Painted Bluff
The cliff face of Painted Bluff.
Facing west along the middle ledge.
LocationMarshal County, Alabama
Coordinates34°27′47.33″N 86°26′46.95″W / 34.4631472°N 86.4463750°W / 34.4631472; -86.4463750[1]
Altitude248 m (814 ft)[1]
CulturesWoodland and Mississippian
Site notes
ArchaeologistsJan Simek[2]
OwnershipFederal government of the United States[3]
ManagementTennessee Valley Authority[3]

Painted Bluff is a cliff overlooking the Tennessee River in Marshall County, Alabama that features over 130 individual prehistoric Native American pictographs and petroglyphs. Painted Bluff is located about 4 miles (6.4 km) downstream from the Guntersville Dam and is only accessible by boat. The bluff is divided into three levels: the low ledge along the river, a middle ledge above it, and a high ledge near the top of the cliff face. A small cave is located along the low ledge.

Due to the humid environment, open-air rock art sites are rare in the Southeastern United States.[4] TVA archaeologist Erin Pritchard considers Painted bluff to be "one of, if not the, most significant open-air rock art occurrence[s]" in the region.[5]

The bluff has been subject to graffiti from the earliest days of its discovery by European Americans, with the oldest graffiti dating to the nineteenth century.

Painted Bluff is protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, meaning that damaging or destroying any property is considered a felony.[6]


Painted Bluff is a rocky outcropping of limestone that overlooks the Tennessee River. The carboniferous limestone that comprises the bluff formed between 359 and 323 million years ago, predating the formation of the North American contentment. It is mainly composed of Bangor Limestone.[7]

Painted Bluff was inhabited by humans throughout the Woodland period into the Mississippian period, from about 800 BC to 1500 AD.[8]

The first written references to Painted Bluff are from the nineteenth-century jurist and historian John Haywood in his 1823 book The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee. Haywood moved to Nashville, Tennessee from his home state of North Carolina in 1807 and became fascinated by the prehistoric artifacts and monuments in the region. He believed that these artifacts and monuments were left by one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.[9]

In 1959, the rock art of Painted Bluff was the subject of one of the first chemical analyses on rock art pigment ever published.[10]

Rock art

Distribution of Rock art[11]
Low Ledge Middle Ledge High Ledge
Anthropomorphs 3 10 1
Birds 0 4 0
Boxes 0 6 0
Circles 2 28 16
Fish 0 5 0
Lines 0 31 0
Maces 0 2 0
Mammals 0 3 0
Patches 0 8 0
Other 0 18 0
Total 5 115 17

Archaeologists have identified a total of 137 prehistoric images at Painted Bluff. Most of the images, 133 in total, are painted pictographs. The remaining four are engraved petroglyphs.[12] These images are distributed across the three ledges of the bluff. There are 5 images located on the low ledge, 115 images on the middle ledge, and 17 images on the high ledge.[13] The rock art images at the painted bluff can be categorized into nine different motifs. These motifs are: circles, lines and curves, boxes and rectangles, patches or swatches, maces, fish, birds, quadrupeds or mammals, anthropomorphs, and others.[14]

A pictograph of an orange circle with a cross through it.
A pictograph of an orange circle with a cross through it. This "cross-in-circle" is a common symbol from the Mississippian Period.[15]

The most common motif found in the rock art of Painted Bluff is circular shapes. Of the 137 total images, 47 images are various forms of circles. These include "simple rings, solid disks, concentric circles," and "circles filled with lines or crosses.[12] Circles filled with crosses, or "cross-in-circle(s)", are a common Native American religious icon from the Mississippian Period.[15] All but one of the pictographs on the high ledge are circuital motifs.[16]

The second most common motif found in the rock art of Painted Bluff is linear forms. Of the 137 total images, 31 are composed of various forms of lines and curves. These include simple line segments, curved lines, groups of overlapping lines, and more complex arrangements such as crosshatching.[17] All four of the engraved petroglyphs are classified in this category.[18]

Of the 137 total images, 6 are boxes or rectangles. These pictographs are rectilinear shapes with clear right angles. Some of the examples are not complete or closed rectangles; some of them are either incomplete rectangles with open sides or are partially eroded. All of the pictographs of this motif are located along the middle ledge.[19]

Some of the pictographs at Painted Bluff consist of patches and swatches of pigment. Of the 137 total images, 8 are classified into this motif. Most of these pictographs are solid patches of pigment with no outline. Some of them may have been the result of swiping an applicator across the rock to clean it. Most of them, however, appear to have been intentionally made, which is suggested by the thickness of the pigment and the size of the glyph. All examples of these patches and swatches are located on the middle ledge.[20]

Two of the 137 total pictographs have been identified as weapons or maces. These have been identified as maces due to their resemblance to other prehistoric art in the Southeast that have been identified as maces. Both of these pictographs are located on the middle ledge.[21]

A pictograph of a catfish that resembles Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream".
While this pictograph might resemble Edvard Munch's painting The Scream, it actually depicts the underside of a catfish. The "eyes" are actually the fish's lateral gill openings.[22]
A more recognizable pictograph of a catfish as viewed from below.
Another pictograph of a catfish viewed from below. It is clearly recognizable by its barbels and pectoral fins.[22]

Twelve of the pictographs at Painted Bluff depict different types of animals. Five of the 137 total pictographs depict fish. In four cases, the specific kind of fish has been identified. Three have been identified as catfish, and one has been identified as a species of American black bass. The fifth pictograph is not detailed enough to be identified as a specific kind of fish.[23] Four of the pictographs depict birds.[i] These four images depict two herons, a male turkey, and either a hummingbird or woodpecker.[25] Additionally, three pictographs depict mammals or quadrupeds.[26] All of the fish, bird, and mammal pictographs are located along the middle ledge.[27]

