Old Underground Doings in Tennessee

In cave-riddled Tennessee, archaeologists are discovering more and more ancient art, mostly from the High Mississippian culture (roughly coeval with the European Middle Ages) but some much, much older.

Just to whet your interest, here are a few paragraphs from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “America’s Ancient Cave Art.”

The imagery was classic Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), meaning it belonged to the vast but still dimly understood religious outbreak that swept the Eastern part of North America around 1200 A.D. We know something about the art from that period, having seen all the objects taken from graves by looters and archaeologists over the years: effigy bowls and pipes and spooky­-eyed, kneeling stone idols; carved gorgets worn by the elite. But these underground paintings were something new, an unknown mode of Mississippian cultural activity.

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High Mississippian culture fell apart just before the Spanish reached Florida, not just after as you’d expect, given the diseases and the massacres—it’s a riddle of American archaeology.

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A good archaeologist, Russ Townsend—he’s now the “tribal historic preservation officer” for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Townsend has worked with Jan on plenty of projects, but he has never gone into the caves. I asked him about it. “The Cherokee interpretation is that caves are not to be entered into lightly,” he said, “that these must have been bad people to go that deep. That’s where they took bad people to leave them. So they can lie on rock and not on the ground. It makes a lot of Cherokee uneasy. The lower world is where everything is mixed up and chaotic and bad. You wouldn’t want to go to that place, where the connection between our world and the otherworld is that tenuous.”

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It was easy to see what had so impressed Simek about this place. You could look through any number of coffee-­table books on prehistoric Native American art from the Southeast and see absolutely nothing that looked like these pictures. We saw birds, yes, but this seemed to be a sort of box bird—its square body was feathered. Now there were more of them.

Read the whole thing here.

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