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The history of ancient cultures that once inhabited the southeastern United States continues to emerge within the natural landscape. Amateur relic hunters discover artifacts washed up along the shores of the Tennessee River and TVA’s lakes; mapping experts trace ancient pathways that still define travel today; and artwork is unearthed deep within caves. Remnants from the past continue to bubble to the surface, shedding new light on the region’s past and confirming that we are not the first to pass through this magnificent landscape.
Some of the oldest and most widespread collections of prehistoric cave and rock art in the U.S. have been found in Tennessee, according to a recent paper about Cumberland Plateau cave and rock art published in the June edition of the British archeological journal Antiquity.
Nearly 100 rock and cave art images carbon-dated between 500 and 6,000 years old are being cataloged and researched by the paper's co-authors, Jan Simek of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and president emeritus of the UT System; Sarah Sherwood of Sewanee: The University of the South; Alan Cressler of the U.S. Geological Survey; and Nick Herrmann of Mississippi State University.
Devilstep Hollow Cave, located near Crossville, Tenn., has been identified as one of the state’s most archeologically significant caves. Twenty-two charcoal pictographs, engraved petroglyphs, and a small panel of mud glyphs have been found within the depths of the cave, which is located on 400 acres of the Cumberland Trail State Park.
Images there include a bird effigy with human arms, weeping eyes, dog effigies, and a six-foot long fish-like monster with a forked tail and long sharp teeth.
“Devilstep Hollow Cave is very important archeologically - not just in Tennessee, but all over the region,” says Jim Brannon, a park ranger and interpretive specialist with Cumberland Trail State Park. “What makes it unique is that all three art forms are found in one cave: petroglyphs, pictographs and mud glyphs.”
Most of the cave art within the region has been dated to the Mississippian culture, which dominated much of the Southeast and Midwest between 800 and 1600. Simek’s team has identified a cave near Knoxville that contains much older images - a charcoal image of a hunter and a small animal - dating to around 4000 B.C.
All of the images seem to have religious connotations, according to Simek. Birds - the most common animal depicted in the caves – and turtles seemingly portray the Mississippian culture’s emphasis on “transformational” creatures.
Nearly all of the art caves and rock shelters Simek has found occur along the western escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau, which stretches across eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. While the mouths of the caves face in all directions, virtually all of the known art caves have south-facing mouths.
"The discoveries tell us that prehistoric peoples in the Cumberland Plateau used this rather distinctive upland environment for a variety of purposes and that religion was part of that broader sense of place,” Simek recently told Discovery News.
The mouth of Devilstep Hollow is 125 feet across and 150 feet deep, with a blue-green pool of water at the entrance sink. The fountainhead that forms the Sequatchie River – called the Head of the Sequatchie – is located near the cave.
Land records indicate that the land surrounding Devilstep Hollow Cave and the Head of the Sequatchie was settled in the early 1800s by Adam Sherrill, a Revolutionary War veteran who served under John Sevier. Sherrill's son, Craven Sherill, became the first sheriff for Cumberland County and is buried on the land.
Several early editions of the "Crossville Chronicle" offer fanciful descriptions of explorations at Devilstep Hollow Cave at the turn of the 20th century.
Devilstep Hollow Cave and the Head of the Sequatchie are located off U.S. Highway 127 near Crossville, Tenn., and Cumberland
Mountain State Park. Because of its archeological significance, Devilstep Hollow Cave is gated and remains off-limits to the public. However, Cumberland Trail State Park staff and the Friends of the Cumberland Trail volunteers host an Open Day on park grounds once a month, offering guided tours and information at the site. Upcoming 2013 Open Days at the cave are: October 19, November 16 and December 14 (8 a.m. to 4 p.m. CST).
Visit the Friends of the Cumberland Trail website for more information.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden's Ridge whose writing interests include conservation, outdoor adventures and history in the Southeast. Visit her blog at www.youroutdoorfamily.com.