Largest known Native American rock art revealed by 3D images

Rock art in the Americas is rare and usually small compared to some of Eurasia’s giants Paleolithic paintings, 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 have not been able to catch them. By attaching overlapping photographs together, the archaeologists revealed everything, but left open questions as to why the artists chose a place where their work could not be seen and how they kept their work cohesive.

America’s largest rock paintings are concentrated in the southwestern United States. However, studies of a site – known as 19th Unnamed Cave, Alabama, to prevent damage from onlookers – reveal that the Southeast may have much more than has been recognized.

The art was reconstructed using 3D photogrammetry – in which each photograph heavily overlaps its neighbor to allow for reconstructions – and is featured in Antiquity. Professor Jan Simek and co-authors from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville needed photogrammetry because the chamber the artwork is in is mostly between 0.6 and 1.25 meters (2-4 feet) tall , therefore even lying on the ground the ceiling is too close to be seen by the larger works at the same time.

Author Stephen Alvarez shows how low the painted room ceiling is. Image credit: Antiquities publications, Simek et al.

The 3D model created by 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 site because of their size and the physical proximity of the viewer, ”notes the newspaper.

Among other things, photogrammetry reveals a life-sized human figure wearing what could be a ceremonial cloak and headdress and holding distinctive shapes in each hand. An even taller figure, although less fully drawn, also appears to represent a human being in insignia.

The tallest anthropomorphic as it appears, with the lines highlighted to reveal the image and with the background removed. Image credit: Antiquities publications, Simek et al.

In total, 400 square meters (4,000 square feet) of the cave ceiling are covered, in some cases with multiple layers painted on top of each other. Like rock art in Eurasia, there is a mix of abstract forms, animals and figures with human (anthropomorphic) forms. The largest is a 3.4 meter (11 ft) long snake shaped to resemble the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Rattlesnake Adamanteo), sacred to the natives of the area. Although some pre-colonization outdoor rock art in the Southwest is larger than anthropomorphs, the snake is the largest single rock painting found in the Americas. Its location makes it appear that the snake is emerging from a crevice in the rocks, making it appear even larger.

Anthropomorphs “are not recognizable characters from ethnographically recorded Southeast American Native American stories,” notes the paper. “They probably depict characters from previously unknown religious narratives, probably from the Middle Woodland period.”

The snake may not be as artistically impressive as some of the other works, but it’s certainly big. Image credit: Antiquities publications, Simek et al.

The art itself cannot be dated, but a lump of coal and river reed found on the floor are approximately 1,200 and 1,700 years old, respectively. The pottery fragments found there are of a popular style in the area 1,000-3,000 years ago. It seems likely that the objects were left behind at the time the art was made.

Perhaps the most notable feature of art is that artists would have had to face the same perspective problems as viewers. “The creators had to create the images without being able to see them in their entirety,” notes the card. Yet the human impulse to make art is so strong that they were undeterred.

The location of the cave is secret, but it is somewhere in this box. Image credit: Antiquities publications, Simek et al.

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