TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama’s Office of Archaeological Research, in partnership with several federal and state agencies and Indian tribes, received a national award for efforts in saving a set of centuries-old Native American petroglyphs, pictographs and historic signatures in Alabama.
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s Chairman’s Award for Achievement in Historic Preservation was presented Wednesday at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
The project brought together the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Alabama Historical Commission, 15 federally recognized Indian tribes, researchers and volunteers from UA’s Office of Archaeological Research and the University of Tennessee, and local volunteers to camouflage and remove graffiti that had impacted the images located at the Painted Bluff site in Marshall County, just to the west of Guntersville Dam, on land owned by TVA.
“The prehistoric artwork was in danger of being lost,” said Matt Gage, director of UA’s Office of Archaeological Research. “The graffiti was covering the artwork and damaging it … TVA wanted to protect that artwork.”
In 2004, archaeologists from the University of Tennessee visited the site and began to document the range of images. The team found more than 80 images on the cliffs, dating back 600 years – making it one of the country’s most significant rock art treasures.
The team also found Painted Bluff was under threat from natural weathering and damage caused by graffiti, rock climbing and vandalism, despite the site being protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and being eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Thus, in 2013 the Alabama Historical Commission named Painted Bluff to its “Places in Peril” list, which highlights the most significant endangered landmarks in the state.
In 2014, TVA hired consultant Johannes Loubser and his firm Stratum Unlimited to study the site. Loubser’s report recommended a multifaceted approach to resolving the problems, including removal and camouflaging of the existing graffiti, along with more public involvement and outreach.
TVA next consulted with the Alabama Historical Commission and 15 federally recognized Indian tribes on restoration of the petroglyphs and pictographs. The tribes recommended that artwork impacted through natural means be left alone, and that the focus should instead be on ongoing human impacts to the site – in particular, those caused by rock climbing.
Any dates or names 50 years or older were left in place pending further archival research, while any disturbance less than 50 years old was removed or camouflaged. Ultimately, graffiti was removed or camouflaged from more than 120 different surfaces at the site.
TVA also collaborated with Southeastern Climbers Coalition to close climbing routes located along the bluff. The Coalition created signs alerting climbers of the closures.
“The Painted Bluff project fulfills a number of the objectives we honor through the Chairman’s Award, including the rehabilitation and stewardship of historic resources, as well as the public involvement of partners and stakeholders in preserving those resources,” said Milford Wayne Donaldson, chairman, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
“Preserving the prehistoric artwork was a priority for OAR and UA,” Gage said. “We took that responsibility very seriously and are lucky to have had the opportunity to work with the other partners.”
The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.