CAIRN – A Bridge Connecting Cavers & Archaeologists

hiking to a cave in Mark Twain Forest, Mo.

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Ancient history didn’t just happen in far off places like Rome or Athens.  It happened all across North America. An army of professional archaeologists has been documenting thousands of prehistoric Native American sites throughout the United States. Slowly they’re piecing together a better understanding of the ancient peoples who thrived here for thousands of years.

In Missouri and Illinois, the vast majority of research has taken the form of traditional excavation of surface soil to expose prehistoric artifacts and features.  This method has uncovered incredible ancient sites, providing important insights into the lives of these past peoples.

Careful study of Native American oral tradition has led researchers to believe people living in and around the Midwest about 1,000 years ago divided their universe into three major parts, the upper, middle and lower worlds.  Archaeological research in the Midwest has focused chiefly on the upper and middle worlds.  Much work has been conducted on earthen mounds, ancient structures reaching toward the upper world.  Most work, of course, has centered in the middle world, the natural domain of humans.  Caves, thought to have served as entrances into the lower world, present a mostly untapped research setting.

Cave archaeology in Missouri has focused primarily in and around the entrances of caves with large, wide mouths, such as Graham Cave and Arnold Research Cave.  This research has produced a wealth of data, greatly adding to our knowledge of ancient cultures.  Graham Cave, which was used on and off by various peoples over a period of thousands of years, served as a foundation for our understanding of how stone tool types and styles changed over time.  Work at Arnold Research Cave led to the discovery of some of the oldest footwear on the planet, incredibly well preserved 7,500 year old grass woven sandals.

Very little professional archaeological research, however, has been conducted deeper within caves.  There are a number of valid reasons why archaeologists have directed their research elsewhere.  While prehistoric people occasionally ventured deep into the dark zone of caves, they certainly didn’t live there.  So with an incredible abundance of heavily used camp and village sites yet to be discovered above ground, why invest time and resources in hopes of finding evidence of a brief visit underground?  Secondly, the dark zone environment does not lend itself well to traditional university based archaeological study.  It can be dangerous and requires highly specialized equipment and safety expertise.

Therefore, the Cave Archaeology Investigation Research Network (CAIRN) provides a unique and valuable mechanism to help fill in a missing piece of the area’s prehistoric puzzle.  CAIRN provides a needed bridge between the caving community and professional archaeologists.  Thousands of cavers have been discovering and documenting caves.  Thus cavers can be an important, yet mostly untapped resource for archaeological researchers. CAIRN learns from cavers of possible signs of prehistoric activity within caves.  At the same time, CAIRN trains cavers on what to look for, as well as on the importance of leaving possible prehistoric evidence in place for future study.  This cooperative partnership promotes the preservation of prehistoric cultural resources within caves and is likely to provide a steady flow of archaeological discoveries for years to come.

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