The rock art of the Americas is rare and generally small compared to some of the giant Paleolithic paintings of Eurasia, but a new discovery reveals an exception. The ceiling of the cave in question, whose name and location have been kept secret, is covered with images, some very large, but the height is so low that observers could not grasp them. By stitching together overlapping photographs, the archaeologists revealed everything, but left open questions of why the artists chose a location where their work could not be seen, and how they kept their work consistent.
America’s largest cave paintings are concentrated in the southwestern United States. However, studies of one site – known as the unnamed 19th Cave, Alabama, to avoid damage from onlookers – reveal that the southeast may have much more than has been recognised.
The art has been reconstructed using 3D photogrammetry – where each photograph heavily overlaps its neighbor to allow for reconstructions – and is described in Antiquities. Professor Jan Simek of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and his co-authors needed the photogrammetry because the chamber the artwork is in is mostly between 0.6 and 1.25 meters (2 to 4 feet) high, so even lying on the floor, the ceiling is too close to see larger works at the same time.
The 3D model created from photogrammetry is much more flexible. “Manipulating the distance between the viewer and the ceiling of the Glyph Chamber reveals a myriad of human and animal figures that could not be seen on the spot due to their size and physical proximity to the viewer,” the newspaper notes.
Among other things, photogrammetry reveals a life-size human figure wearing what may be a ceremonial cloak and headdress and holding distinctive shapes in each hand. An even larger figure, though less fully drawn, also appears to represent a human in full dress.
A total of 400 square meters (4,000 sq ft) of the cave ceiling is covered, in some cases with multiple layers painted on top of each other. Like rock art in Eurasia, there is a mixture of abstract forms, animals and human-shaped (anthropomorphic) figures. The largest is a 3.4 meter (11 ft) long serpent whose pattern resembles the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), sacred to the indigenous peoples of the region. Although some pre-colonization outdoor cave paintings in the Southwest are larger than anthropomorphs, the serpent is the largest single cave painting found in the Americas. Its placement gives the impression that the snake is emerging from a crack in the rocks, which makes it appear even larger.
Anthropomorphs “are not recognizable characters of ethnographically recorded Southeast Native American stories,” the article notes. “They probably represent figures from previously unknown religious stories, probably from the Middle Woodland period.”
The art itself cannot be dated, but a piece of charcoal and a river rod found on the ground are around 1,200 and 1,700 years old respectively. The ceramic shards found there are of a style popular in the region 1,000 to 3,000 years ago. It seems likely that the objects were left behind when the art was created.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the art is that the artists would have faced the same problems of perspective as the viewers. “The creators had to create the images without being able to see them in their entirety”, notes the newspaper. Yet the human urge to make art is so strong that they weren’t discouraged.