Subscribe to Archaeology

Artists of the Dark Zone

Deciphering Cherokee ritual imagery deep in the caves of the American South

November/December 2019

Cherokee Caves SpelunkerOn a spring afternoon in 2017, archaeologist Jan Simek led a group of graduate students into the dark, wet mouth of a Tennessee cave. They slipped past cave crickets and ducked under a colony of bats clinging to the ceiling. When they came to the end of the passage, the group belly-crawled through a crack in a wall and emerged in a small chamber. Simek angled his headlamp over the chamber’s walls to reveal hundreds of strange images carved into the stone: a serpent with antlers, a mud wasp with delicate wings, an entire flock of birds that seemed to soar across the wall. The images had been engraved by Native Americans 1,200 years earlier, during what archaeologists call the Woodland period (1000 B.C.–A.D. 1100), when hunter-gatherers were beginning to settle into an agricultural lifestyle. When the group eventually retreated toward the exit, one of Simek’s students, a tall, quiet man named Beau Duke Carroll, lingered in the chamber. He was staring at a small carved figure of a man with wings and a sharp beak. Carroll is Cherokee, a member of the Eastern Band born and raised on Cherokee-owned territory in North Carolina. His ancestors once called this part of Tennessee home. Carroll pulled from his pocket a pouch of tobacco that had been consecrated by Cherokee elders and sprinkled it over the cave floor, then he turned and crawled back out.


Twelfth Unnamed Cave, as this cave is known, is one of more than 100 caves in the woodlands of Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky where, in recent years, archaeologists have uncovered a vast trove of prehistoric art. The Unnamed Caves—so-called to obscure their locations from looters—contain extraordinary images of humans, animals, celestial beings, and phantasmagorical creatures. They take the form of carved petroglyphs, charcoal pictographs, and mud glyphs traced into soft walls. The oldest artworks go back more than 6,000 years, but most were made during the Mississippian period, between A.D. 1000 and 1600. Like the renowned Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, the artworks in the Unnamed Caves appear in what archaeologists call the “dark zone,” the deepest stretches of a cave, beyond the reach of natural light. The ancient artists reached these chambers by squeezing down long passageways and climbing on ropes or wooden scaffolding, all by the faint light of torches made of river cane. Simek and his team have spent years documenting the Unnamed Caves, recording and mapping each image, trying to comprehend what drove the artists so deep into the dark. To find answers, Simek has recently joined forces with Cherokee scholars such as Carroll, who are combining scientific archaeological practices with deep-rooted traditional tribal knowledge. Together, they are bringing life to the ancient artworks in ways no one had thought possible.


Cherokee Caves MapThe first dark-zone art in the Southeast was discovered in 1979, when two local cavers shimmied down a cave passage in Tennessee and noticed an image of a bird incised into a mud wall. One of the cavers happened to have studied Native American archaeology and recognized the imagery from statues, bowls, and weapons excavated from burials at Mississippian mound cities such as Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis. The iconography was typical of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, the term given to a common set of religious practices and symbols that spread through the Southeast during the late Mississippian period. For rock art researchers in North America, the cave, dubbed Mud Glyph Cave, was a revelation. They had seen many examples of Native American rock art painted on cliff faces and carved into the walls of canyons, but never in the pitch-dark depths of caves.

Dark Zone Depictions