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Picture Cave

Picture Cave
Unraveling the Mysteries of the Mississippian Cosmos

This extensively illustrated volume provides the first complete visual documentation and a pioneering iconographic analysis of Picture Cave, an eastern Missouri cavern filled with Native American pictographs that is one of the most important prehistoric sites in North America.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

April 2015
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360 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 269 b&w photos, 35 b&w illus, 1 map, 26 color illus, 7 maps, 185 color photos |

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A millennia ago, Native Americans entered the dark recesses of a cave in eastern Missouri and painted an astonishing array of human, animal, and supernatural creatures on its walls. Known as Picture Cave, it was a hallowed site for sacred rituals and rites of passage, for explaining the multi-layered cosmos, for vision quests, for communing with spirits in the “other world,” and for burying the dead. The number, variety, and complexity of images make Picture Cave one of the most significant prehistoric sites in North America, similar in importance to Cahokia and Chaco Canyon. Indeed, scholars will be able to use it to reconstruct much of the Native American symbolism of the early Western Mississippian world.

The Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project brought together specialists in American Indian art and iconography, two artists, Osage Indian elders, a museum curator, a folklorist, and an internationally renowned cave archaeologist to produce the first complete documentation of the pictographs on the cave walls and the first interpretations of their meanings and significance. This extensively illustrated volume presents the Project’s findings, including an introduction to Picture Cave and prehistoric cave art and technical analyses of pigments, radiocarbon dating, spatial order, and archaeological remains. Interpretations of the cave’s imagery, from individual motifs to complex panels; the responses of contemporary artists; and interviews with Osage elders (descendants of the people who made the art), describing what Picture Cave means to them today, are also included. A visual glossary of all the images in Picture Cave as well as panoramic views complete this pathfinding volume.


List of Illustrations

Foreword (Patty Jo Watson)

Preface (Carol Diaz-Granados)


Landowners' Introductory Message

Part 1. Overview

Chapter 1. Introduction to Picture Cave and the Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project (Carol Diaz-Granados)

Chapter 2. "Tracings in the Idleness of Art": Picture Cave in the Context of Southeast Prehistoric Cave Art (Jan F. Simek and Alan Cressler)

Chapter 3. The Geology and Ecology of Picture Cave (Philip W. Newell)

Part 2. Technical Work at Picture Cave

Chapter 4. Geochemical Analyses of Prehistoric Pigment Materials from Picture Cave (Sarah A. Blankenship)

Chapter 5. AMS Radiocarbon Dates for Charcoal from Three Pictographs and Their Associated Iconography (Carol Diaz-Granados, Marvin W. Rowe, Marian Hyman, James R. Duncan, and John R. Southon)

Chapter 6. Documenting Spatial Order in the Pictograph Panels of Picture Cave (Jan F. Simek, Nicholas P. Herrmann, Alan Cressler, and Sarah A. Blankenship)

Chapter 7. The Origins of Picture Cave: An Essay on the Artists/Priests Who Made the Drawings, as Interpreted from the Salvaged Cultural Materials (James R. Duncan)

Part 3. Interpretations

Chapter 8. Tradition and Horizons in Southeastern Representation: Lessons from Picture Cave (James A. Brown and Jon Muller)

Chapter 9. The Black Warrior Pictograph: Dating and Interpretation (James R. Duncan, Marvin W. Rowe, Carol Diaz-Granados, Karen L. Steelman, and Tom Guilderson)

Chapter 10. The Cave and the Beneath World Spirit: Mythic Dragons from the North American Past (F. Kent Reilly III)

Chapter 11. The Cave, Cahokia, and the Omaha Tribe (Richard F. Townsend)

Chapter 12. Mortal Combat, Sacred Narratives, and Symbolic Weaponry: Mississippian Culture Heroes in Picture Cave (David H. Dye)

Chapter 13. The Spider in the Cave (Kathryn Red Corn)

