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Keith Dotson | Catching Shadows

THE OFFICIAL BLOG OF FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHER KEITH DOTSON

Ancient America: Russell Cave, Alabama

Ancient America: Russell Cave, Alabama

Russell Cave’s vast quantity of artifacts span the entire record of Native American presence in the Southeast


This is part of a series about ancient sites in America that I have visited. To see them all, click on ‘Ancient America‘ on the home page sidebar.


Ancient people had a knack for living in places that were both practical and awe-inspiring. Russell Cave in the hills of northern Alabama, not far from Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a perfect example. Not only is the location beautiful, it was such a good source of food, water, and shelter, that it was favored by Native Americans across cultural eras and across the millennia. Those eons of occupation left a vast archeological record.

The yawning, black mouth of the cavern, surrounded by leafy woodlands in the base of a sinkhole, provided both long-term and temporary shelter for an ongoing series of people from at least 10,000 years ago until the late 1700s. It’s that continuous use across so many cultural eras that makes Russell Cave such a highly regarded archeological site.

The mouth of Russell Cave in Alabama. This cave has one of the most comprehensive archeological records across all periods of Native American cultural development in the US. Artifacts found span the 1800s to 10,000 years ago. Photograph by Keith Dotson.
The mouth of Russell Cave in Alabama. This cave has one of the most comprehensive archeological records across all periods of Native American cultural development in the US. Artifacts found span the 1800s to 10,000 years ago. Photograph by Keith Dotson.

Excavations in the 1950s-60s discovered two tons of artifacts — yes two tons! They found 100,000 items ranging from 1800s-era musket balls to 11,000-year-old stone tools — artifacts spanning every period of Native American cultural development: Paleo (10,000-14,500 years ago), Archaic (3,200-11,450 years ago), Woodland (1,000-3,200 years ago), Mississippian (500-1,000 years ago), and down to recent historic times (present day to 500 years ago).

Archeologists found charcoal remains from ancient cooking fires.

They also discovered 8,500-year-old human remains.

Video of Russell Cave National Monument

Walk with me at Russell Cave National Monument in Alabama

Visiting Russell Cave National Monument

The mouth of the cave opens into a silty bottom, where a stream trickles into it’s darkness, flowing 1.5 miles underground. On one side of the cave mouth, a large rock overhang covers the remains of an archeological dig. Evidence indicates that the cave was used mostly as a winter shelter in ancient times, and perhaps as an overnight cover for hunting parties in more recent times.

The entire area is preserved and protected as a National Monument. The Gilbert Grosvenor Visitor Center includes a small museum that features a handful of artifacts that were excavated by the Smithsonian Institution.

Admission is free.

Photograph of the Gilbert Grosvenor Visitor Center at Russell Cave National Monument in Alabama.
Photograph of the Gilbert Grosvenor Visitor Center at Russell Cave National Monument in Alabama.
The view of the northern Alabama hills that surround the location of Russell Cave. Photograph by Keith Dotson.
The view of the northern Alabama hills that surround the location of Russell Cave. Photograph by Keith Dotson.

The view of the cave is easily accessible on a very short boardwalk, less than a quarter-mile long. For safety reasons, there are no tours and access to the cave is forbidden.

View of Russell Cave from the boardwalk. The walk to the cave is short -- less than a quarter mile. But the cave itself is not accessible.
View of Russell Cave from the boardwalk. The walk to the cave is short — less than a quarter mile. But the cave itself is not accessible.

On the day I visited, I was the only person in the park. Standing on the modern boardwalk staring into the blackness of the cave, it’s easy to imagine the spirits of ancients around you. It’s quiet there, but not silent. The trees rustle with the breeze. Acorns, nuts, leaves, and pieces of dead branch fall from the trees onto the boardwalk. Critters rustle in the undergrowth. A bald eagle sailed through the dappled sunlight up the river bed somewhere out of sight.

Signage tells the archeological story of Russell Cave, from the very old Paleo era down to the historic era at the time of European occupation.
Signage tells the archeological story of Russell Cave, from the very old Paleo era down to the historic era at the time of European occupation.
The remains of an archeological dig site under the rock overhang near the mouth of the cave at Russell Cave National Monument. Photograph by Keith Dotson.
The remains of an archeological dig site under the rock overhang near the mouth of the cave at Russell Cave National Monument. Photograph by Keith Dotson.

Black and white photograph of Russell Cave

My purpose of visiting was to make black and white photographs of the cave. Woodlands photography is one of the most difficult in my opinion. The deep shadows and bright highlights test the dynamic range of even the best sensors, and the breeze-blown leaves blur at long higher apertures like f.11.

Fine art prints are available. Click the photograph to learn more (takes you to the e-commerce page on my main website).

Fine art photograph of the large mouth Russell Cave, and archeological gem in northern Alabama. Photograph by Keith Dotson.
Fine art photograph of the large mouth Russell Cave, an archeological gem in northern Alabama. Click to buy a fine art photograph.

Thanks for reading!

Be sure to visit me on FacebookGoogle+ or Pinterest, or on my website at keithdotson.com.

~ Keith

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