Alan Cressler / AP
O’FALLON, Missouri – A Missouri cave containing Native American artwork dating back more than 1,000 years was auctioned on Tuesday, disappointing Osage nation leaders who were hoping to purchase the land to “protect and preserve our site the most sacred “.
One bidder has agreed to pay $ 2.2 million to private landowners for what is known as the “Picture Cave”, as well as the 43 rolling acres that surround it near the town of Warrenton, about 60 miles ( 97 kilometers) west of Saint-Louis.
Bryan Laughlin, director of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers, the St. Louis-based company that manages the auction, said the successful bidder declined to be named. A family from Saint-Louis, owner of the land since 1953, used it mainly for hunting.
The cave was the site of sacred rituals and burial of the dead. It also has more than 290 prehistoric glyphs, “making it the largest collection of polychrome paintings of the indigenous peoples of Missouri,” according to the auction site.
This is exactly why Carol Diaz-Granados opposed the sale. She and her husband, James Duncan, spent 20 years researching the cave and wrote a book about it. Duncan specializes in Osage oral history and Diaz-Granados is an associate researcher in the anthropology department at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Auctioning a sacred American Indian site really sends the wrong message,” said Diaz-Granados. “It’s like auctioning off the Sistine Chapel.”
The Osage Nation, in a statement, called the sale “really heartbreaking.”
“Our ancestors lived in this region for 1,300 years,” the statement read. “It was our land. We have hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried in Missouri and Illinois, including Picture Cave.”
The cave features drawings of people, animals, birds and mythical creatures. Diaz-Granados said that various means were used to create art. Charred botanical material was used to draw. For a representation of a mythical being, the artist created a white figure by scratching the brown sandstone.
Diaz-Granados said the intricate details set the Missouri cave apart from other sites with ancient designs.
“You get stick figures in other rock art sites, or maybe a little feather on the top of your head, or a figure holding a weapon,” she said. “But in Picture Cave, you get details of clothing, details of hairstyle, feathers, weapons. It’s really amazing.”
Years ago, analytical chemists at Texas A&M used pigment samples to determine that designs were at least 1,000 years old.
The cave also has another story, Laughlin said. European explorers visited in the 1700s and wrote the name of the ship’s captain and the names of some of the crew on the walls. It’s also the year-round home for endangered Indiana gray bats.
Laughlin said there are plenty of reasons to believe the cave will remain both protected and respected. On the one hand, he said, Selkirk looked at potential buyers.
Then there is the law.
Missouri’s revised law 194.410 states that any person or entity who “willfully disturbs, destroys, vandalizes, or damages a marked or unmarked human burial site commits a Class D felony.” The statute also makes it a crime to profit from cultural objects obtained on the site.
Finally, there is the location.
“You can’t take a vehicle and just drive to the cave. You actually have to go through the woods to higher ground and go through a 3ft by 3ft opening that is secured by the Missouri Historical Society with steel bars, ”Laughlin said.
Diaz-Granados hopes the new owner will donate it to the Osage Nation.
“This is their cave,” she said. “This is their sacred sanctuary, and it should be theirs.”