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A Sacred Place & Ancient Art

We’d like to share a story of a small sanctuary existing deep within the gorge, almost unfathomable in the scale it plays in our world’s art. 


Within the 30,000 acre Tennessee River gorge exists a sacred sandstone cave.  The chambers of the cave contain Native American art (charcoal pictographs and mud glyphs), artifacts, and burial chambers. The pictographs were made using charcoal which has been carbon dated making it over 4,000 years old.  This is one of the rarest forms of prehistoric cave art in existence.  (Petroglyphs are carved, incised, or scratched in stone, pictographs are painted on stone using natural elements i.e. clay or charcoal.)


Descriptions of the cave art:


1. Charcoal Pictograph Art:

  • Shape-shifting figures wrapping around sandstone faces. 

  • Women giving birth.

  • The symbolic woodpecker

  • The ancient Fleur-de-lis symbol (bringing light to French influence)

  • Human creatures with symbols and tools in hand.

  • Symbols honoring the sun and the four corners.

2. Mud Glyph Art:

                A narrow vertical chamber exists where one can lay on their back and touch the stone ceiling above them.  The stone ceiling serves as the canvas for the mud glyph.  The subject of the mud glyph art has been described similar to the sky in Van Gogh’s impressionist “Starry Night".  Parallel flowing lines forming concentric circles and shapes.



In addition to the art described above, 2 jaguar skeletons dating back 40,000 years were found in the cave.  The skeletons were extracted and currently reside in the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture located at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.


Navigation of the cave’s halls were done by bundling river cane into torches, once ignited they were assembled into a line leading deep into the cave chambers.  The charcoal dots lining the cave walls to assist with navigation are still present today.  If you’ve ever gone spelunking imagine relying on a river cane torch and charcoal dots on walls to assist you back to the cave mouth. 


For more information on Tennessee prehistoric cave art: https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/prehistoric-cave-art/


Thank you for taking the time to learn about the “quietly famous” and technically an unnamed cave sheltered within the Tennessee River Gorge.  Resources such as this are endangered in the same way that many species and ecosystems are today.  Thankfully the work of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust serves to protect these assets.  While it’s important to minimize accessibility to these fragile resources it’s important for people to know they exist. 



photo credit: TRGT

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