America's ancient cave art: Mysterious drawings, thousands of years old, offer a glimpse of lost Native American cultures and…

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March 21 2011 6:57 AM

America's Ancient Cave Art

Deep in the Cumberland Plateau, mysterious drawings, thousands of years old, offer a glimpse of lost Native American cultures and traditions.

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We moved forward. The next pictograph, Simek said, was an image that appears in several of the Unnamed Caves: the gruesome Toothy Mouth. A round, severed head with gore spilling out of the neck. Weeping eyes. A big pumpkin grin, probably meant to suggest the receded gums of decomposition. Simek said they tend to see these wherever there are burials. They had found one even in a Woodland cave—that's the period preceding the Mississippian, about which we know even less. But for at least a couple of thousand years, this picture on a cave wall in this country meant "bodies buried here."

Simek had one graduate student who is Cherokee. A good archaeologist, Russ Townsend—he's now the "tribal historic preservation officer" for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Townsend has worked with Jan on plenty of projects, but he has never gone into the caves. I asked him about it. "The Cherokee interpretation is that caves are not to be entered into lightly," he said, "that these must have been bad people to go that deep. That's where they took bad people to leave them. So they can lie on rock and not on the ground. It makes a lot of Cherokee uneasy. The lower world is where everything is mixed up and chaotic and bad. You wouldn't want to go to that place, where the connection between our world and the otherworld is that tenuous."

We entered a large hall. The ceiling was very high, it looked a hundred feet high. It was smooth and pale gray. Simek shone his lamp up and arced it around slowly. "What do you see?" he said.

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"Are those mud dauber nests?" I asked. That's what they looked like to me.

"The ceiling," he said, "is studded with three hundred globs of clay."

I stared up with open mouth. I didn't have a good question for that one.

"We said the same thing," he said. "What were they doing?" So a researcher had climbed up and removed one of the globs and taken it back to the lab at UT. They sliced it open. Inside was the charred nubbin of a piece of river cane, like a cigarette filter. "We got a piece of cane about that big," Jan said, indicating his little finger. The Indians had jammed burning stalks of river cane into balls of clay and hurled them at the ceiling.

"They lit up this place like a birthday cake, man!" he said.

"Was it some kind of ceremony or something?"

"Who knows!" he said. "Maybe they were hunting bats."

"What were they doing here?" I asked, as if asking no one.

"Minimally," he said, "making art, burying their dead, lighting it up like a Christmas tree. Maybe hunting bats."

At the back of the cave we ascended a mud slope. There were two bare footprints side by side. Simek said they had shown casts of these to an orthopedic surgeon, without telling him what they were. The doctor said, "That person didn't wear shoes." The toes were splayed.

At the top of the mud bank we saw a final image, the same as the first, but only one woodpecker this time. A charcoal pictograph covered in a transparent flowstone veneer, as if laminated. That was how old these things were. The stone had flowed over the bird, encasing it. This woodpecker was upright, as if working on a tree. Woodpeckers at the beginning, and a woodpecker here. What did it mean?

"End of book," he said.

****

In Simek's office one day, he brought down a couple of matching brown nineteenth-­century­looking volumes. This was Garrick Mallery's Picture Writing of the American Indians, first edition, a treasure of his rock-­art library. He turned to a particular run of pages. Mallery didn't pay all that much attention to the East. None of the early writers on American rock art did. They liked the huge vivid panels out in the Western canyons. The cliff cities, in their ideal desert conditions, are there; you can visit them. Our cities are invisible.

There were, however, a few famous Eastern sites. The Dighton Rock was the best known. Cotton Mather wrote about it; Bishop Berkeley went to see it. It's a big whale­-shaped boulder in the Taunton River near Berkley, Massachusetts. Covered in twisty Native American petroglyphs. Jan showed me the pages in Mallery's book—I'd seen them in my paperback reprint, but these plates were glossy with rich blacks—on which the author had quite ingeniously reproduced more than two hundred years of renderings of this rock. He cropped them all, so that they were the same length and width, and then ran them down the pages in a row, chronologically. It was an historical portal; you could slip into it and get behind the eyes of the American mind for a minute. You could watch it change: in the beginning, the various artists had been trying to make the markings look like "hieroglyphic" writing they knew—Egyptian, Norse, or whatever it was. Or they turned them into anachronistic modern things, a sailboat or a pilgrim. Only as the decades and centuries flip­book by do the lines untangle themselves, and you start to see human shapes, quadrupeds. Still we are far from any meaning. In fact, that's what has taken place. The eye lets go of the desire for meaning; the pictures emerge. Simek was showing me Mallery's pages by way of saying, It's dangerous to read something when you can't really read it. And we can't.

Try to see it. That's hard enough.

****

We went west from Knoxville, toward the Plateau. The fields in Middle Tennessee in October were chilly and green, as if under frosted glass. We ate fast­food biscuits while Simek talked about our destination, Twelfth Unnamed Cave. "This one's really splendid," he said. There were more than three hundred images, some so tiny you had to squint.

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