Ancient Art: The Fading Sun Of Paint Rock Bluff

High on a bluff named Paint Rock Bluff along the Harpeth River, a reminder of the region’s past still exists, but is fading with the passing of time. Paint Rock Bluff is one of many sites in Tennessee that rock art can be found… images that were painted or drawn on the rock (pictographs) or scratched (petroglyphs).

The rock art at Paint Rock Bluff was reported in the nineteenth century by John Haywood who published “The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee” in 1823. The book describes many sites that Haywood reportedly saw, though his writings must be taken with a grain of salt since some descriptions seem to utilize second hand information which is often inaccurate at least in part. Despite inaccuracies, his early discoveries were some of the first examples of the rich and varied open-air rock art in Tennessee.

Haywood describes this site as follows:

The painting on Big Harpeth, before spoken of, is more than 80 feet from the water, and 30 or 40 below the summit. All these paintings are in unfading colours, and on parts of the rock inaccessible to animals of every description except the fowls of the air. The painting is neatly executed, and was performed at an immense hazard of the operator. It must have been for a sacred purpose, and as an object of adoration. What other motive was capable of inciting to a work so perilous, laborious and expensive, as those paintings must have been? Whence cam the unfading dies? the skilled artist capable to execute the work? By what means was he let down, and placed near enough to operate? and for what reward did he undertake so dangerous a work? When executed, of what use could it be to any one, unless to see and to worship?

The site was listed in the TN Division of Archaeology file in 1936 and described as including a red single circle, about 4′ across.

In 1997, close-up photos were taken by means of rappelling down from above and divots became evident, indicating that locals had been using the rock art for target practice.

Image from 1997 courtesy of the TN Division of Archaeology
Image from 1997 courtesy of the TN Division of Archaeology

According to the TN Division of Archaeology, there have been no known official attempts to date the pigments which are likely iron-oxide, which is not suitable for radiocarbon analysis. Pigment scraping may have been taken in the mid-2000s, but it is not officially listed in their records.

In April of 2018 I visited the site to see it first hand. The landowners were extremely welcoming and friendly, but please note that this site is on PRIVATE PROPERTY so visits to the site should only be made with permission from the landowner.

Approaching the bluffs from an initial dirt road you can see that they have an imposing presence… rising high above the Harpeth River as far as the eye can see in both directions. On reaching the river I followed it to the right a considerable distance past cows and open fields until finally reaching Paint Rock Bluff.

Emerging from a line of trees, I found Paint Rock Bluff, but even after exhaustive visual searching I couldn’t identify the area that included the sun and moon pictographs mentioned by Haywood. Connecting a zoom lens, I proceeded to photograph the entire bluff wall and departed the site. Once I return home and was able to upload the photos, I ran them through a program called Dstretch that helps make rock art more noticeable and realized that I did in fact find the pictographs, but they faded and shrunk significantly since the photos from the 1990’s were taken. Below are side by side images of the standard photo, compared with that same photo after processing by DStetch and the results are obvious… with two red sphere’s appearing.

Sadly, these remnants of the regions past, left by the Native Americans who resided in the area are quickly fading and may soon be lost forever.

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