Chapter 14. Transmogrification, Healing, and Resurrection: Extraordinary Themes in Picture Cave (Carol Diaz-Granados and James R. Duncan )

Chapter 15. Color Symbolism and Preliminary Assessment of Styles at Picture Cave (Carol Diaz-Granados)

Chapter 16. Visions in Picture Cave (George E. Lankford)

Chapter 17. Identifying the Characters on the Walls of Picture Cave (James R. Duncan)

Part 4. Artistry and Reaction

Chapter 18. The First Man Was an Artist: Meditations on a Prehistoric Mississippian Cave (Pala Townsend)

Chapter 19. Layered Pictures, Layered Stories, Layered Lives (Anita Fields)

Part 5. Osage Interviews and Commentary

Chapter 20. Interviews in Picture Cave and Osage Commentary (William Samuel Fletcher, Osage Elder (Hominy, Oklahoma), Alma Jean Maker, Osage Elder (Pawhuska, Oklahoma), Charles Red Corn, Osage Elder (Norman, Oklahoma))

Chapter 21. The Future of Picture Cave (Carol Diaz-Granados, James R. Duncan, F. Kent Reilly III, and Jan Simek)

Appendix: Illustrated Catalogue of Picture Cave Art

Alan Cressler and Jan F. Simek


List of Contributors



Carol Diaz-Granados is Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at Washington University, where she has taught for over thirty years. She is also Adjunct Professor at Webster University.
James R. Duncan is an archaeologist and anthropologist who studies the Osage and Native American ethnography and is former Director of the Missouri State Museum.
F. Kent Reilly III is Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Arts and Symbolism of Ancient America at Texas State University.


Part 1


Chapter 1

Introduction to Picture Cave and the Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project

Carol Diaz-Granados

Picture Cave was brought to the attention of professional archaeologists in the early 1990s by avocational archaeologists. It was totally by chance that we learned of the cave. We were shown drawings of some of the images—drawings so detailed that it was hard to believe they were genuine. Although we did not move immediately to check it out, we were soon contacted by Professor Patty Jo Watson of Washington University (where I teach), who informed us that she had recently visited the cave with George Crothers, her graduate student at the time, and asked us to take a look at the images on the walls of the cave. We contacted the legal landowner, and that began what has turned into a two-decades-long project of ongoing research, recording, and analysis: the 2005–2007 Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project; the 2006 SEAC Symposium on Picture Cave held in Little Rock, Arkansas; and this edited volume.

When we first visited this dark zone cave with the landowner, we found a small fragment of the wall on the cave floor. It was a pictograph of a bird. It had been pried off the wall with a wooden wedge. The wooden wedge had been placed back on the wall ready to pry off another image! The floor of the cave was practically devoid of any cultural materials. It was obvious that the cave had been visited and potted for over 150 years—with historical names, dates, and graffiti going back to the 1840s. A copious amount of vandalism had damaged the cave floor, which was seriously disturbed from all the looting. This made it very difficult to move around in the total darkness. Despite the lack of cultural materials and a dearth of stratigraphy, we believed the cave to be a valuable resource for information and iconography and decided to record and study the myriad images on the walls.

Early American Indians came to this cave to create the hundreds of drawings on the walls, drawings that appear to be tied to rituals, magic, the Siouan cosmos and oral traditions. The accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dates and the exemplary Mississippian graphics have generated a great deal of interest and discussion among archaeologists and other researchers concerned with the origins of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC)—more recently, Mississippian Ideological Interaction Sphere, MIIS (Reilly 2007:3). The realistic, detailed portrayals of several important characters, no doubt supernaturals and subjects of Siouan oral traditions, contribute much to our understanding of the Mississippian cosmology in the greater Cahokia area. Many scholars consider Picture Cave the most important site of its type (dark zone cave) in eastern North America. It has contributed substantial new data to the prehistoric record, and the AMS dates obtained from the pigments have revised a portion of the chronology for early Mississippian iconography.

