those open-air works, the authors of the drawings in the Unnamed 19th Cave would not have been able to see the full drawing they were working on while they were creating it.
The figures do not relate to any known oral histories of the Southeast Native American people of the region, and without other archaeological evidence, the team does not know what exactly they represent, or what religion they came from.
They do, however, know that the diamondback rattlesnake (a drawing of which is over seven feet tall) was sacred to the Indigenous people of present-day Alabama.
They also know that caves were seen as passageways to the underworld, and that the figures “probably represent spirits of the underworld, their power and importance expressed in their shape, size and context,” according to the study.
Archaeologists have also discovered large mounds from the same period throughout the Southeastern United States. Some are burial mounds thought to have been used by ancient Native American in religious ceremonies, although the specifics of these rituals are unknown. Expansive ancient Native American cities have been found throughout the Southeastern and Midwestern United States; their size, complexity, and significance to Native American cultures were downplayed by White settlers and they are often left out of the American historical narrative.
Using digital scans at other sites may open up our knowledge about these ancient Native American civilizations.
“These images are different than most of the ancient art so far observed in the American Southeast and suggest that our understanding of that art may be based on incomplete data,” said Simek in a press release about the 19th Unnamed Cave findings.
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