‘A round, severed head with gore spilling out of the neck’
Bird Man or Falcon Dancer, Mud Glyph Cave
Over the past few decades, in Tennessee, archaeologists have unearthed an elaborate cave-art tradition thousands of years old. The pictures are found in dark zone sites—places where the Native American people who made the artwork did so at personal risk, crawling meters or, in some cases, miles underground with cane torches—as opposed to sites in the “twilight zone,” speleologists’ jargon for the stretch, just beyond the entry chamber, which is exposed to diffuse sunlight. A pair of local hobby cavers, friends who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, found the first of these sites in 1979. They’d been exploring an old root cellar and wriggled up into a higher passage. The walls were covered in a thin layer of clay sediment left there during long ago floods and maintained by the cave’s unchanging temperature and humidity. The stuff was still soft. It looked at first as though someone had finger-painted all over, maybe a child—the men debated even saying anything. But the older of them was a student of local history. He knew some of those images from looking at drawings of pots and shell ornaments that emerged from the fields around there: bird men, a dancing warrior figure, a snake with horns. Here were naturalistic animals, too: an owl and turtle. Some of the pictures seemed to have been first made and then ritually mutilated in some way, stabbed or beaten with a stick.
We moved forward. The next pictograph, Simek said, was an image that appears in several of the Unnamed Caves: the gruesome Toothy Mouth. A round, severed head with gore spilling out of the neck. Weeping eyes. A big pumpkin grin, probably meant to suggest the receded gums of decomposition. Simek said they tend to see these wherever there are burials. They had found one even in a Woodland cave—that’s the period preceding the Mississippian, about which we know even less. But for at least a couple of thousand years, this picture on a cave wall in this country meant “bodies buried here.”
Simek had one graduate student who is Cherokee. 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.”
We entered a large hall. The ceiling was very high, it looked a hundred feet high. It was smooth and pale gray. Simek shone his lamp up and arced it around slowly. “What do you see?” he said.
“Are those mud dauber nests?” I asked. That’s what they looked like to me.
“The ceiling,” he said, “is studded with three hundred globs of clay.”
I stared up with open mouth. I didn’t have a good question for that one.