Preserving Places of Peril

TVA receives recognition from the national Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for its work in restoring and protecting 500-year-old Native American cliff art in northeast Alabama.

In the 1400s, northeast Alabama was swathed in the shade of dense, old-growth hardwoods. This rich landscape, bountiful with flora and fauna, was the home of several Native Americans tribes who—like many other cultures—recorded their existence with art. “For hundreds of years, Native Americans in northern Alabama documented their lives with glyphs such as human figures, ovals and animal figures,” says Erin Pritchard, TVA archaeologist

Today we can see examples of these glyphs high among cliffs overlooking the Tennessee River in Marshall County, Ala. Archeologists like Pritchard believe that this site is one of the most significant open-air Native American rock art collections in the southeastern United States.

Known as Painted Bluff, this irreplaceable prehistoric art—and the hands that created it—dates back to roughly 1400 A.D.

“The site has more than 100 drawings in red, orange and yellow pigments,” Pritchard continues. “This art is an important part of early Native American culture because it connected individuals to their faith and to the nature they saw around them.”

Pritchard notes that cliff drawings like Painted Bluff are common in the western United States due to the dry climate. But, glyphs like this are much less common in the southeast because the heat and humidity erodes the drawings’ natural pigments over time. “Prehistoric glyphs are very special and rare in southeast Native American history,” she explains. “Therefore, preserving the Painted Bluff site is critical to preserving early American history.”

Protecting the Past

Graffiti, vandalism, rock climbing, along with natural weathering have taken a toll on the Painted Bluff glyphs. So much so that in 2013, the site was placed on the Alabama Historical Commission’s “Places in Peril” list.

To help protect the site from human activity, Pritchard explains, TVA initiated a preservation project to address existing and future site impacts: “We needed to do a lot of work to preserve the glyphs and address the layers of graffiti that were painted on the cliff face. So we brought in experts to help with the project.”

But before beginning the project, TVA engaged the Alabama Historical Commission (State Historic Preservation Office) and members of fifteen federally recognized tribes whose homelands are located in this region to ensure that cultural sensitivities were understood.

In fact, several tribal representatives have visited the Painted Bluff site. Emman Spain, current Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, shared during his first visit that the bluffs are “a beautiful site” and “awe-inspiring.” He went on to say that the tribes have lost a lot of their cultural continuity. At one time, tribal members probably knew these stories. “They knew why these paintings and things were on these cliffs,” he says. “It was important enough for somebody to risk their life…to get out there and paint these things. My ancestors are the ones responsible for this and it’s still here after hundreds of years.”

Once the consultation was completed, TVA brought in experts from the University of Tennessee, University of Alabama, Stratum Unlimited and Southeastern Climbing Coalition, to do the restoration work. After a month-long preservation process—carried out at times in inclement weather conditions—the team completed the removal of the graffiti in the summer of 2014.

“We carefully worked to protect the existing glyphs and either remove or cover graffiti to restore and preserve the site for future study,” Pritchard says. The site is also now monitored to help prevent vandalism.

National Recognition

TVA’s restoration project did not go unnoticed by preservationists. In fact, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), an independent federal agency that promotes the preservation, enhancement and productive use of our nation’s historic resources, recognized TVA and its partners for this outstanding preservation effort.

On November 30, 2016, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., the ACHP presented TVA with the Chairman’s Award for Achievement in Historic Preservation for the work done at Painted Bluff. This award recognizes stewardship projects that make significant contributions to historic preservation in conjunction with a federal entity or property.

TVA Chairman Joe Ritch accepted the award on TVA’s behalf. “TVA and its partners are very honored to receive this prestigious award for their work at Painted Bluff,” said Ritch upon receiving the award. “The cultural significance and rarity of this site makes Painted Bluff a priority for TVA’s archaeologists and historians, and its preservation is a testament to their mission of service to the people of the Valley.”

Pritchard, who managed the preservation effort, beamed: “It is an honor to be recognized by the Council and to work alongside very talented folks who labored tirelessly to preserve this important cultural and historic resource for generations to come.”

Public Support Needed

“Stewardship is part of TVA’s mission and sites like Painted Bluff are part of our national heritage,” Pritchard says. “You [the public] are our biggest asset when it comes to preserving and protecting these sites.”

Pritchard reminds people that the Archaeological Resource Protection Act makes it illegal to vandalize, or damage archaeological resources on federal land. This includes disturbing or removing any cultural items on TVA public lands.

Any type of vandalism or theft of archaeological resources should be immediately reported to local law enforcement.

As Emman Spain reminds us: “These sites are protected now and they will always be here for the rest of us to see, Indian and non-Indian both. You know, it’s part of American heritage now, so that’s great.”


Photograph courtesy of Alan Cressler.

TVA Archaeology

Realizing that the agency would reshape the landscape of the Tennessee Valley, TVA's founders made archaeology a priority from the very beginning. Today, TVA's cultural resources staff continues to help preserve and document historic sites owned or impacted by the agency. Learn more about archaeology at TVA.