Fourteen of the 137 total pictographs depict human or anthropomorphic figures. Human or anthropomorphic figures are the only motif other than circles that appear on all three ledges of Painted Bluff.[27]

Nineteen of the 137 total pictographs have been classified as "Other". These images are classified as such because they do not fit into any of the other categories, either because they are unrecognizable or because they are recognizable but unique.[28]

Preservation efforts

Historic graffiti dated 1859. It was drawn with a chunk of dry ochre, as opposed to being painted like the prehistoric pictographs.[29]
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (February 2024)

Beginning in 2004, the TVA partnered with the University of Tennessee's Archaeological research team to document and research Painted Bluff. They discovered that both natural weathering and human activities were damaging the rock art and the site. There was extensive graffiti on the walls of the cliff, more of which continued to appear over the years. The site was also being damaged by rock climbers, who were driving steel anchors into the fragile surface of the cliff and writing climbing routes onto the walls of the rock.[30]

In 2013, the Alabama Historical Commission listed Painted Bluff as one of its Places in Peril.[31][32] In early 2014, a project took place to remove the graffiti from the site. During this project, as many as 122 different instances of graffiti were removed or camouflaged.[33] Historic graffiti older than 50 years was left in place, which was required by the National Historic Preservation Act.[34]

In 2016, the project of preservation and graffiti removal at Painted Bluff received the Chairman's Award for Achievement in Historic Preservation from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.[35][36]

List of parties involved in preservation efforts

The following organizations and Native American tribes are involved with the preservation efforts at Painted Bluff:[37]


See also


  1. ^ There are also pictographs that depict humans with avian characteristics, however, those are categorized separately as anthropomorphs.[24]


  1. ^ a b "Painted Bluff". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey, United States Department of the Interior. Retrieved 2023-12-03.
  2. ^ Purdy, Michael (17 November 2014). "Professor Awarded for Prehistoric Rock Art Research". The university of Tennessee Knoxville News. Archived from the original on 8 March 2024. Retrieved 8 March 2024.
  3. ^ a b Simek et al. (2021), p. 157.
  4. ^ "Painted Bluff, Marshall County, c.1400 (Places in Peril 2013)". ALABAMA HERITAGE. The University of Alabama. Archived from the original on 23 March 2024. Retrieved 23 March 2024.
  5. ^ Kazek, Kelly (4 June 2013). "600-year-old cliff drawings, 200-year-old home listed as North Alabama Places in Peril (Odd Travels)". Advance Local. Archived from the original on 23 March 2024. Retrieved 23 March 2024.
  6. ^ Kazek, Kelly (4 June 2013). "5 things to know about the ancient cliff drawings on Marshall County's Painted Bluff (Odd Travels with photo gallery)". Advance Local. Archived from the original on 6 February 2024. Retrieved 6 February 2024.
  7. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 31.
  8. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 42.
  9. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 21–22.
  10. ^ Diaz-Granados et al. (2018), p. 171.
  11. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 53–54, 130.
  12. ^ a b Simek et al. (2021), p. 55.
  13. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 130.
  14. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 53–54.
  15. ^ a b Simek et al. (2021), p. 55; Diaz-Granados et al. (2018), p. 172.
  16. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 78.
  17. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 78–79.
  18. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 54, 78.
  19. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 93.
  20. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 95–96.
  21. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 98.
  22. ^ a b Simek et al. (2021), pp. 99–100.
  23. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 98–99.
  24. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 99.
  25. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 99–101.
  26. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 98–99, 109.
  27. ^ a b Simek et al. (2021), p. 109.
  28. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 123.
  29. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 155–156.
  30. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 160–161.
  31. ^ "ALABAMA'S MOST ENDANGERED SITES FOR 2013" (PDF). Alabama Historical Commission. 2013. p. 1. Archived (PDF) from the original on 24 November 2021. Retrieved 2 June 2022.
  32. ^ "Painted Bluff named one of AL's Places in Peril". WAFF 48. 1 June 2013. Archived from the original on 4 December 2023. Retrieved 4 December 2023.
  33. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 165.
  34. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 162.
  35. ^ Purdy, Michael (1 December 2016). "Joint Prehistoric Rock Art Restoration Project Receives National Award". The University of Tennessee Knoxville News. Archived from the original on 18 February 2024. Retrieved 18 February 2024.
  36. ^ "Preserving Places of Peril". Tennesse Valley Authority. Archived from the original on 8 October 2023. Retrieved 7 March 2024.
  37. ^ "106 Success Story: Tennessee Valley Authority Builds Coalition to Protect Indian Images" (PDF). Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. United States Federal Government. 2018. Archived (PDF) from the original on 29 January 2022. Retrieved 7 March 2024.
  38. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 17, 114.
  39. ^ Simek, Jan F.; Cressler, Alan; Herrmann, Nicholas P. (2013). "Prehistoric Rock Art from Painted Bluff and the Landscape of North Alabama Rock Art". Southeastern Archaeology. 32 (2). Taylor & Francis, Ltd., Southeastern Archaeological Conference: 218–234. doi:10.1179/sea.2013.32.2.004. ISSN 0734-578X. JSTOR 24780171. S2CID 129639226. Archived from the original on 2024-02-17. Retrieved 2024-02-17.
  40. ^ Simek et al. (2021), p. 116.
  41. ^ Diaz-Granados et al. (2018), p. 174.
  42. ^ Simek et al. (2021), pp. 123–124.