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Tainter Cave Rock Art Discovery

Press Release - Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Robert Boszhardt

Press Conference

The Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center (MVAC) has announced a major archaeological discovery in southwestern Wisconsin - an ancient, deep cave filled with more than 100 rare drawings and carvings. According to the Center, it is the most comprehensive set of Native American paintings in the Upper Midwest.   Radiocarbon dating has dated some of these drawings at 1100 years old.

“It is the most significant discovery in MVAC’s history,” according to Jim Gallagher, MVAC Executive Director.

Daniel Arnold, an amateur archaeologist from Southwest Wisconsin, made the discovery. He realized the site was being destroyed by vandalism, so he contacted the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse.  The site was visited by MVAC’s Regional Archaeologist Robert “Ernie” Boszhardt in late 1998. 

“I was stunned”, recalls Boszhardt.  “The walls and ceiling contain nearly 100 charcoal drawings of birds, humans, and deer.  Many are beyond natural light in the dark zone of the cave, and birch bark torches were found on the floor along with a hide moccasin.”

The paintings portray a whole new style of art. Some panels depict recognizable actions such as a group of bow hunters taking several deer, including pregnant does, in the late winter.  This panel is directly beneath a group of birds, bird feet, and feathers representing a classic example of  Native American separation of earth and sky.  Another appears to represent an infant bound within a cradle board.

MVAC organized a team of experts including colleagues from UW-La Crosse and institutions as far away as West Virginia, Georgia and Texas to painstakingly document the discovery with drawings and photographs.  At the same time, strategies were developed to restrict access to the cave and preserve it for future study.  The location of the cave is being kept secret, to further protect the cave’s contents.

With the assistance of George Huppert in the Geography and Earth Sciences Department at UW-L, MVAC raised funds and coordinated the installation of a massive steel gate to protect the site from further vandalism.  Roy Powers, an engineer and president of the American Cave Conservation Association designed the barricade, which maintains natural environmental conditions.

Vandalism to rock art is a huge problem throughout the world.  Native Americans believe that rock art sites are sacred places.  Thanks to new legislation, it is now a felony to damage or cause any type of destruction to rock art. 

MVAC hired artists to create a replica of one of the most intriguing pictographs in the cave. It is on display in the Archaeology Center and Laboratory at UW-L.  Displays are available for viewing most weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m..  The displays may be closed on some days when all staff members are in the field.  Please check in advance to ensure that the building will be open by calling 608-785-8454.  The Lab is located on the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse campus directly behind Cartwright Center.

MVAC wishes to thank the following organizations for their financial support of this endeavor:

  • The National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, administered by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

  • Richmond  Speleological Society

  • The National Speleological Society

  • The College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse

  • The College of Science and Allied Health at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse

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Images

Entrance before gate is installed Entrance to the cave before gate is installed.
Welding gate at entrance to cave Welding gate at entrance to cave.
Gate Gate
Sky and earth scene Sky and earth scene
Sky scene Sky scene
Headless human Headless human
Birdman Birdman
Bird Bird
Bow hunter Bow hunter
Deer hunters Deer hunters
Deer one Deer 1
Deer two Deer 2
Pregnant deer Pregnant deer
Running deer Running deer
Long horned bison Long horned bison
Abstract Abstract

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Frequently Asked Questions About Tainter Cave

What is rock art?

Rock art is created by carving, drawing, or painting on rock surfaces. Petroglyphs are carvings made by engraving or pecking into the rock surface with a tool such as a stone or deer antler. Pictographs are drawings or paintings achieved by mixing natural pigments to create colors that are painted or brushed onto the rock surface. 

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What does this site contain?

This ancient deep cave site is filled with the most comprehensive set of prehistoric paintings in the Upper Midwest.  More than one hundred paintings and carvings are located in the cave, all magnificently preserved.  The art includes birds, deer, humans, and abstract designs.  This is a site of national and perhaps international importance.   

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Why is this discovery so significant?

It’s the sheer quantity and quality of the pictographs (or paintings) that is so rare. Until this discovery, there were approximately 100 documented rock art paintings in the state.  This single discovery equals that, and they are all in one location. Paintings generally do not hold up over time due to changing climatic conditions. Since these paintings were located in a rare deep cave site, they have been preserved under near perfect conditions. The temperature, humidity, and absence of light inside of this cave is not unlike an art museum’s curation area. It has enabled these rare drawings to last for centuries. 

Furthermore, the paintings portray a whole new style of art never seen before in the state.  Some panels depict recognizable actions such as a group of bow hunters taking several deer, including pregnant does, in late winter.  This panel is directly beneath a group of birds, bird feet, and feathers, representing a classic example of Native American separation of earth and sky.  Another painting appears to represent an infant bound within a cradle board.  Other panels are composed of abstract motifs which have never been seen before, and whose meaning eludes us.

Another exciting aspect of the discovery was the existence of artifacts at the site.  It is rare to find artifacts and rock art in the same location. The existence of the artifacts can sometimes help to date the rock art. So far, a portion of a 500-year-old moccasin was found, as well as portions of what appear to be torches.

