The 19th Unnamed Cave in Alabama, first discovered in 1998 in the southeastern US state, was anonymized to keep it safe from the prying eyes of the larger public. It has now turned out to be the largest Native American cave art site in southeastern North America. One of the images depicts a rattlesnake stretching over 3 meters (9.8 feet)! Dated to over 1,000 years ago, these massive pre-contact drawings may be an indigenous representation of the spirits of the underworld.
The find was made by Professor Jan F. Simek and a team of researchers, who stumbled upon this invaluable piece of history whilst documenting the cave. They have published their findings in the latest edition of the journal Antiquity.
“We knew the cave contains pre-contact Native American mud glyphs, and we were carrying out a 3D photogrammetry documentation project to aid with management and conservation,” said Professor Simek, a Professor at the Department of Anthropology, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Professor Simek’s 30 years of archaeological work has focused heavily on Paleolithic archaeology , spatial analysis, the archaeology of the southeastern United States, and cave archaeology. His on-field work has primarily been concerned with the discovery and exploration of numerous Unnamed Caves on the Cumberland Plateau (eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Alabama and northwest Georgia) over the last two decades, as per a 2011 report in Slate magazine.
In 2013, CNN reported that Simek and his colleagues had spent two decades documenting the rock art of the Cumberland Plateau, finding common themes, colors, and depictions across the 94 sites, 50 of which were underground! The earliest of these are 7,000 years old, but the majority date from 800 to 1600 AD.
While the practice may itself be ancient, pre-historic in fact, the knowledge that modern researchers and the general public in North America have about indigenous rock art is not even 50 years old! It was only around 1979, when the first Native American cave art was initially documented in North America. Since then, dozens of other examples have come to light, including Alabama’s 19th Unnamed Cave with its hundreds of mud glyph drawings. These make it “officially” the largest Native American cave art site in southeastern North America.
The Science of Photogrammetry and 3D Modelling
Simek and his team applied 3D image modelling to the glyphs back in 2017, which allowed them to digitally manipulate the chamber space. This allowed for several images to be revealed that had previously lain undiscovered or hidden, including massive anthropomorphic glyphs on the cave’s ceiling. The 19th Unnamed Cave has notoriously low ceilings, making it extremely difficult to view the images, particularly as the cavern’s expanse is spread over 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of underground passageways.
These finds have reinforced the value of photogrammetry to the team, who believe that the discovery of a variety of other archaeological phenomena can be achieved through this medium. In this process, thousands of photographs are taken which are then used to build a 3D model. This allowed the researchers to accurately record the site, viewing images from different, previously inaccessible angles, which aided the documentation process.
Discovering the Five Giant Unknown Glyphs
Due to this process, five giant, and previously unknown glyphs, were discovered deep in the recesses of the cave. This is how the aforementioned serpent was discovered, a diamondback rattlesnake, along with the anthropomorphic figures adorned in elaborate regal attire. The rattlesnake is one of the largest snakes in the Americas, and sacred to the southeast indigenous people.
Radiocarbon dating was also carried out to determine the age of the cave and its paintings, which revealed that it was a pre-contact site over a thousand years old, and last visited during the first millennium AD as Native Americans transitioned to Neolithic farming settlements.
In the Neolithic era, the socio-cultural and religious practices of the indigenous people were also undergoing many large-scale changes across North America. Caves began to represent sacred spaces that were routes to the underworld. Simek’s team determined that all these glyphs are linked to the spirits of the underworld.
“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,” concluded Professor Simek.
With the success that photogrammetry has provided for the reinterpretation of the 19th Unnamed Cave, it is only a matter of time before this technology is applied to other sites. One can expect regular reports on finds coming from Simek and his team, and other paleoarchaeologists working in the region.
Top image: Anthropomorph in regalia (1.81 meters or 5.9 feet high) from 19th Unnamed Cave, which is now the largest Native American cave art site in southeastern North America. Source: Photograph by S. Alvarez; illustration by J. Simek / Antiquity Publications Ltd.