Alabama cave’s ancient drawings revealed by digital scan technology

ByMabel R. Acton

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  • Archaeologists have found the largest grouping of cave art drawings made by Native Americans prior to 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-sized images.

Researchers used 3D scanning technology to reveal what they say is the largest collection of cave art drawings ever found in North America.

Among the glyphs discovered on the ceiling of a cave in Alabama is a serpent-shaped figure that measures about 11 feet, scientists reported in research published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Antiquity.

The five examples of Native American cave art documented in the study were the largest found and estimated to be 1,000 to 1,800 years old, 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 a story documenting the research in the Ancient Art Archive.

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

That’s because archaeologists have found many examples of open-air rock art created before Spanish explorers arrived in North America. But much of that has been found by archaeologists exploring burial sites.

Imagery of a nearly 11-foot cave drawing of a serpent figure with a round head and diamond-shaped body markings from "19th Unnamed Cave" in Alabama. Revealed etchings superimposed with illustration by Jan Simek.

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These new revelations come after Simek – a board member of the non-profit archive – and study co-author Alan Cressler first published findings in 1999 about the cave, identified as “19th Unnamed Cave” to protect its location from looters. After Cressler subsequently noticed some additional faint mud drawings in the cave’s ceiling, they decided to explore further.