cave art

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Art History

Five Prehistoric Cave Drawings Uncovered in Alabama Are the Largest Discovered in North America

May 13, 2022

Grace Ebert

Anthropomorph in regalia, with a rayed circle in the midsection, 0.93 meters tall. All images courtesy of Jan F. Simek, Stephen Alvarez, and Alan Cressler in Antiquity

Hidden in a narrow cavern extending less than two feet from floor to ceiling, five cave drawings are the largest of their kind discovered so far in North America. Three anthropomorphic figures and two rattlesnakes are etched into the mud surface of 19th Unnamed Cave in Alabama—the name is intentionally vague to protect the exact location—with the most sizable glyph measuring nearly 11 feet. The renderings are thought to be from the Early and Middle Woodland prehistoric periods, or between 133 and 433 CE when populations began to shift from primarily nomadic hunting and gathering to settling and establishing agricultural production.

Although the cave is known to house hundreds of Native American drawings, the combination of the small, tight space in this area and the size of the glyphs made it previously impossible for archaeologists to view the works in their entirety. This part of the cave is so limited that even the artists would have had to work on these pieces in segments. Since 2017, though, a research team of Jan F. Simek, Stephen Alvarez, and Alan Cressler has been using photogrammetry, a process that entails capturing overlapping images (approximately 16,000 in this case) and assembling them into a 3D model, to create composites that reveal the full drawings.

The trio published their findings in Antiquity earlier this month with images showing elaborately outfitted figures and diamondback rattlesnakes, a sacred animal to some Indigenous populations that occupied what is now Alabama. Although it’s unclear what exactly these renderings represent, it’s likely that they have a spiritual association:

Native Americans in the Southeast built mounds, by which they could ascend to the spirits of the upper world for religious interaction. Decorated caves represented the opposite: gateways to the worlds below. We know that Native Americans modified their landscapes on very large scales in order to connect the living with the natural and supernatural worlds and to the varied elements of those worlds. The large figures drawn in 19th Unnamed Cave therefore probably represent spirits of the underworld, their power and importance expressed in their shape, size and context.

In addition to the five drawings and smaller sketches of birds and insects, archeologists also found eight pieces of broken ceramics, which are thought to be from five vessels brought into the space. They did not recover any stone tools or bones, meaning the cave was likely used for a limited range of activities. (via Hyperallergic)

 

Enigmatic figure of swirling lines, with a round head at one end and a possible rattlesnake tail at the other, 2.12 meters wide

Anthropomorph in regalia, 1.81 meters tall

A) Coiled serpent figure with head in the center, 0.50 meters in diameter. B) Wasp with head to the left and abdomen to the right, 0.35 meters across. C) Bird, 0.4 meters across. D) Anthropomorphic figure surrounded by swirling lines, 0.20 meters tall

Anthropomorph in regalia, 2.08 meters tall

Serpent figure, 3.3 meters long

The ceiling of 19th Unnamed Cave

 

 



Art History

Archaeologists Uncover Children's Hand and Foot Prints in What's Thought to Be the Oldest Cave Art To Date

September 16, 2021

Grace Ebert

Image via Science Bulletin

A series of hand and foot impressions uncovered in the Quesang village in the Tibetan Plateau might rewrite the art-historical timeline. According to an article published this month in Science Bulletin, researchers believe the ancient prints were made between 169,000 and 226,000 years ago and appear to be placed intentionally, cementing the notion that they’re the earliest examples of cave art yet to be uncovered. 

Of course, there’s plenty of debate over whether these impressions are art, although archaeologists arguing for the categorization are staking their claims on intent. “​It is the composition, which is deliberate, the fact the traces were not made by normal locomotion, and the care taken so that one trace does not overlap the next,” geologist Matthew Bennett told Gizmodo, rejecting the idea that the prints are a byproduct of common movement like walking or grasping nearby material for stabilization. If the impressions are considered art, they predate the prehistoric figurative findings in both Sulawesi and Lasceaux, which date back about 43,900 and 17,000 years, respectively.

Fossilized on a piece of limestone called travertine, the size and variances of the prints also indicate that they were made by two children. Archaeologists theorize that the indentations, which include five feet and five hands, were placed in mud near the Quesang Hot Spring before it compacted under pressure, or lithified, preserving the duo’s pieces in the hardened material for millennia. Although the research team isn’t sure that the creators were Homo sapiens—the timeline also aligns with the Denisovans, an extinct species from the hominin group that primarily occupied what’s now Asia—if they were, they were likely 7 and 12 years old.

 

 

 



Art History

This Warty Pig Painting Is Thought To Be the Oldest Cave Art in the World

January 14, 2021

Grace Ebert

Deep within Leang Tedongnge, a cave tucked away on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, archaeologists discovered this mulberry-hued painting of a warty pig and two hand silhouettes potentially belonging to the artist, which is now believed to be the oldest figurative work in the world. A study published in Science Advances this week says the impeccably preserved rendering is at least 45,500 years old, which predates previously discovered depictions of mythical creatures in the region. Those prior findings date back about 43,900 years.

Questions remain about the exact age of the work and who made it. Archaeologists from Griffith University, who helmed the mission, utilized uranium-series dating to determine how old the speleothem, or mineral deposits, of the cave is rather than the actual painting. There’s also debate about whether modern humans are responsible for the renderings, a question that’s complicated by the fact that the only skeletal remains that date back at least 45,500 years in Sulawesi belong to early hominins.

Dr. Adam Brumm, who co-authored the study, told The New York Times that researchers expect to discover similar artworks in the region, although the cave paintings are deteriorating at a rapid rate and could fade before they’re ever uncovered. “It is very worrying, and given the current situation the end result is likely to be the eventual destruction of this ice age Indonesian art, perhaps even within our lifetime,” Brumm said.