About 1,000 years ago, artists working by light from burning reeds carved figures into the ceiling of a cave in what is now Alabama, squatting in the narrow space below.
Over the millennium that followed, the carvings became almost invisible to the naked eye, as they were covered by the mud that naturally accumulated on the walls of the cave.
Now, these carvings have been revealed by advanced photography to be the largest set of carvings ever found inside a cave in North America, some of them depicting figures nearly 7 feet long.
Several of the carvings appear to show people wearing Native American insignia, such as headdresses, and carrying what appear to be rattles. Researchers believe they could represent the spirits of the dead.
“They are either people dressed in trappings to look like spirits, or they are spirits,” said archaeologist Jan Simek, professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
And if they were people disguised as spirits, they were for a time considered to be the spirits themselves.
“The term we like to use is that they ‘materialized’ those spirits through the costumes they wore,” he said.
Simek is the lead author of a research paper on the sculptures published tuesday in the journal Antiquity. It describes five of the largest figures found on the cave ceiling by a photographic study which was originally intended to record the carvings in the cave in case they were damaged or invisible.
Four of the figures appear to be people wearing badges, while the fifth is a coiled serpent, possibly a diamondback rattlesnake.
The cave in rural northern Alabama (researchers are keeping its precise location secret) is the richest prehistoric rock art site in North America, Simek said.
It is one of thousands of caves in the southern part of the Appalachian Plateau, a huge region of “karst” – heavily eroded limestone – that stretches from southern Pennsylvania to Alabama.
Known to science only as the ’19th Nameless Cave’, it extends for miles below the surface. Hundreds of carved figures are incised into the ceiling of the “dark zone” filled with stalactites and stalagmites just beyond the entrance light.
The team estimates that the carvings were made about 1,000 years ago by people who lived during the late Woodland phase of Native American culture in the area.
Simek said the rock carvings were different from those found above ground in the region, which typically depicted other subjects in different styles, often in red paint.
Caves were seen in many Native American traditions as entrances to an underworld, and the distinctive style of rock art seemed to reflect that, he said.
Although the entrance to the cave is large, the distance between the floor and the ceiling quickly narrows to between three or four feet in the dark area, and it would have been similar when the carvings were made, he said. said.
This means that Native American artists would not have been able to see the entirety of the figures as they carved them.
Artists likely burned clusters of reeds to give them light, and ancient reed beds are now found throughout the cave, he said.
The sculptures were cut from the mud veneer of the cave ceiling, possibly with a stone tool, and the process of accumulating layers of mud on the surface has continued since their manufacture.
Many of the carvings are now nearly invisible, and Simek and his colleagues only discovered them after making precise photographic models of part of the cave ceiling – a technique known as photogrammetry, which combines digital photographs with computer models of three-dimensional space.
A co-author of the study, Tennessee photographer Stephen Alvarez, founded the Ancient Art Archive in 2017, and the sculptures of Alabama’s “19th Nameless Cave” inspired the project.
The cave was discovered in the 1990s by Atlanta-based caver Alan Cressler, another co-author of the new paper, Alvarez said.
After visiting the cave with Simek several years later, Alvarez saw that they could better document his carvings with photogrammetry. When he tried it, “not only could we see carvings, but there were hundreds if not thousands more than we realized,” he said.
The new study includes more than 14,000 photographs, but it only covers a small portion of the ceiling, he said. Many more are likely to be found.
The Native American tradition of rock carvings in the southeastern United States is different in style and technique from the better known tradition of rock art in the Southwest, where paintings and carvings are typically done on cliffs and exposed rock overhangs.
But photogrammetry also has a major impact there, said Radek Palonka, a professor of archeology at Jagiellonian University in Poland who has studied Native American rock art in the Mesa Verde area for several years.
“Photogrammetry is one of the best methods for documenting and revealing new data, especially for rock art images that are often barely visible or not visible to the naked eye,” he said in an e -mail.
Palonka also highlighted the importance of the latest study in documenting the rock carving tradition.
“This particular study, in addition to showing the potential for using advanced photographic techniques for archaeological records and to protect cultural heritage, may also shed light on religious practices in eastern forests,” he said.