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Drawing on the Past

May 28, 2014

Jan Simek records prehistoric pictographs on a cliff high above the Tennessee River in north Alabama.

By Whitney Heins

“Crawling around in bat guano on your elbows is not a fun thing to do, but you get to see incredible things,” explains cave archaeologist and UT anthropology professor Jan Simek.

What makes it truly spectacular is when you discover underground artwork created about 800 years ago, before Europeans were recording the history of what is now known as North America.

For more than twenty years, Simek has explored and documented more than sixty caves on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau where examples of prehistoric rock art endure. “Archaeologists have been working in this area for 200 years and we never knew anything about the cave art until 1979. Apparently, early archaeologists did not want to go down into caves,” Simek says.

Not one to let a little dirt and darkness get in the way of a great discovery, Simek began his systematic search in 1992 by talking with local cavers to pinpoint possible sites, asking landowners for access, and surveying the region. This painstaking process often involved walking for days at a time from cave to cave.

By the mid-1990s Simek had located roughly thirty rock art sites. Some were high on bluffs exposed to natural light while others were deep within caves in complete darkness. As more sites were found—more than 100 are known today—he began to employ geographic information system technology to conduct a spatial analysis and detect themes in the location, imagery, and characteristics of the sites.

Radiocarbon dating of organic material found in and around the sites, such as charcoal from torch fragments, was used to estimate the age of the images. This method dated some works as old as 6,000 years, with most ranging from 400 to 1,100 years old.

Universal View

Simek and his colleagues soon realized they were revealing pieces of a grand cosmological picture spanning hundreds of miles and thousands of years.

Open air rock art pictographs in Alabama, ca. 1200 AD, depict circles, lines, and human forms produced using red iron oxide pigments.

Open air rock art pictographs in Alabama, ca. 1200 AD, depict circles, lines, and human forms produced using red iron oxide pigments.

“Our findings provide a window into what Native American societies were like beginning more than 6,000 years ago,” Simek says. “They tell us that the prehistoric peoples around the Cumberland Plateau used the rather distinctive upland environment to map their conceptual universe onto the natural world in which they lived.”

But who exactly were the artists? The people of that era inhabited the fertile valleys along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. The rugged terrain of the 2,000-foot high plateau was not the ideal place to settle. It is believed that representatives from these ancient cultures were sent on pilgrimages to map the cosmological divisions of their universe onto the physical landscape—a process related to the way modern civilizations build churches to practice religion and preserve religious iconography.

A World of Tiers

From previous ethnographic and religious studies research, Simek knew people in this period believed in a layered universe. “The things being displayed on the higher sites were associated with a concept of an upper world, and the art in caves reflected a lower world,” he says. “The topology of the plateau was a perfect place for the depictions which fit into the bigger cultural picture of prehistoric religious beliefs.”

“Upper world” images included notions like celestial bodies and weather forces personified by mythic characters that exerted their influence on the physical environment. These are mostly found in elevated sites exposed to the sun and stars.

The “middle world” art featured representations of the natural world such as secular images of people, plants, and animals located in both open-air and cave sites.

The “lower world,” characterized by darkness and danger, was associated with death, transformation, and renewal. These illustrations, predominantly found in caves, included otherworldly characters like supernatural serpents and dogs that accompanied dead humans on the path of souls. Another recurring theme was people morphing into animals.

“Transformation is fundamental to the imagery,” Simek says. “This layered universe was a stage for a variety of actors that included heroes, monsters, and creatures such as birds and fish that could cross between the levels.”

However, the most common images are geometric shape forms such as squiggly lines or boxes with concentric circles. This is likely the result of the artists working in a trance or dream state. Psychological studies show that geometric shapes are often the first images seen in a trance state.

“We believe the images were created by priests,” Simek says. “Priests were meant to transcend worlds, and induced trances could have helped them depict themselves doing this.”

Perpetual Pigments

The research also indicates that color symbolism was an important aspect of how these people expressed religious beliefs. Almost all upper-world sites were painted in red and almost all lower-world sites were painted in black.

“Red was life, the sunrise, the east, a life force,” Simek says. “Black was the opposite. It was the color of death, the west, the sunset, where souls go after a person dies.”

Although opposites, the colors were connected. “The soul travels through the underworld through the path of souls toward the west, through the darkness until it reaches the Milky Way, where the souls become stars,” he says. “The Native Americans were not like us in how we look at the world. We think time is linear. They see it as cyclical. We see an end. They don’t.”

Like the ancient pilgrimages, Simek’s research is ongoing. About once a month he dons all-terrain hiking boots, a headlamp, and rappelling gear and begins another journey into the darkness of a new cave. Above ground, he can be found investigating the origin of the paint used in pictographs and writing a book about his experiences.

By preserving these ancient drawings and etchings, Simek sees an opportunity for contemporary society to learn a valuable lesson. “The ancient inhabitants of Tennessee recognized how vital and important the entire landscape was. They formalized this view in their religion and made it humanity’s job to steward the world responsibly.”

No one knows what the next 800 years has in store for the planet or which vestiges of our civilization will remain intact. But just as in the past, our ability to maintain a healthy environment will undoubtedly play a key role in our future.