Ancient Alabama cave drawings revealed by digital scanning technology

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  • Archaeologists have found the largest group of rock art drawings made by Native Americans before the arrival of Spanish explorers.
  • Scientists took thousands of high-tech photos to scan the ceiling of the cave in Alabama to create a 3D model.
  • Inspection of the virtual cave ceiling revealed thousands of drawings, including several life-size images.

Researchers have used 3D scanning technology to reveal what they say is the largest collection of rock art designs never found in North America.

Among the glyphs discovered on the ceiling of an Alabama cave is a snake-like figure that stands about 11 feet tall, scientists reported in research published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal antiquity.

The five examples of Native American rock art documented in the study were the largest found and dated to between 1,000 and 1,800 years ago, said co-author Jan Simek, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee. But the process used to create a photorealistic virtual 3D model of the cave actually revealed “thousands of additional glyphs and images,” according to an article documenting the research in the Ancient Art Archive.

“It was surprising to see them, but it wasn’t surprising that they were there,” Simek told USA TODAY.

This is because archaeologists have found many examples of outdoor rock art created before Spanish explorers arrived in North America. But much of this has been found by archaeologists exploring burial sites.

Imagery of a nearly 11 foot rock drawing of a serpent figure with a round head and diamond-shaped body markings of

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These new revelations come after Simek – a board member of the nonprofit archives – and study co-author Alan Cressler first published discovered in 1999 on the cave, identified as “19th unnamed cave” to protect its location from looters. After Cressler later noticed some additional faint mud patterns in the cave ceiling, they decided to explore further.

To accurately capture the topography of the ceiling, the study’s third co-author, Stephen Alvarez, who is also a founder of the Ancient Art Archive, came up with the 3D mapping project. He spent several months taking more than 16,000 high-resolution photographs in the 5,000+ square foot chamber.

These overlaid photographs were assembled into a 3D model using photogrammetry, a software technology also used to create virtual maps and environments, and virtual objects to video games such as Call of Duty.

Alvarez also built a custom computer to handle the post meltdown processing of a computer’s motherboard when compiling images.

Scientists used high-resolution 3D photography to help reveal this Native American drawing, which stands about 6 feet tall, in the ceiling of a cave in Alabama.  On the left, the ceiling of the cave as it appears to the naked eye.  On the right you see the underlying design superimposed on the image.

In the powerful 3D software, scientists were able to project virtual light onto the surface of the ceiling to reveal never-before-seen designs. Many of the carvings were faded or darkened as the humidity and rain had worn them down, the scientists said.

The 3D model also provided a better vantage point to assess the surface of the cave because “the cave’s narrow physical boundaries” required you to crouch or be inclined to view it in person, they said. As a result, you are often too close to the ceiling to discern the images. “We can actually move the floor away from the ceiling in the model,” Simek told USA TODAY.

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The original rock artists made these life-size and larger drawings “without being able to see them in their entirety”, wrote the researchers in Antiquity. “So the creators worked from their imagination, rather than from an unfettered visual point of view.”

What were they actually drawing? Since the caves were sacred places for Native Americans in the southeastern United States – and considered “pathways to the underworld”, the researchers write – the stylized human forms, pictured below with serpents at bell, may represent religious spirits.

“We would characterize them as human-like forms, but it’s hard to tell if they are humans in elaborate attire or perhaps supernatural figures,” Simek said. “The meaning is difficult so far in the past.”

Ancient art in caves was unexpected for many archaeologists, he said. “We were thrilled to see these things emerge through the process of this analytical technique,” Simek said.

Scientists showed the finds at the annual Eastern Band of Cherokee Archeology Conference. “They were quite fascinated by what we were seeing,” Simek said.

The Cherokee Nation, along with the Muscogee Creek Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, and the Choctaw Nation, are among the tribes whose descendants lived in the area at the time the drawings were made.

Photogrammetry was then used in several other caves in the Southeast. “What amazes me about using 3D modeling is that a story that was written over a thousand years ago and was invisible can now be seen in its entirety,” Alvarez said.

“The artists who carved the cave speak to us,” he said. “We can use 3D modeling to listen.”

Stephen Alvarez, founder of the Ancient Art Archive, prepares to photograph Native American art on the ceiling of a cave in Alabama.  Her reflection is seen in a cave pool.

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.

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