Ancient Art: The 60th Unnamed Cave Of Tennessee

On June 6, 2018 the Veterans Adventure Group had the distinct honor and privilege of visiting one of Tennessee’s  “Unnamed Caves”, designated the 60th Unnamed Cave to see Native American cave art that is reported to be several hundred years old. This trip was made possible by the support of its landowner, Mr. Donald Stolpmann.

The Veterans Adventure Group, is a non-profit open to all veterans and is passionate about helping and supporting veterans through the difficult transition from a military world to civilian life. They provide support, guidance, and a strong network for them as they train and prepare towards a positive extreme goal that develops a sense of purpose and pride in the teams.

Making our way through busy neighborhoods, the road leading to this cave eventually winds its way along a hillside across from a known site that Native Americans inhabited many years ago. Arriving at the cave entrance, we had the opportunity to meet its landowner who was happy to relay stories of his childhood exploration of the cave and catch us up on its known history to date.

As with many caves, this cave had been visited by locals for decades. Going back to the 1950’s, cavers made a visit to map the cave and came across not one, but two sets of pleistocene jaguar skeletons. Nearly all of the remains were encrusted in layers of travertine and unavoidable damage resulted to some of the bones when the discoverers attempted to dislodge the skeleton from the pit floor and later while removing the travertine. The remains were eventually sent to Dr. Lewis Gazin, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the US National Museum for identification and tentatively identified  them as Panthera Augusta. The first specimen only included tooth remains that were in poor condition, likely due to the decomposition due to alternating wet and dry periods in the cave interior. The second was of an adult found laying on it’s left side. with portions of its leg bones, shoulder blades, and ribs all intact, though several vertebrae and diagnostic parts of its jaw and skull were recovered intact although the brain case was broken. These were the fourth record of Panthera Augusta found in a 50 mile radius, suggesting the presence of a former established population of jaguars in Tennessee.

For many years, locals continued to visit the cave and evidence can be clearly seen in the form of old bottles and extensive graffitti. In 2005, the caving community offered to perform a cleanup of the cave for the landowners. It wasn’t until the volunteers made it a significant way into the cave, coarsely scrubbing its walls to remove the modern graffiti, that they realized that some of the images were potentially prehistoric artwork. The CART (Cave Archaeology Research Team), headed by Dr. Jan Simek from the University of Tennessee was contacted who visited and studied the cave to document its archaeological findings and later installed a gate to help protect the cave and what remains of its artwork. The damage done to it from the cleanup efforts can be seen in many of the images and the incident serves as a reminder to the caving community that archaeologists specializing in cave art should be consulted prior to embarking on cleanup efforts.

After speaking with the landowner, we proceeded to make our way along the short path downhill to the caves gate which he had kindly unlocked. The entrance itself involves a climb straight down that is tight and narrow, but fairly convenient places to place your feet as you make your way down. On reaching the bottom, you sit and slide down a short 45 degree slope into the initial entrance room.

Emerging from the entrance room, the passage opens up to a borehole passage by Salamander Alley which is named for its abundant salamanders. Scrubbed graffiti is evident everywhere with several spots that included black smudged areas that make you wonder if they had been examples of cave art that were scoured over, as well as historic signatures and markings.

In areas untouched by the scoured graffiti, cane stoke marks are also evident and can be seen extensively throughout the cave in areas that give the modern explorer a true appreciation for the explorers spirit and bravery of these early Native Americans who made their way through the cave without the benefit of modern LED headlamps and protective gear. The stoke marks can be seen along walls in walking areas, but also in the tightest of crawl spaces that would give a modern person pause to be crawling with a lit torch. These torches were lit and struck against the wall to remove excess ash to refresh the burning end. Often, bundles of river cane would be carried into the cave and left for use on the return trip, extending the distance into the caves interior that Native Americans were able to travel.

Examples of anastomosis can be seen along the ceiling… defined as “a network of tubular passages or holes in a cave or solution sculptured rock. A complex of many irregular and repeatedly connected passages” that was part of the cave’s formation.

Just beyond the anastomosis, images begin to appear along the left side wall of the passage… considering that the artists are no longer with us to provide a description, these are clearly open to interpretation as with most artwork. There are several quadrupeds, possibly wild dogs.

Further on is an image of what appears to be a human, possibly wearing some sort of regalia (the part protruding from its head), along with a crowned mace (possibly) that appears to have been scoured from the cleanup effort.

Beyond is an intriguing image of a anthromorph, a humanoid figure possibly morphing into something with animal characteristics, as well as additional examples of quadrupeds and other unknown images.

At this point we turned back to go down the southern portion of the cave in an attempt to find a few more pictographs that we were informed of by the landowner. Before doing so we took note of what may be a mortar hole… possibly used to produce the pigment used for this cave art. The archaeological assessment that was done in the cave showed that the images were not produced by charcoal alone, but a mixture.

Heading back south we stopped to take a photo by the main panel of quadrupeds before continuing on our journey to find the additional cave art examples.

Graffiti was consistent along the caves passages, often offensive in nature, but there were also images or marks of uncertain origin that could have either been ancient, or historic in nature.

Finally making it to this area, what appeared like a doorway opened on the right. Looking up we could see the final images that we were searching for, a sunburst of unknown significance along with another that appears to be a hand or bear paw, though again open to interpretation.

The Veterans Adventure Group would like to extend a special thanks to Mr. Stolpmann for his support and allowing us to privilege to see his incredible cave and the Native American artwork that it contains!

Please note that caving can be a dangerous activity for the inexperienced. If you have an interest in exploring caves, check out a local grotto from the National Speleological Society website so you can connect with experienced cavers in your area who will show you the ropes. Also, remember that caves can be on either private property or government land so please always ensure that you either have permission from the landowner or the proper permits obtained before visiting a cave. While there, remember to…

Take nothing but pictures.

Leave nothing but footprints.

Kill nothing but time.

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