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Hunting scene painted on the wall of Picture Cave, Missouri, USA.       Source: Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers

Missouri’s Native American Picture Cave Has Sold for $2.2million

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To the dismay of the Osage Nation leaders, Missouri’s ‘Picture Cave’ has been sold at auction today and bought by an unnamed private bidder. The 43 acres of land in which the sacred cave lies went for $2.2 million.

Picture Cave is considered by leading archaeologists as “the most important rock art site in North America.” On September 14th, Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers  facilitated the sale of the land which includes the cave to the highest bidder. In a statement, the Osage Nation leaders called the sale "truly heartbreaking," reports The Associated Press, and Carol Diaz-Granados, a research associate in the anthropology department at Washington University in St. Louis who spent 20 years researching and writing about the cave said, ‘It’s like auctioning off the Sistine Chapel.’

The Osage Nation statement went on to describe how, "Our ancestors lived in this area for 1300 years. This was our land. We have hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried throughout Missouri and Illinois, including Picture Cave."

Some of the Picture Cave rock art is almost childish, as if it was sketched out by a child yesterday, has uncorrected C-14 date of AD 1000 +/- 100, Diaz-Granados et al. 2015. (Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers)

Picture Cave Is North America’s Most Important Rock Art Cave

In 1964, Jerry Vineyard, a cave specialist with the Missouri Geological Survey and Water Resources, first wrote about Picture Cave. Michael Fuller PhD, who has conducted research at the Picture Cave explains how Vineyard recounted that in 19th century the cave was called the “Bottomless Cave” because folklore maintained that a curious pit at the back of the cave “never yielded a sound when rocks were dropped down the shaft.” It later turned out that thousands of years of bat guano was muffling the sounds of falling rocks.

According to an article on the Kansas City website, archaeologist Carol Diaz-Granados, has spent several years studying the rock art on the walls of the cave. “We know it s not simple graffiti,” said Diaz-Granados who believes the ancient cultures were “trying to tell a story or an oral tradition.” And it was Diaz-Granados who said that “beyond any doubt this is the most important rock art site in North America.”

This Picture Cave rock art image is almost like a work of modern art. (Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers)

Dating and Understanding the Ancient Cave Pictures

In 2015 an entire monograph of the site was published. Professor Blankenship used SEM-EDS (Scanning Electron Microscope - Energy Dispersive X-ray spectroscopy) on six pigment samples. Then, in 2020, a team of archaeologists, including Michael Fuller, PhD, Neathery Fuller and Eric Fuller, accompanied by the landowner, his son and his grandson, applied pXRF (X-ray fluorescence) equipment and recorded video segments of the major ancient art panels. The dating results were crystal clear! Picture Cave holds the earliest arts from the Mississippian Period (1100-1541 AD), reports the Columbia Missourian.

The National Park Service website states that this period of time saw “the introduction of small projectile points, indicative of the use of the bow, and the use of new manufacturing techniques in ceramics.” These new technologies are depicted in the cave panels which show hunters and animals, as if the ancient people were celebrating their ingenuity in grand art works. But there are also abstract geometric forms, psychedelic in form, perhaps harking back to the visions and dreams of the shamanic classes who controlled this ceremonial site.

An ancient almost black and white rock art example at Picture Cave, Missouri. (Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers)

Is the Picture Cave Now in Danger?

Bryan Laughlin, director of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers claims that the cave should be in safe hands. He notes that Selkirk did not simply sell blindly to the highest bidder, but that potential buyers were vetted by the auctioneer firm.

The cave is also legally protected. The Associated Press notes: ‘Missouri Revised Statute 194.410 states that any person or entity that “knowingly disturbs, destroys, vandalizes, or damages a marked or unmarked human burial site commits a class D felony.” The statute also makes it a felony to profit from cultural items obtained from the site.’

What’s more, the cave is located in a pretty secluded spot. ““You can’t take a vehicle and just drive up to the cave. You have to actually trek through the woods to higher ground” Laughlin said.

And so the seller believes the cave is relatively safe. But obviously the disappointment of the Osage Nation is inevitable.

The number and variety of styles of the images is remarkable. (Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers)

The Columbia Missourian said “the quantity and complexity of the wall images, like the renowned depiction of Red Horn,” are unmatched compared to other prehistoric sites. This is why the auctioneers believed the ancient Native American sacred cave would fetch between one and three million dollars (854,000-2,560,000 Euros). And they were not wrong. It was thought that the rare bat species that inhabited the cave might bring the selling price down, and perhaps this is the reason the property sold for just above the middle ground of the estimate.

It remains to be seen who the new owners are and exactly what will happen to the cave. Diaz-Granados still hopes that the new owner will donate it to the Osage Nation.

“That’s their cave,” she said. “That’s their sacred shrine, and it should go back to them.”

Top image: Hunting scene painted on the wall of Picture Cave, Missouri, USA.       Source: Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers

Update: This article was updated on 27-9-2021 to correct the infrmation on the memebers of the team conductng the XRF analysis in 2020, and the source of the Jerry Vineyard account.

By Ashley Cowie


Diaz-Granados, Carol, Marvin W. Rowe, James R. Duncan, and John R. Southon, 2015. ‘ AMS Radiocarbon dates for Charcoal from Three Pictographs and their Associated Iconography. in Picture Cave’.  Edited by Carol Diaz-Granados, James R. Duncan, and F. Kent Reilly II. University of Texas Press, Austin.

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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