Prehistoric Cave Art

In 1979 a caver exploring a narrow subterranean passageway in southeastern Tennessee noticed scratches and lines in mudbanks that lined the cave walls. He reported the marks to Charles Faulkner of the University of Tennessee, who identified them as prehistoric drawings. These were the first ancient artworks ever found in the “dark zone,” beyond the reach of light, in a North American cave. The Mud Glyph Cave images included animals, winged humans, warriors, and other emblems of the “Southeast Ceremonial Complex” (SECC), a religious iconography associated with the late prehistoric Mississippian moundbuilders. Several radiocarbon dates on cane charcoal, deposited from torches used by ancient cave visitors, are clustered around A.D. 1300, coincident with the Mississippian Period.

Nearly twenty other deep art caves have been found since. Two caves are in Virginia, two in Kentucky, one in Alabama, and the remainder in Middle and East Tennessee. This distribution corresponds to the limestone tablelands of the Appalachian uplands, suggesting that cave art was produced everywhere caves were available for decoration. In one case, the art is located a mile from the mouth of the cave, indicating that prehistoric artists were physically and technically able to penetrate the vast underground karst systems of the Appalachian Plateau.

Three different production techniques have been identified. Mud glyphs are images traced into wet mud on cave walls and banks. Seven mud glyph sites are now known, including one of the earliest (Adair Cave) and the very latest site (1st Unnamed Cave). Mississippian Period mud glyph caves are very elaborate, sometimes including organized compositions of hundreds of images. Petroglyphs are images scratched into the rock of cave walls and ceilings. Tennessee’s earliest cave art (3rd Unnamed Cave at 4,000 years old) is of this type, but petroglyphs were also produced during the late Mississippian Period. Some petroglyphs are associated with human burials, but most are either isolated art independent of other evidence for cave use or are associated with mining of raw materials from caves. Pictographs are images painted onto surfaces with mineral pigments like charcoal and clay. These date either to the Woodland or Mississippian Periods and are the rarest form of prehistoric cave art; only a few examples are presently known. Thus, a great variability existed in the nature and context within which artwork was produced.

Tennessee cave art has great time depth, and it appears that the subject matter of the artwork changed over time. Radiocarbon dates from Adair Cave in Kentucky and 3rd Unnamed Cave in Tennessee suggest that artwork may have its origins more than 4,300 years ago during the Archaic Period. Images in these early sites are simple (serpents, suns, chevrons) and not obviously similar to later SECC iconography. Artwork from Crumps Cave in Kentucky shows that art was also produced during the Woodland Period (2000 B.C.-A.D. 1000), and the images there (humans and crude animals) are also distinctive. A number of sites associated with the Mississippian show the SECC iconography first identified at Mud Glyph Cave.

The meaning of Tennessee’s prehistoric cave art is difficult to determine. In late time periods, similarities between the cave images and SECC iconography suggests that the art was primarily religious, perhaps produced by priests or shamans in the context of specific rituals. For historical tribes in Tennessee, caves were passageways to the underworld, and the underworld was an important yet dangerous place for Mississippian peoples. Cave art depicting serpents and winged humans may reflect a belief in the power of these dark, deep places and their role in the structure of the cosmos. In earlier periods, meaning is problematic. Image themes are rather different from those during the Mississippian and sometimes associated with other activities (e.g., mining). Thus, Archaic and Woodland cave art may have served different purposes for its makers: sanctifying space, protecting people engaged in dangerous activities, marking places where resources could be found. So far removed in time, we may never know the meaning of this earliest prehistoric cave art.

Today, conservation is the most pressing problem for Tennessee’s prehistoric cave art. Unauthorized digging in caves destroys the context of the images by removing datable artifacts and can damage the artwork itself. Modern graffiti are often unknowingly placed over the ancient icons, obscuring or obliterating them forever. Even simple traffic through a cave can damage art as people touch and rub against the fragile images in passing. Awareness of the presence of these treasures is the first step in protecting this important aspect of Tennessee’s cultural heritage.

Suggested Reading

Charles H. Faulkner, ed., The Prehistoric Native American Art of Mud Glyph Cave (1986); Jan F. Simek, “The Sacred Darkness: Prehistoric Cave Art in Tennessee” Tennessee Conservationist (March/April 1987)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Prehistoric Cave Art
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 25, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018