Scientists use 3D Technology: Uncovered ancient Native American Cave Art Collection

Researchers employed 3D scanning technology to display what they say is the most extensive collection of cave art drawings ever discovered in North America.

Archaeologists have found the most extensive grouping of cave art drawings made by Native Americans before the arrival of Spanish explorers. So scientists took thousands of high-tech photos to scan the cave’s ceiling in Alabama to create a 3D model.

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

The five models of Native American cave art established in the study were the most extensive. They are gauged to be 1,000 to 1,800 years old, said co-author Jan Simek, professor of anthropology, University of Tennessee and an archaeologist. But the process used to build a photorealistic, virtual 3D model of the cave unveiled “thousands of extra glyphs and images,” according to a story demonstrating the research in the Ancient Art Archive.

“It was incredible to see them, but it wasn’t surprising they were there,” Simek expressed. That’s because archaeologists had found many examples of open-air rock art created before Spanish explorers arrived in North America. But much of that has been seen by archaeologists exploring burial sites.

The imagery of a nearly 11-foot cave drawing of a serpent formation with diamond-shaped body markings and a round skull from “19th Unnamed Cave” in Alabama indicated etchings superimposed with illustration by Jan Simek.

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These new acknowledgments come after Simek – a board composed of the non-profit archive – and analysis co-author Alan Cressler first published findings in 1999 about the cave, recognized as “19th Unnamed Cave,” to save its location from looters. After Cressler witnessed some additional pastel mud drawings in the cave’s ceiling, they determined to explore further.

To accurately grasp the ceiling’s topography, the study’s third co-author Stephen Alvarez, a founder of the Ancient Art Archive, presented the 3D mapping project. He took more than 16,000 high-resolution photos in the more than 5,000-square-foot chamber.

Those overlapping photographs were sewed together into a 3D model using photogrammetry, a software technology used to make virtual maps and environments and virtual objects for video games like Call of Duty.

Alvarez also created a custom computer to regulate the processing after one computer’s motherboard melted while compiling the images.

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

The scientists could glow virtual light on the ceiling’s surface to display previously unseen drawings within the powerful 3D software. However, the scientists said many etchings were faint or obscured as humidity and rain had worn them away.

The 3D model also delivered a better vantage point for considering the cave surface because “the tight physical confines of the cave” needed you to crouch or be inclined to view it in person. As a result, you are often too tight to the ceiling to discern images. “We can drop the floor away from the ceiling in the model,” Simek said.

The original cave artists created these life-sized and more extensive drawings “without being able to see them in their entirety,” the researchers documented in Antiquity. “Thus, the makers performed from their imaginations, rather than from an unrestrained visual perspective.”

What were they drawing? Since caves were sacred sites to Native Americans of the Southeast U.S. – and believed “pathways to the underworld,” the researchers note –  the stylized human forms, described with rattlesnakes, may represent religious spirits.

“We would characterize them as human-like forms, but it’s hard to tell whether they are humans in elaborate regalia or supernatural characters,” Simek said. “Meaning is difficult this far into the past.”

Ancient art in caves was unanticipated by many archaeologists, he said. “We were excited to see these things emerge through the process of this analytical technique,” Simek said. The scientists have shown the findings to the Eastern Band of Cherokees’ annual archaeology conference. “They were quite fascinated by what we were seeing.”

The Cherokee Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, the Muscogee Creek Nation, and the Choctaw Nation are among the tribes whose offspring lived in the region when the drawings were created.

Photogrammetry has afterward been used in several other caves in the Southeast. “What surprises me about using 3D modeling is that a story spread down a thousand plus years ago and has been invisible can now be witnessed in its entirety,” Alvarez said. “The artists who engraved the cave speak to us,” he said. “We can use 3D modeling to listen.”