Another factor contributing to the interest in and importance of Picture Cave is its correlations to a pictograph site in southwestern Wisconsin—the Gottschall Site. The Gottschall Site is roughly 300 miles from Picture Cave. In spite of the distance, a number of style attributes connect the two sites: (1) thin arms; (2) legs that taper and sometimes fade; (3) wide, oval eyes; (4) concentric circles on the shoulder; (5) patterned loincloths; (6) the long-nosed maskette (on a figure's ear in Picture Cave, on a figure's chest at Gottschall);1 and (7) vertical facial and body stripes. In 1966, Salzer obtained a date for the Gottschall Shelter's "E zone" level, from which a sandstone head was excavated (Salzer 1987, 1999). The sandstone head, excavated by Grace Rajnovich, has oval eyes and vertical stripes on the face, which likens it to the Morning Star figures at Picture Cave. The date Salzer obtained of AD 1060 corresponds quite closely to the weighted average of dates (AD 1025) obtained from pigment samples in Picture Cave (see chapter 6).

However, there is another unique motif the two sites have in common: the head association of a "swirling sun" headdress or aura (figure 1.1a). At Picture Cave, it is seen in the small depiction of a victorious birdman standing over a fallen warrior (figure 1.1b), and at Gottschall it is seen on the main anthropomorphic figure (figure 1.1c). I believe that this association offers the most important and affirming connection between these two sites if only for the unique comparative iconography—which in turn connects to the comparative oral traditions most likely in place at the time. Some of these oral traditions not only have an indisputable depth in time, but they also have broad coverage throughout this region of known early American Indian occupation.

The Dhegihan Connection

Despite the growing consensus that prior to the influx of Europeans, the large (20,000 +/-) population of Cahokia split up into smaller groups, moved west and south, and became the historically powerful Dhegiha Sioux factions (and possibly the Chiwere Sioux), there are those who continue to question this theory. With a limited amount of space (and at the request of one of the reviewers), I take this slight jog to review just some of the reasons and references that led us to this theory.

Since long before the completion of my doctoral dissertation (1993), Jim Duncan and I had been talking about a probable Dhegihan Sioux connection to both Missouri rock art and Cahokia Mounds. We often brought up this conjecture in papers presented at conferences, and the subject was cautiously approached in my doctoral dissertation (1993:334-342, 337, passim).

In 1993, I discussed the unique subject matter of several rock art sites as probably being of Siouan origin. In addition, at a minimum of two sites, there was distinct subject matter that related to the iconography in parts of Radin's Winnebago (Chiwere) collections (1948) (Diaz-Granados 1993:337–339). At least three sites had beautifully proportioned and executed figures that not only set them apart but that also linked them to the Braden art style. I linked one of these sites stylistically to the Gottshall Shelter Site in southwestern Wisconsin (Diaz-Granados 1993:171, 187–188).

We picked up on this likely connection largely because of our readings in Eggan and Griffin (1952:40–42), Fletcher and La Flesche (1911), Fowke (1910:5–6), Radin (1948), and possibly even Williams (1980:108), among others. There were bits and pieces of supportive, scholarly commentary that encouraged our suspicions that the great Cahokia population did not "disappear," as is often claimed, but, rather, split up into what became recognized in historic times as the five cognate tribes of the Omaha, Osage, Ponca, Kansa, and Quapaw. Again and again we were met with great skepticism—and even criticism.

Then, beginning in the late 1980s and continuing with increasing emphasis, publications began to appear basically supporting this theory. It is interesting to observe how a consensus slowly developed. In 1989, J. A. Brown attributed the Braden style as originating at Cahokia (1989a:188–196). By 2004, Brown has gone even further, saying that "available information points to people who spoke Dhegiha and Chiwere-Winnebago Siouan languages as having the clearest claim to pre-Columbian occupation of this area" (2007b:58). It is not until almost two decades later that he completes the equation and concedes an association between Cahokia, Braden, and the Dhegihan Sioux (2011:41).

