Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

November 4, 2000 - Issue 22

Newfound Cave an Ancient Indian Art Treasure Trove
by Linda McAlpine of the LaCrosse Tribune Staff
photos by Robert "Ernie" Boszhardt

Archaeologists have discovered a deep cave in southwestern Wisconsin that contains more than 100 primitive charcoal drawings, more than doubling the number of such ancient artworks known in the state.

Representatives of the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center said Wednesday they could only speculate on what the drawings and carvings found in the cave meant to the people who lived in the region more than 1,000 years ago.

Maybe they were considered magical, they said, or perhaps part of some long-forgotten ritual.

One thing is certain, according to the MVAC: The more than 100 paintings and carvings found in the cave represent the most comprehensive set of American Indian art at one site in the Upper Midwest.

Until now, only about 100 rock art paintings had been documented in Wisconsin, scattered throughout various locations. These drawings, long hidden in the bowels of the cave, double that number, and they are all in one location, said Jim Gallagher, MVAC executive director.

Because of the temperature, humidity and lack of light in the cave, the art has been very well preserved over the centuries, Gallagher added.

"These drawings are enormously rare," he said. "The chance of finding them, and the chance of finding them in such good condition, is a once-in-a-lifetime event."

The style of art also has never before been seen in Wisconsin, according to Robert Ernie Boszhardt, regional archaeologist for MVAC and one of the first people to enter the cave after its discovery two years ago.

"The drawings are all done in black charcoal and seem to be clustered in panels," Boszhardt said. "One that is really striking is on a wall of sandstone that has a large fault in it. Above the crack are sky symbols, such as wings, feathers and feet of birds. Below the crack is a scene with several bow hunters shooting at deer. Some of the deer have babies drawn inside them, which would mean a springtime hunt."

Boszhardt said spring was the "lean time" for the tribe, and the painting perhaps was done to celebrate a kill or for a ritual to invoke a good hunt after a long winter.

Gallagher said the cave has three chambers. Most of the drawings are deep inside, where something other than natural light would have been needed.

"The paintings were not done for decoration. They have a religious or spiritual meaning as a memorial or a remembrance, as they are found away from the living areas of the cave," Gallagher said. He noted that piles of crushed and burned deer bone and pottery shards were found near the entrance of the cave in the first chamber, indicating it was used as shelter, perhaps during the winter.

One of the drawings has been dated at 1,100 years old. Others are thought to represent the period from about 500 to 1000 A.D., based on pottery fragments, the presence of bows and arrows and the style of deer, which is similar to works by the Effigy Mound Culture.

One image, however, has archaeologists amazed and excited. It looks like a long-horned bison, which if confirmed could date back to the end of the Ice Age nearly 10,000 years ago. Boszhardt said the center is seeking funds for the appropriate testing to determine the age of the bison painting.

The cave also held some unusual artifacts. Boszhardt found part of a hide moccasin that had grass stuck inside of it for insulation. Stitches that once bound top to bottom are still clearly visible. According to Boszhardt, it is the first example of such footwear found north of the Ozarks.

"We want to have some DNA testing done to find out what kind of hide was used, buffalo, elk or deer," Boszhardt said. "If it turns out to be buffalo, that would mean it was imported."

Torches made of tightly rolled birch bark also were found on the floor of the cave.

Boszhardt said no digging has been done at the site. "Our priority was to document the find and preserve it," he said.

The location of the cave has been a closely guarded secret - literally.

A massive steel gate has been installed at the cave entrance. An engineer with the American Cave Conservation Association designed the $5,000 barricade, which also maintains the natural environmental conditions.

"There's graffiti all over the walls - some with dates as far back as the 1870s - and, of course, more recent that even covers some of the paintings," Boszhardt said. "There were about 100 beer cans found, too, so it had been used as a major partying place. We've worked with the property owner and 'no trespassing' signs have gone up."

Thanks to new legislation, it is now a felony to damage or cause any type of destruction to rock art.

Although found in 1998 by Dan Arnold, an amateur archaeologist and cave enthusiast, announcement of the discovery was withheld until the barricade was in place to protect it from further vandalism.

A videotape record also was made of the site. An artist's rendition of the cave paintings is on display at the center, 1725 State St., LaCrosse.

MVAC has established a fund for the preservation of rock art in southwestern Wisconsin. To make a contribution, contact the center at (608) 785-8463.

Upper Midwest Rock Art Research Association

Petroglyphs and Rock Paintings



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