Vol State History Professor Discovered Ancient Cave Art

Dunbar 014

Photo Courtesy of Joe Douglas

 

By Presley Green

Dr. Joseph Douglas, a history professor at Volunteer State Community College, has enjoyed caving as sport from a young age. His enjoyment of caves branched into an interest in cave mapping and history of caves, which eventually led to one of his proudest accomplishments.

Douglas is credited with discovering cave art from the Mississippian culture in Dunbar Cave in Clarksville, Tennessee. The cave art is two rayed circles. There is an outline around the circles to look like a sun and many concentric circles. Inside the circles are interior crosses. The circle on the right has a tail and the circle on the left contains a left facing swastika.

In January 2004, Douglas traveled to Dunbar Cave State Natural Area in Clarksville to meet up with cave author Larry Matthews and Amy Wallace, the interpretive specialist of the park.

“In an area of the cave known as the Ballroom several hundred meters into the dark zone, Douglas noticed two charcoal drawings on the wall, overlaid by nineteenth-century grafiti.” according to the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies.

“Thousands of people walked by it before I recognized its significance,” Douglas said.  

Douglas then photographed these glyphs and sent them to his friend Jan Simek at the University of Tennessee to check for authenticity. Simek insisted on carbon dating.

Dunbar Cave was aware of some of the cave art in their caves, but after Douglas’s discovery dozens more were found, the majority of these pictographs and petroglyphs were made from charcoal and date back to the Mississippian period.

The pictographs Douglas discovered are common iconography from the Mississippian Culture, but not necessarily from then since the circles can be found in many prehistoric periods. After many tries of trying to date the pictographs they finally got a match. Based on carbon dating, the pictographs Douglas discovered date from 1200-1400 A.D.

After finding a total of 35 petroglyphs and pictographs in Dunbar Cave, a decision was made concerning damage in the cave to install a new, secure, bat-friendly gate before the artwork was announced to the public. Dunbar Cave is the only public cave art in the United States. The pictograph that he found in labeled in the cave as “Pre-Columbian Art.”

The documentation and excavation that took place in the cave led to the discovery of many pictographs and petroglyphs, but also human remains, lotted burial grounds, and four unique species of buffalo, elk, bear, and a bison. The excavation concluded that people had occupied Dunbar Cave for at least 4,000 years.

Report on Douglas’s findings: Dunbar Cave Art