Roughly 1,000 years ago, artists working by the light of burning reeds carved figures into the ceiling of a cave in what’s now Alabama, crouching in the narrow space below.
Over the millennium that followed, the carvings became almost invisible to the naked eye, as they got covered by the mud that naturally accumulated on the cave’s walls.
Now, those carvings have been revealed by advanced photography as the largest set of carvings ever found inside a cave in North America, some of them depicting figures almost 7 feet long.
Several of the carvings seem to show people wearing Native American regalia, such as headdresses, and carrying what appear to be rattles. Researchers think they could represent spirits of the dead.
“They are either people dressed in regalia to look like spirits, or they are spirits,” said archaeologist Jan Simek, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
And if they were people dressed as spirits, they were for a time considered the spirits themselves.
“The term we like to use is that they were ‘materializing’ those spirits through the costumes that they wore,” he said.
Simek is the lead author of a research paper on the carvings published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity. It describes five of the largest figures found on the cave ceiling by a photographic study that originally aimed to record the cave’s carvings in case they became damaged or invisible.
Four of the figures seem to be people wearing regalia, while the fifth is a coiled snake, possibly a diamondback rattlesnake.
The cave in the northern Alabama countryside (the researchers are keeping its precise location a secret) is the richest prehistoric cave art site in North America, Simek said.
It’s one of thousands of caves within the southern part of the Appalachian Plateau, a huge region of “karst” — heavily eroded limestone — that runs from southern Pennsylvania to Alabama.
Known to science only as the “19th Unnamed Cave,” it extends for miles beneath the surface. Hundreds of carved figures are incised into the ceiling of the “dark zone” filled with stalactites and stalagmites just beyond the light from the entrance.
The team estimates the carvings were made about 1,000 years ago by people who lived during the late Woodland phase of the Native American culture in the region.
Simek said the cave carvings were unlike those found above the ground in the region, which usually depicted other subjects in different styles, often in red paint.
Caves were regarded in many Native American traditions as entrances to an underworld, and the distinctive style of the cave art seemed to reflect this, he said.
Although the entrance to the cave is large, the distance between the floor and the ceiling quickly narrows to between three or four feet in the dark zone, and it would have been similar when the carvings were made, he said.
That means the Native American artists could not have seen the entirety of the figures as they were carving them.
The artists probably burned clusters of reeds to give them light, and ancient deposits of reeds are now found throughout the cave, he said.
The carvings were cut into the mud veneer of the cave’s ceiling, possibly with a stone tool, and the process of accumulating layers of mud on the surface has continued since they were made.
Many of the carvings are now almost invisible, and Simek and his colleagues only discovered them after making precise photographic models of part of the cave’s ceiling — a technique known as photogrammetry, which combines digital photographs with computerized models of a three-dimensional space.
A co-author of the study, Tennessee-based photographer Stephen Alvarez, founded the Ancient Art Archive in 2017, and the carvings in Alabama’s “19th Unnamed Cave” helped inspire the project.
The cave was discovered in the 1990s by Atlanta-based caver Alan Cressler, another co-author of the new paper, Alvarez said.
After visiting the cave with Simek several years later, Alvarez saw they could better document its carvings with photogrammetry. When he tried it out, “not only could we see engravings, but there were hundreds, if not thousands more than we had realized,” he said.
The new study comprises more than 14,000 photographs, yet it covers only a small part of the ceiling, he said. Many more are likely to be found.
The Native American tradition of cave carvings in the southeastern U.S. is different in style and technique from the better-known tradition of rock art in the Southwest, where paintings and carvings are usually made on cliff faces and exposed rock overhangs.
But photogrammetry is also having a major impact there, said Radek Palonka, a professor of archaeology at Jagiellonian University in Poland who has studied Native American rock art in the Mesa Verde region for several years.
“Photogrammetry is one of the best methods to document and reveal new data, especially for rock art images often barely visible or not visible by the naked eye,” he said in an email.
Palonka also remarked on the importance of the latest study in documenting the cave carving tradition.
“This particular study, besides showing the potential of using advanced photographic techniques for the archaeological record and to protect cultural heritage, can also shed some light on Eastern Woodlands religious practices,” he said.