The Cahokia-Dhegihan connection was further advanced with the publication of Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South (Townsend et al. 2004). In that volume, Hall refers to the actual participants of Cahokia as the Dhegihans (102) while cautiously mentioning several other groups peripherally. Hall concedes the existence of "a division of the Siouan family that is more likely to have included actual participants is the Dhegiha or Dhegiha Sioux." He goes on to say that "there is much to be said for seeking the inheritors of Cahokia's cultural legacy west of the Mississippi among Dhegihan speakers, specifically among the Omaha, Ponca, Osage and Kansa," adding, "with more to be learned from studying the beliefs and cultural backgrounds of the Chewere-Winnebago" (Hall 2004:102). That same year, Art of the Osage was published with a suggestion by Bailey, in discussing the Osage, that "others have noted cultural similarities with Cahokia" (2004:3). Kehoe joins in and links the Dhegiha to Cahokia (2007:247).

By 2011, Brown is connecting the Braden Art style not only to Cahokia but also to the Dhegiha Sioux. He is also recognizing the importance of the iconography in the rock art record, specifically, the classic Braden stance of the Black Warrior at Picture Cave and the Dancing Warrior at Rattlesnake Bluff (personal communication, 2009). Brown states, "It is not difficult to connect the Dhegiha Sioux to the archaeology of the Prairie Peninsula and to the great townsite of Cahokia" (2011:41). At this point, we feel that our presumption, which began in the early 1980s, has come to be largely the accepted theory.

The Antiquity of the Pictographs

Because of the great detail and clarity in many of the pictographs, there was some question regarding their antiquity. In 1996, I obtained a grant from the Monsanto Chemical Company to date the pigments in a selection of the drawings. If the drawings were indeed ancient, as we suspected, it was decided that we would pursue long-term research at the cave with the landowners' permission. I contacted Marvin W. Rowe of Texas A&M University, one of only two researchers doing pigment dating at the time, and asked if he would come to Picture Cave in Missouri to take and date pigment samples. He kindly agreed.

Until 1987 (Van der Merwe et al.), there was no method for the direct dating of pigments in pictographs. The Missouri cave site was the first, to our knowledge, in the Central Mississippi River Valley region, to have pigment samples dated from parietal art (see Chapter 5). Drs. Marvin W. Rowe and Marian Hyman of Texas A&M's Analytical Chemistry Department processed four samples using a method they developed. Their plasma-chemical technique extracts carbon from the pigment and converts it to carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is then sent to an AMS laboratory, where the amount of carbon-14 is counted and the age of the sample determined. Four of the carbon samples Drs. Rowe and Hyman extracted at Picture Cave contained sufficient quantities of carbon for AMS dating. As previously mentioned, the weighted average of the four dates is AD 1025 (Diaz-Granados et al. 2001). The four black pigment samples yielded dates that place their affiliated motifs into a developing prehistoric time frame for Midwest rock art.

With the knowledge that Picture Cave was indeed an important American Indian ritual cave site, we proceeded to install gates at the entrances with the landowners' permission. Also with the permission of the landowners, the Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project was organized in 2005 to bring in five scholars/professors (from the University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University, Northwestern University, Texas State University, and the University of Alabama); specialists in American Indian art and iconography; two artists (one Osage); four Osage Indian elders, an artist and sculptor from Tulsa, Oklahoma; the executive director of the Osage Tribal Museum; an Osage elder from Pawhuska, Oklahoma; and an Osage elder from Hominy, Oklahoma (two other Osage were invited but could not make it); a museum curator from the Art Institute of Chicago; a folklorist from Lyon College in Arkansas; an internationally renowned cave archaeologist; a number of expert cavers; an artist and painting professor from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; a videographer; cavers, students, and the landowners to view and study the pictographs on the cave walls and to share their thoughts about the imagery. With the assistance of Dr. F. Kent Reilly III, a Lannan Foundation grant was obtained that would cover the expenses (transportation and hotel) of the visiting scholars, artists, and Osage. The grant also covered a minimum of equipment, including caving gear, halogen lighting, and hundreds of feet of electrical cord, a twenty-four-passenger transport van for the weekend, and a professional videographer to record the project. Osage elder and full blood William S. Fletcher recited an Osage prayer at the cave entrance before we entered. As always, tobacco offerings were left in the cave before any work was begun.

The Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project participants spent two days at the cave and agreed to pen their thoughts on the cave art and present a paper at the 2006 Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. Each author agreed to turn his or her paper into a chapter for this edited volume on Picture Cave.

In August 2005, Dr. Jan Simek, Dr. Sarah Sherwood, and Sarah (Annie) Blankenship came to the cave to check for any stratigraphy. They dug test pits and checked for intact stratigraphy. The testing was promising but inconclusive. Dr. Simek returned in September and brought the Cave Archaeology Research Team (CART)—Simek, Nicholas Hermann, Sarah Blankenship, and Alan Cressler)—and all necessary equipment to completely map the walls of the cave and methodically photograph each individual image (see the appendix). The crew worked from 8:00 AM until 6:00 PM or later—nonstop—mapping, recording, and photographing for five days straight. About 300 images were photographed by eminent cave photographer Alan Cressler and recorded by Dr. Simek and Ms. Blankenship, while Dr. Hermann did the landscape mapping. As a result of their work, Dr. Simek and crew were able to produce detailed panoramas of the three major walls, including the main wall (see foldouts).

Brief Chronology of Picture Cave Research


The cave is brought to our attention by avocational archaeologists. I contact the landowner to get permission to visit the cave. When we come to visit the cave, with the express permission of the landowners, and the landowner with us, there is evidence of serious potting on the floor of the cave and a wooden wedge stuck behind a section of the paintings on the wall. It is obvious that someone was trying to pry the pictographs off the wall. One small section of the wall is discovered lying on the ground, having been already pried off by vandals. We encourage the landowner to take it home, expecting that the perpetrator will be coming back to get it. There is also evidence of frequent and ongoing visitation and looting by trespassers. Initials on the cave walls date back to 1848. We ask for and are granted permission by the landowners to do research at the cave. Because it is a dark zone cave, all work is done with helmet lights and lanterns. All visits to the cave are made with the landowner present because we want to be sure the landowner knows we are doing scholarly research and recording the pictographs.

Early 1996

With the landowners' permission, I organize members from my cave grotto to install a gate at the cave's main entrance. The supplies are donated by the caving grotto members and supplemented by a small grant from the Cave Research Foundation. Don Rimbach donates the 100-pound solid steel gate.

Later in 1996

I receive a grant from the Monsanto Chemical Company that enables us to secure the services of Drs. Marvin Rowe and Marian Hyman, analytical chemists from Texas A&M University. Dr. Rowe is the leading specialist in dating pigments from pictographs and has done this type of work in many parts of the world. Drs. Rowe and Hyman come in October and take five small samples from four panels.


After some problems and delays with the analytical equipment, dates are finally processed and delivered by Dr. Rowe. They range from AD 985 to 1165 with a weighted average of AD 1025 (see chapter 5). This means that the cave paintings, at least the ones tested, are approximately 1,000 years old. A report on the dates and research is submitted to American Antiquity.


The caving grotto members seal the small side entrance to the cave.


The landowner finds the major cave gate partially vandalized; Jim Duncan, Philip Newell, and others present repair it.


One of the caving grotto members designs and builds a gate to secure the third and last small entrance to the cave. The caver pays for all the rebar and supplies and donates the use of his personal power equipment and generator for the cause.

An article, "Of Masks and Myths," is published in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology on the long-nosed maskette image at Picture Cave (Duncan and Diaz-Granados 2000).


A second article is published (in American Antiquity): "AMS Radiocarbon Dates for Charcoal from Three Missouri Pictographs and Their Associated Iconography: A Report" (Diaz-Granados et al. 2001).

