Picture Cave, Jan Simek, Prehistoric Pictographs, Panel No. 1, Warren County, Missouri 2 credit: CC BY flickr Alan Cressler
The Osage Nation hoped to buy the land to protect and preserve their most sacred site
The Osage Nation was dismayed when a cave containing more than 1,000-year-old Native American artwork was auctioned off in Missouri on Tuesday, as leaders had hoped to purchase the land to “protect and preserve our most sacred site.” The town of Warrenton, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of St. Louis, sits in the shadow of Picture Cave, a privately-owned site that attracted the attention of a bidder who has agreed to pay $2.2 million for it.
Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers director Bryan Laughlin revealed that the St. Louis-based company handling the auction refused to reveal the identity of the auction's winner. Since 1953, a St. Louis family has used their land mainly for hunting.
The cave served as a sacred burial ground. “As the largest collection of indigenous people's polychrome paintings in Missouri,” according to the auction website, the painting has over 290 prehistoric glyphs, or hieroglyphic symbols used to represent sounds or meanings.
Picture Cave, Glyphs 202, 203, 204, Prehistoric Pictographs, Panel No. 4, Warren County, Missouri 2 credit: CC BY flickr Alan Cressler
Carol Diaz-Granados objected to the sale because of that. Her husband, James Duncan, helped her to conduct 20 years of study of the cave, resulting in the writing of a book about it. Diaz-Granados is a research associate in the anthropology department at Washington University in St. Louis, and Duncan is a scholar in Osage oral history. Diaz-Granados called auctioning off a sacred American Indian site “completely wrong.” It's as if the Sistine Chapel is being auctioned off.
Our forebears lived in this area for over 1300 years
The Osage Nation issued a statement that said, “We are terribly saddened by the news.” The announcement reads, “Our forebears lived in this area for over 1300 years.” “This land was ours.” Picture Cave, located in Missouri, is home to the remains of hundreds of thousands of our forebears.
Images of people, animals, birds, and other mythical creatures are etched into the cave's walls. According to Diaz-Granados, various techniques were used to make the art. Botanical debris was used to produce a sketch. A white figure was created from the brown sandstone by scraping it off to create a mythical being. Diaz-Granados explained that the Missouri cave was unique because of its unique, intricate details. "Other rock art sites have stick figures, or even just a single feather on top of their head, or someone with a weapon," she explained. “However, you do obtain realistic clothing details, headdress and feather details, and weapons in Picture Cave.” That's quite astounding.
"That's their cave. This is their shrine, and it must be returned to them".
A&M's Texas analytical chemists determined that the drawings were at least 1,000 years old, based on pigment samples taken years ago. Laughlin added that the cave also has another history. The ship captain and several crew members had their names written on the walls by European explorers in the 1700s. It's also the year-round habitat for the Indiana gray bat, which is endangered. Laughlin has expressed that there are many reasons to believe that the cave will be both safe and honored. In addition, he explained, Selkirk checked the credentials of potential buyers.
Additionally, there is the law. The Missouri Revised Statute 194.410 makes it a class D felony to knowingly disturb, destroy, vandalize, or damage a marked or unmarked human burial site. Also, any earnings from the selling of cultural artifacts retrieved from the site is a felony. Finally, the location must be considered. To get to the cave, you cannot just drive to it. It is necessary to walk through the woods to higher ground, Laughlin added, and the entryway is a 3-foot-by-3-foot square.
Even though Diaz-Granados has been told that the new owner won't be donating it to the Osage Nation, she is still holding out hope. She said, "That's their cave. This is their shrine, and it must be returned to them".