A virtual tour of the art hidden in Arkansas caves

Some of the greatest works of American art can't be seen in museums. Found only off wooded trails or in hidden caves, these ancient images are little known, but archaeologist George Sabo is determined to make the rock art of Arkansas a public treasure.

Of the 35,000 archaeological sites in Arkansas, 135 contain images recorded on rock walls by America's native peoples. To catalog and preserve them for posterity, Dr. Sabo, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, is placing them on the Web and building a virtual museum.

"Rock art can't be picked up and placed in a museum," Sabo says. "[The images] are found in specific locations that were important to Native Americans, and removing them destroys the context."

Instead, each image will be documented and photographed. Some of the depictions are carved into the stone, while others are paintings made with pigment from ground-up minerals and binding agents such as blood or oils.

"What makes our project innovative, Sabo says, "is that we are placing the information on the Internet with a searchable database. A few years ago, this would have been impossible, but the technology has dramatically improved."

In many instances, rock art offers the only insight into the minds and thoughts of people from ancient cultures. "These were deliberate acts," Sabo says. "Not like today where someone just uncaps a marker or spray can. The images were planned and prepared, so we can infer that they had some sort of significance to the people."

Many of the images are found off old hunting trails and are pictures of animals or people. Others have been discovered in hidden caves. Archaeologists think these locations were used when an individual wanted to separate himself from society, perhaps while on a vision quest. Teenagers would fast while making the transition to adulthood. During these fasts, the human body was believed to enter an alternate state of awareness that could lead to visions, which were recorded on cave walls.

"Whether the site was important for hunting or for vision quests, people are memorializing places that are important to them," Sabo says.

Most of the rock art was discovered by hikers and other nonprofessionals. Because of the importance of these images, their exact locations will be revealed only to professional researchers. Sabo hopes the online catalog will expand public understanding of rock art and native culture while also providing important information to researchers.

The originals are slowly disappearing. Most are found on soft rock such as sandstone or limestone. Windblown dust can wear the images away, and acidic water or moss and lichens can eat away the rock. One day, the photographs online might be the only record of these beautiful pieces of art.

• For more information: http://rockart.uark.edu

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