Joint Prehistoric Rock Art Restoration Project Receives National Award

A partnership between UT, federal and state agencies, Indian tribes, and other stakeholders to save a set of centuries-old Native American petroglyphs, pictographs, and historic signatures in Alabama has been honored with a prestigious national preservation award.

The project received the Chairman’s Award for Achievement in Historic Preservation from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

The initiative brought together researchers from UT and the University of Alabama, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Alabama Historical Commission, 15 federally recognized Indian tribes, and local volunteers to camouflage and remove graffiti that had impacted the images at the Painted Bluff site in Marshall County, Alabama. The site is west of Guntersville Dam, on land owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Jan Simek

Jan Simek

In 2004, archaeologists from UT—led by Jan Simek, president emeritus of the UT System and a Distinguished Professor of Science—visited the site and began to document the range of images. Simek’s team found more than 80 images dating back 600 years on the cliffs, making it one of the country’s most significant rock art treasures. The images reflect the ancient religious beliefs of the Mississippian peoples who made them sometime around AD 1300.

The team also found that Painted Bluff was under threat from natural weathering and damage caused by graffiti, rock climbing, and vandalism, despite being protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2013 the Alabama Historical Commission named Painted Bluff to its “Places in Peril” list, which highlights the state’s most significant endangered landmarks.

In 2014, TVA hired a consultant firm that studied the site and recommended removal or camouflaging of the existing graffiti, along with more public involvement and outreach. TVA also consulted with the Alabama Historical Commission and 15 federally recognized Indian tribes on restoration of the petroglyphs and pictographs. The tribes recommended that artwork damaged by natural causes be left alone. Instead, the restoration should focus on addressing ongoing human impacts to the site, particularly those caused by rock climbing.

TVA worked with the consultant firm, community volunteers from Huntsville and Guntersville, and students from the University of Alabama to catalog, remove, and disguise the damage at Painted Bluff. Any dates or names 50 years or older were left in place pending further archival research, while any disturbance less than 50 years old was removed or camouflaged. Ultimately, graffiti was removed or camouflaged from more than 120 different surfaces at the site.

TVA also collaborated with a local group, the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, to close climbing routes along the bluff. The coalition created signs alerting climbers of the closures.

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)