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Arts & Life

Missouri Cave Containing Ancient Pictographs To Be Auctioned Off To Highest Bidder

Alan Cressler
/
Picture Cave in Warren County, Missouri, is home to more than 290 pictographs.

Missouri researchers have devoted years learning about Picture Cave and are appalled by the prospect of its auction. They would like to see the property in the care of the Osage Nation.

A vintage pool table, dollhouse miniatures, Chinese snuff bottles — as of this writing, the colorful banner on St. Louis-based Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers’ website displays an assortment of pieces up for grabs. But one slide in the digital series stands out: “Picture Cave & 43 Acres,” it reads, featuring an image of ancient indigenous rock art.

Clicking on the image takes you to more information about an upcoming auction of the sacred site, which Selkirk describes as “one the most significant North American archeological sites,” a place whose cultural importance rivals that of Cahokia Mounds or Chaco Canyon.

The morning of Sept. 14, the site is set to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, as recently reported by the Common Reader’s Jeannette Cooperman. And Carol Diaz-Granados, a research associate at Washington University, along with her husband, James Duncan, are appalled by that prospect. The pair have devoted years of time and anthropological research to Picture Cave.

They believe that the property should be entrusted to an entity that specializes in preservation — and that it ultimately belongs in the care of the Osage Nation. (A representative from the Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office declined an invitation for an interview with St. Louis Public Radio.)

Duncan, whose scholarship includes Osage oral history, said the cave has long been considered by some to be “the womb of the universe.”

Located in Warren County, Missouri, about 60 miles west of St. Louis, it’s the site of more than 290 pictographs that are 1,000 years old. Duncan and Diaz-Granados worked inside the completely dark, hard-to-reach cave for 20 years photographing, measuring and studying the imagery. They also arranged for gating the two entrances to the cave (located on private land) and paid for most of the expenses.

In conversation with St. Louis Public Radio, Diaz-Granados described the site as “a very unusual cave.”

“State archaeologists who came into the cave many, many years before we did thought they were graffiti, because they’re so detailed,” she said. “So we had to get them dated — we got a grant from Monsanto and brought up the analytical chemists from Texas A&M University, and they took pigment samples and they dated them to that 1,000-year-old [estimate].”

Beyond the age factor, Duncan emphasized the meaning behind the pictographs.

“The artists who put them on the wall did it with a great deal of ritual, and I’m sure there were prayers, singing — and these images are alive,” he said. “And the interesting thing about them as far as artists are concerned is the tremendous amount of detail and the quality of portraiture of the faces. Most of them are people — humans — but they’re not of this world; they’re supernaturals.”

Reached for comment about the upcoming auction, Selkirk executive director Bryan Laughlin noted that “there’s always reason for concern when something historical is at stake.” But he added that Selkirk has “done a very good job here, as is the wish of the family, to clearly vet out potential buyers and bidders.”

Laughlin said bidders also must demonstrate they are in “the appropriate financial realm for the responsibility that’s at stake here.” He also cited state law (from Chapter 194 of the Missouri Revised Statutes) as existing protection for a site like this.

“What all that is saying and is ensuring is that nothing can happen to the cave. We’re not wanting something to happen to the cave; we don’t want to change the property,” he said, adding that Selkirk’s hope along with that of the current owners of the property is for further education and stewardship for generations to come.

Diaz-Granados and Duncan said they are concerned, but cautiously optimistic about how the situation will turn out.

“We’re hopeful that a couple [private] agencies are working to try to secure the cave for the Osage nation,” Diaz-Granados said.

The auction house estimates the winning bid to be $1 million to $3 million.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

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