Recent Vandalism in Samuel's Cave

Recent Vandalism at Samuels Cave, Western Wisconsin.

Robert Ernie Bozehardt

 Samuels Cave (47Lc-5) was one of the first rock art sites documented in the Upper Midwest and certainly the first site with archaeological excavation in the unglaciated Driftless Area of western Wisconsin.  The small fisher-cave, formed in sandstone in a small valley, or coulee, was discovered in 1978.  At that time the entrance was nearly sealed, and numerous petroglyphs were observed.  The Wisconsin Historical Society was notified and the following year authorized a team to investigate.  The glyphs were traced, and the floor of the cave excavated.  Published accounts in the Wisconsin Historical Collections and local papers describe four stratified layers and the recovery of shell-tempered pottery that is now recognized as distinctive of the Oneota Culture (ca. A.D. 1200-1700). The glyphs were primarily carvings, and included several bison, antlered deer or elk, birds, humans, and a variety of abstract motifs. The bison images were almost certainly made by the Oneota artists.

 Immediately after its discovery, and probably accelerated by the publicity, Samuels Cave began to be marred by historic graffiti.  In addition, the entrance had been opened for the excavations, allowing freeze thaw cycles to more dramatically affect the sandstone walls. Consequently, the cave entered a period of substantial decline that persisted throughout the 20th century.  During this period, the site was visited in the 1880’s by mound and rock art surveyor Theodore Lewis of the Northwest Archaeological Survey, and in the late 1920's by members of the Milwaukee Public Museum expedition to western Wisconsin.  The Museum crews took several photographs of chalked carvings.

 In the 1980's, archaeologists with the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center (MVAC) at nearby University of Wisconsin-La Crosse visited Samuels Cave and noted extensive damage.  At that time, the site was an active teen party hangout, and was littered with cans and old furniture brought in from a nearby town dump.  In addition, portions of the walls were exfoliating, including a massive slump along the south wall that took several pictographs.  The walls were nearly covered with graffiti, yet several of the Native glyphs were located based on the 1879 tracings. In addition, a panel of previously unknown charcoal paintings was discovered in the rear of the cave.  Cindi Stiles, then at MVAC, summarized the history of the site and published photographs of the pictographs in her 1987 summary of coulee region rock art sites.   The site was also listed on the National Register at that time.

 During the 1993 flood of the Mississippi River, the water table in the cave rose to levels not previously seen, and covered the lower portion of the pictograph panel. That winter, with the cave entrance still open, the raised water froze solid, exerting pressure against the already fragile walls.  Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Administration were sent to assess the condition of National Register sites affected by the flood and, following a visit to Samuels Cave, agreed to provide funding to undertake a formal recordation of the condition of the site as well as construct a gate to restrict access while stabilizing the climate.

 In 1994, Claire Dean was brought in to more formally assess the condition of the site and offer recommendations.  Subsequently, Jannie Loubser of New South Associates directed the recordation efforts.  Loubser and a team from MVAC pumped the raised water from the cave and mapped and photographed the site, preparing a report of investigation.  Afterward, MVAC coordinated with the new private landowner, who is also a carpenter, to design and install a gate.  The gate was constructed of treated wood that was scribed to the exact dimensions of the opening, and insulated with foam board on the inside.  A hidden door allowed periodic access for monitoring.   In addition, noxious vegetation including multiflora rose, was planted along the trail between the town dump and the site to hinder visitation.

 The plantings did not take, and unfortunately the site is opposite a hill from the landowner's house, preventing continuous surveillance.  Nonetheless, the gate remained in place until the summer of 2001.  A visit last autumn found that the gate had been smashed in, using an axe.  The lumber had been haphazardly strewn about inside, and several beer cans and evidence of recent fires was observed.  The sheriffs department was notified, but no suspects have been identified.

 Although much of the Samuel's Cave rock art was previously damaged or obliterated by graffiti and freeze thaw, significant glyphs remain.  These include several carvings, including a human with a headdress (shaman?) and the charcoal drawings that include a zoomorphic human and a bison. Plans now call for fund raising to re-establish a more secure gate (such as the welded steel one installed at Tainter Cave) and to obtain AMS samples from the charcoal drawings.

Printed in the Eastern States Rock Art Association newsletter 2003

Example of rock art from Tainter (Tombstone) cave