On a research trip to the cave, our work group encounters evidence of recent looting around the entrance. The perpetrators are tracked by Jim Duncan and the landowner, and the family is confronted and cautioned.


We bring the director of the Osage Tribal Museum in Oklahoma, Kathryn Red Corn, to visit the cave and view the pictographs, believing that they were done by her ancient ancestors. Research, recording, and writing continue.


Carol begins organizing the Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project and invites several scholars—specialists in American Indian art and iconography, Osage, archaeologists, a folklorist, two artists, and cave specialists—to participate.

Early 2005

With the help of Professor F. Kent Reilly III, funding is obtained from the Lannan Foundation to bring in scholars and Osage for the Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project. Caving gear and other supplies are rented or purchased for the project.

July 2005

The initial cave trips for the Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project take place, with an average of twenty-five in attendance. A videographer records the project.

August 2005

Dr. Jan Simek comes to the cave to check for any stratigraphy. He brings Dr. Sarah Sherwood and Sarah Blankenship to dig test pits and check for intact stratigraphy.

September 2005

Dr. Simek returns with the Cave Archaeology Research Team and all necessary equipment to completely map the walls of the cave. Alan Cressler methodically photographs each individual image in both color and black and white. The crew works for five days straight. Cressler discovers a small piece of burnt cane on one of the lower levels.

October 2006

The Picture Cave Seminar is presented at the annual Southeastern Archaeological Conference (November 8–11, 2006) with twelve speakers (participants in the Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project). Professor Patty Jo Watson serves as discussant; Carol Diaz-Granados and Kent Reilly, organizers; and Carol Diaz-Granados as chair. A standing-room-only crowd is on hand to hear the papers. Presenters include Sarah Blankenship, Jim Brown, Jim Duncan, David Dye, Anita Fields, George Lankford, Jon Muller, Kent Reilly III, Jan Simek, Richard Townsend, Pala Townsend, and Patty Jo Watson.

May 2007

The first deadline is given to participants for submission of first drafts for the Picture Cave volume. Five chapters come in on deadline. Reminders continue to go out to authors to get their drafts to the editors.

May 2008

Twelve chapters are in. From 2008 through 2009, authors continue to submit chapters. Over the next two years, the remainder of the first drafts slowly arrive.


Delays resulting from restricted photo permissions by landowners slow the book's progress.


Permission details are worked out with landowners. A publisher is approached. The three coeditors meet with Theresa May, editor-in-chief at the University of Texas Press, and give her a manuscript, color photos of the cave art, and one of the large wall panoramas. Shortly thereafter, a contract from the press is sent, signed, and returned.

Fall of 2012

With all chapter drafts in, formatting begins.

April 2013

All chapters, photos, and illustrations are sent to Theresa May at the University of Texas Press.

January 30, 2014

Copyedited manuscript is returned to editors for final check by all contributing authors.

March 17, 2014

Manuscript is returned to the University of Texas Press for final cleanup.


1. "At this time, Red Horn's first wife was pregnant and, finally, the old woman's granddaughter gave birth to a male child who was the very likeness of his father, Red Horn, having long red hair and having human heads hanging from his ears. Not long after this, the giantess also gave birth to a male child whose hair was likewise just like his father's. Instead of having human heads hanging from his ears, he had them attached to his nipples" (Radin 1948:129).


“Picture Cave is one of the most important sites for parietal art anywhere in North America, and a full report on its pictographs and their proposed meaning has been eagerly awaited by archaeologists since rumors of their significance began surfacing nearly a decade ago. . . . This volume represents a significant contribution to the field of archaeology, making the full corpus of images from Picture Cave and their relationships with one another accessible . . . for the first time. . . . It will be read and enjoyed both by scholars in related fields (certainly art history) and the general public. Addressing topics that excite the imagination, it provides glimpses of an ancient, mythic world that predates European colonization of the New World.”
Alex W. Barker, Director, Museum of Art and Archaeology, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology and Art History, University of Missouri