Sacred Geography in the Cumberland Plateau
Interpreting prehistoric rock art is a challenge, and I suspect that some of Professor Simek’s colleagues may well challenge his interpretation, but he has been looking at petroglyphs from the Mississippian culture and thinks that they describe a three-tier cosmology (Upper, Middle, and Lower Worlds), already attested elsewhere.
The Mississippian Culture is a term applied to people living in the area from about 800–1500 CE, contemporary with the European Middle Ages. These people lived in fortified villages, and some built large ceremonial mounds.
Simek and his team analyzed 44 open- air art sites where the art is exposed to light and 50 cave art sites in the Cumberland Plateau using nondestructive, high-tech tools, such as a high-resolution laser scanner. Through analysis of the depictions, colors, and spatial organization, they found that the sites mimic the Southeastern native people’s cosmological principles.
“The cosmological divisions of the universe were mapped onto the physical landscape using the relief of the Cumberland Plateau as a topographic canvas,” said Simek.
The “upper world” included celestial bodies and weather forces personified in mythic characters that exerted influences on the human situation. Mostly open-air art sites located in high elevations touched by the sun and stars feature these images. Many of the images are drawn in the color red, which was associated with life.
The “middle world” represented the natural world. A mixture of open air and cave art sites hug the middle of the plateau and feature images of people, plants and animals of mostly secular character.
The “lower world” was characterized by darkness and danger, and was associated with death, transformation and renewal. The art sites, predominantly found in caves, feature otherworldly characters, supernatural serpents and dogs that accompanied dead humans on the path of souls. The inclusion of creatures such as birds and fish that could cross the three layers represents the belief that the boundaries were permeable. Many of these images are depicted in the color black, which was associated with death.