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Wisconsin's Cave of Wonders January 30, 2001
by Amélie A. Walker

[image] Rock art found in a Wisconsin cave dates to A.D. 700. An abstract charcoal drawing is shown here. (Courtesy Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center) [LARGER IMAGE]

Over one hundred 1,300-year-old charcoal drawings and engravings have been found in a cave in southwestern Wisconsin. Discovered in 1998 but kept secret until records could be made and the site protected, the find doubles the amount of ancient cave drawings, or pictographs, documented in Wisconsin and presents a number of new styles and symbols, adding significantly to the range of cave art known in the region.

Daniel Arnold, a local amateur archaeologist, came upon the drawings while spelunking and alerted the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center (MVAC). Though Arnold originally thought that the art might be fake, regional archaeologist Robert "Ernie" Boszhardt of MVAC visited the cave and quickly realized the site's importance.

"When I first visited the cave, I was skeptical about the possible art that Daniel had written to me about," says Boszhardt. "But once my flashlight came upon some of the drawings, there was no question that this was authentic Native American art. The birds, deer, and bow hunters are of styles that had to be prehistoric, and the charcoal had been absorbed into the rock. I was literally stunned--this was real, this was old, and there was a lot of it."

It is thought that the cave, which is 250 feet long with three chambers, was used for both living and ritual purposes. Remains typical of occupied rock-shelters in this region, such as animal bones (mainly deer), wood charcoal, charred nut shells, and a few pottery fragments, were found in the first chamber, along with most of the engravings, or petroglyphs, and some drawings. The drawings in the rear of the first chamber and in the second and third rooms are beyond natural light, where no evidence of habitation has yet been found. This is the first cave site with evidence for human use beyond the range of natural light in the upper Midwest. Remains of a moccasin and birch-bark torches were also found, preserved because of conditions in the cave, which maintains a relatively constant temperature and humidity level compared to the outside.

[image] These charcoal drawings, of a pregnant doe (left) and a bow hunter (right), are in a panel depicting a springtime hunting scene. (Courtesy Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center) [LARGER IMAGE] [LARGER IMAGE][image]

The rock art depicts birds, humans, deer, and abstract designs. Many of the drawings are grouped in panels, giving archaeologists the opportunity to decipher meaning. In one complex panel in the second chamber, bow hunters are shooting deer, several of which are pregnant does. This scene apparently shows a successful hunt which took place in the late winter or early spring. One image, drawn on the ceiling just inside the entrance, is comparable to early nineteenth-century depictions of infants in cradle boards. Evidence of cradle board use, a distinctive flattening of the back of the skull, was found in 1,500-year-old mounds in this region. The "cradle board" drawing, which is connected by a line to a "thunderbird," is thought to perhaps illustrate a naming ceremony.

The drawings have been carbon dated to A.D. 700, which corresponds with diagnostic pottery sherds recovered in the cave. The Ho-Chunk, who continue to reside in western Wisconsin, are thought to be descendants of the effigy mound culture that likely created the cave drawings. This culture--renown for creating animal-shaped mounds--was developing throughout southern Wisconsin during the period when the pictographs were made. This is the first time that Wisconsin rock art has been directly dated, and it may be used to date art at other sites by stylistic and iconographic comparison.

As evidenced by more than 100 beer cans found within it, the cave was likely being used as a local party hangout. Fortunately, the inner chamber--where most of the drawings were found--had not been disturbed. With advice from the American Cave Conservation Association, a gate was built and installed to protect the cave, and the site continues to be monitored.

There are no immediate plans to excavate in the cave, but the search is on for similar sites in the region which are unprotected. Boszhardt notes, "The fact that there is one cave like this allows for the probability that there are more just waiting to be discovered."

* For more on cave art in southwestern Wisconsin, see MVAC's Introduction to Rock Art.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America