Gate protects prehistoric Indian carvings in cave

By Morgan Simmons
Knoxville, Tennessee (AP) August 2010

Inside the cave, the name “R.O. Draughon” was carved on a wall. Under the name was the numeral 15 - presumably Draughon’s age - as well as a date.

The year was 1930.

Deeper inside, our headlamps revealed the names of a couple who had professed their love in spray paint. Toward the rear of the cave, where the passage crossed a subterranean stream, someone had written “Go Vols, 1981” on the wall in bright orange paint.

That caves attract vandalism is nothing new. What makes this cave in Middle Tennessee remarkable is that it contains what’s believed to be the richest assemblage of prehistoric Indian art in North America.

Over the last 12 years, archeologists have surveyed and mapped more than 500 rock engravings - or petroglyphs - inside the cave, and they expect to find more.

To protect these cultural resources, The Nature Conservancy and volunteers from local caving clubs recently spent the better part of a week building a steel gate at the mouth of the cave, whose name and location must remain anonymous.

Cory Holliday, cave specialist for the Tennessee chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said the cave is rich in tiny invertebrates, not bats, and that the gate’s primary purpose is to protect the cave’s archeological resources.

“Gating a cave is always the last resort,” Holliday said. “One person with a can of spray paint can obliterate priceless records of prehistory. It’s unfortunate when signs aren’t enough.”

Holliday said the cave, which is on private property, will be accessible to visitors with the landowner’s permission.

Designing and installing cave gates is a highly specialized art. Overseeing the recent construction at the Middle Tennessee cave was Kristen Bobo, a caver in her own right who went to welding school 10 years ago at the age of 30 so she could carry on the work of her mentor, Roy Powers, of Duffield, Va. He’d built or supervised the construction of more than 600 cave gates throughout his career.

“In welding school, I was the oldest student, and the only woman,” Bobo said.

Located at the mouth of the cave, the new gate is 17 feet at the bottom, 30 feet across the top, and 15 feet tall. Bobo and her crew built it out of 5,000 pounds of steel, at a cost of about $8,500.

Inside, there is much to protect. Near the rear of the cave passage is the only prehistoric depiction of a birth scene known in the Southeast. The limestone walls are decorated with etchings of sun symbols and birds.

Near the mouth of the cave is an engraving of a serpent with antlers on its head and an enlarged tail - a phantasmagorical rattlesnake to go with abstract images of eagle dancers and woven blankets.

Jan Simek, University of Tennessee anthropology professor and interim UT president, said radiocarbon analysis of charcoal layers in the cave dates the petroglyphs to the late Woodland-early Mississippian period, around A.D. 700 to 800.

Simek said the engravings likely were created during brief but intense intervals when the subterranean stream was low and the cave was dry.

“People were not living there or hunting there,” Simek said. “The cave served as a religious sanctuary, a place where priests would periodically go to worship on behalf of their people.”

Simek said the newly-gated cave is an example of early Southeastern cave art and doesn’t include images of warfare commonly found at later sites.

“The religious leaders had a task to fulfill to their communities,” Simek said. “Their ceremonial cycles required entry into the underworld.”

For over a decade, UT archeologists have been systematically inventorying and mapping prehistoric cave art sites across the Southeast. So far, they’ve discovered 70 with art, 50 of them in Tennessee.

Simek said the Middle Tennessee cave is the richest so far.

“Every time we go back, we find something new,” he said. “It’s a stunning, very special place.”