Located along Cedar Creek, close to the spectacular Cedar Falls, Rockhouse Cave is a capacious south-facing shelter. Containing more than 100 pictographs and petroglyphs, this site has the largest known assemblage of rock art images in Arkansas.

The Arkansas Archeological Survey conducted test excavations at Rockhouse Cave in 1986 (Sabo 1987). These excavations yielded stone tools dating as far back as the Early Archaic Dalton culture, but more significant was the discovery of a trash-filled pit containing artifacts dating to the Middle Archaic period, along with an intact buried living surface containing Mississippi period artifacts along with preserved animal and plant remains. The Mississippi period (ca. AD 900-1500) occupation of the site is associated with the rock art.

Given the shelter’s size and the presence of contemporaneous occupation remains, it is possible that the rock art was produced in conjunction with community, rather than individual, observances, though in truth we cannot be certain about this. Differential weathering of the rock art images (some are rather faded and require special digital enhancement techniques for study) also indicates that the rock art was created during the course of repeated visits to the site.

We can sort rock art motifs that can be seen by the casual visitor into three groups. First, there are a number of geometric images. These include outlined single- and double-line squares, rectangles, diamonds, circles, and ovals. Diamond shapes with central dots (1, 2) resemble those found at Indian Cave. Double-line open cross and outlined interlocking scroll ("yin-yang") motifs are interpreted, respectively, as alternative representations of sacred center and portal concepts. There are also examples of horizontal and vertical lines, meandering lines, and hatch-mark lines. Apart from the sacred center and portal motifs, the referents or subject matter of most geometric motifs are difficult if not impossible to specify.

The next group consist of abstract motifs, defined as imagery more complex that simple geometrics but whose referent or subject is otherwise impossible to identify. Two of the most interesting examples each consist of a series of parallel wavy lines transected by a single perpendicular straight line. Another abstract motif consists of an open double-line curvilinear design that almost resembles the head of a ceremonial mace.

Naturalistic motifs consist of images that we can readily identify. These include turkey tracks, a human handprint, and animal paws. Identifiable animal depictions include a snake and a horned quadruped that might represent a bison, judging from the shape of the forward-looking head. A notable feature of this image is the series of striped lines lending a shaggy appearance to the body, which is drawn in profile. Perhaps the most intriguing naturalistic depiction of all is a juxtaposed pair of images: one very accurately depicts a paddlefish or spoonbill catfish (Polydon spathula), and just below it is an open-weave basketry fish trap. The catfish image is rendered in plan view, as one would actually observe the fish when peering down into the water. Another apparent depiction of a manufactured item—in addition to the fish trap—is a square mask, shown in frontal view, with eye markings, possible ear spools on the lower corners, and stylized feathers rising from the upper edge.

The subject matter of naturalistic imagery at Rockhouse Cave is fascinating, depicting familiar items including crafted items (mask and fish trap), animals and their tracks, and other living species including fish and snakes. Assorted abstract and geometric motifs likely has specific meanings of references that we cannot now identify. The sacred center and portal symbols support interpretation of the site as a place where ceremonies appealing to the unseen spirit world were conducted. The large size of the site and occupational debris preserved within the shelter floor sediments suggest that ritual performances likely involved a potentially number of participants. In sum, rock art at Rockhouse Cave, provides evidence of a symbolic marking or commemoration of community interaction with the land and its resources. Portal motifs add another layer of symbolism, and suggest that access to the spirit world was an important means to memorialize those relationships.

Petit Jean | Rock House Cave