Rock art in 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 have not been able to capture them. By pasting overlaying photographs, archaeologists have revealed everything, but left open the questions of why the artists chose a location where their work couldn’t be seen, and how they kept their work cohesive.
The largest cave paintings in the United States are concentrated in the southwestern United States. However, studies of one site, known as 19th Namen Cave, Alabama, to prevent damage from onlookers, reveal that the Southeast may hold much more than has been recognized.
The art has been reconstructed using 3D photogrammetry, where each photograph largely overlaps its neighbor to allow for reconstructions, and is described in Antiquities. University of Tennessee Knoxville professor Jan Simek and co-authors needed photogrammetry because the chamber the artwork is in is mostly between 0.6 and 1.25 meters (2-4 feet) wide. height, so even lying on the floor, the ceiling is too close to see the larger works at once.
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. in the place due to its size and the physical proximity of the spectator”, the newspaper points out.
Among other things, photogrammetry reveals a life-size human figure wearing what could be a ceremonial cape and headdress and holding distinctive shapes in each hand. An even taller figure, though less fully drawn, also appears to represent a human being in full regalia.
In total, 400 square meters (4,000 square feet) of the cave ceiling is covered, in some cases with multiple layers painted one on top of another. Like rock art in Eurasia, there is a mix of abstract shapes, animals, and human-shaped (anthropomorphic) figures. The largest is an 11-foot (3.4-meter) long snake designed to resemble the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), sacred to the indigenous people of the area. Although some of the pre-settlement open-air cave art of the Southwest is larger than anthropomorphs, the serpent is the largest single cave painting found in the Americas. Its placement makes it look like the snake is emerging from a crack in the rocks, making it appear even larger.
Anthropomorphs “are not recognizable characters from ethnographically recorded Southeastern Native American stories,” the document states. “They probably represent characters from previously unknown religious narratives, probably from the Middle Woodland period.”
The art itself cannot be dated, but a lump of charcoal and some river reed found on the floor are approximately 1,200 and 1,700 years old, respectively. The pottery sherds found there are of a style popular in the area 1,000-3,000 years ago. It seems likely that the items were left behind at the time the art was made.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the art is that the artists would have faced the same perspective problems as the viewers. “The creators had to create the images without being able to see them in their entirety,” the document states. Yet so strong is the human drive to make art, they were not discouraged.