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How did MVAC find out about this site?

Daniel Arnold, an amateur archaeologist and cave enthusiast, “discovered” the site while hiking in southwestern Wisconsin. He saw that the cave was in serious danger of being destroyed by vandalism.  He reported his finding to the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center, which immediately took action to protect it. MVAC will honor Mr. Arnold by awarding him with the center’s Amateur Archaeologist Award at the organization’s annual meeting this November.  

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Why must the location of this site be kept secret?

Vandalism to rock art is a huge problem throughout the world.  This irreplaceable art is destroyed by people carving or spray painting modern names, dates, and symbols over or near rock art. While most people would never intentionally damage ancient art, a few unscrupulous individuals will, and it only takes one to destroy these marvelous resources. Even well meaning visitors can cause destruction.  It takes a trained eye to spot the cave’s art.  Visitors could inadvertently bump against the cave wall and cause significant damage. Lights could damage the art, and smoke from campfires can contaminate potential carbon dating.

Many Native Americans associate rock art sites with sacred places.  Thanks to new legislation, it is now a felony to damage or cause any type of destruction to rock art. However, it is difficult to monitor remote sites.

MVAC hopes to eventually conduct additional research in the cave site, since it is very rare to find both rock art and artifacts in the same site. It is important that any artifacts or other objects that might be located inside the cave remain in their original locations to help the archaeologists draw accurate conclusions.

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How is the cave protected?

MVAC raised funds and coordinated the installation of a massive steel gate to protect the site from further vandalism.  An engineer affiliated with the American Cave Conservation Association designed the barricade, which maintains natural environmental conditions.  

The gate was funded in part by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

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How old is the rock art at this site?

One of the drawings has been directly dated at 1100 years old.  Others are thought to represent the period from about A.D. 500 to 1000 based on several diagnostic pottery fragments, the presence of bows and arrows, and styles of deer, which compare with the Effigy Mound Culture.  One image may represent a long-horned buffalo and, if so, probably dates to the end of the ice age, nearly 10,000 years ago. 

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How is the date of rock art determined?

Rock art is very difficult to date.  Drawings and paintings can sometimes be dated using the Carbon-14 method, but this requires removal of some of the pigments.  Sometimes carbon contamination from later fires and smoke interfere with the test results.

Carvings are particularly difficult to date, since they have no organic material.  Archaeologists generally try to estimate the age by cross dating with other styles or artifacts.  For instance, the bow and arrow was adopted by people in southwestern Wisconsin about A.D. 500, so the bow hunting scene in the cave cannot pre-date that time.  The deer in the same panel have forked ears with distinct tails, and these are similar to nearby effigy mounds, which are known to have been constructed around A.D. 700-1000.  Therefore, this panel likely dates to the period between A.D. 500 and 1000, and probably between A.D. 700 and 1000.

Sometimes the rock shelter floors located beneath rock art panels are excavated, and contain  artifacts which can be dated.  However, the people who lived in the cave may not have actually made the rock art.  In some cases, rock art was placed over earlier work, making it even more difficult to determine the age.  New technologies will undoubtedly provide dating techniques—if the art is preserved.

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What is the meaning of the rock art?

It is difficult to interpret rock art because we cannot look into the minds of the people who created it.  No one knows for certain just what these fascinating pieces of work mean, although important clues exist in Native American oral histories.  One conceivable explanation is that rock represents a ritual in which Native Americans fasted in order to commune with a spirit.  Spirit prayers and offerings added stability to their lives, and rock art symbolizes these connections to the spirit world.

Another interpretation is that some rock art represents territorial boundaries, or "no trespassing signs" for different groups. Portions of rock art may also represent casual marking, or "doodling" to pass the time during long winter months.  It may also mark some astronomical events, such as solstices and equinoxes.  It may have also been a way to document important events for Native Americans such as ritual dances, seasons, or family lines.  Perhaps rock art shouldn't be interpreted; instead maybe our society should just look and appreciate these past artistic expressions.  

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Where is rock art typically found?

The vast majority of Wisconsin rock art is found in the southwestern part of the state - the unglaciated "Driftless Area."  This rugged landscape includes thousands of sandstone and limestone rock exposures.  Archaeologists routinely survey these outcrops in search of rock art. Sometimes hunters, hikers and farmers recognize prehistoric art, usually in places reached by natural light.  With this discovery, archaeologists are now working with “cavers” to survey for more deep cave rock art. 

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What can people concerned about rock art preservation do to help?

Every time we lose a rock art site, part of our heritage is lost forever.  It is therefore urgent that when rock art is found it is immediately reported so archaeologists can survey and document it. Remember not to touch or rub rock art because this accelerates deterioration.

The Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center has established a fund for the preservation of rock art in Southwestern Wisconsin. To make contributions contact the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at (608)785-8463.

Visit the Supporting MVAC web page to find out how you can help MVAC with its mission of research, preservation and education.

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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse
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All material Copyright © 2000-2014 Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse

*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.