Picture Cave, filled with ancient rock art drawings from the Osage Nation, sold at auction on Tuesday to an anonymous buyer over the objections of the current-day Osage Nation tribe.
The Missouri cave’s artwork dates back more than 1,000 years. An anonymous bidder pledged to pay $2.2. million for the cave and the 43 acres around it, which are located near Warrenton, about 60 miles west of St. Louis, the Associated Press reports.
The private owners selling Picture Cave are a St. Louis family who have owned the land since 1953 and had used it for hunting. A St. Louis-based auctioneer handled the sale, and the firm’s director said the winning buyer did not want to be named.
Osage Nation Decries Sale at Auction
Picture Cave boasts more than 290 prehistoric glyphs, which are hieroglyphic symbols that represent meanings or sounds. That makes it “the largest collection of indigenous people’s polychrome paintings in Missouri,” the auction website states.
But the cave also played host to burials and sacred rituals. And under Missouri law, it is a class D felony to knowingly disturb, destroy, vandalize or damage a human burial site. It is also a felony to profit off cultural artifacts from the site.
The auction house director told the AP that the cave will remain protected and respected under its new ownership. But that’s little comfort to present-day Osage Nation members.
Indeed, in a statement, the Osage Nation dubbed the sale “truly heartbreaking.”
“Our ancestors lived in this area for 1300 years,” the statement continued. “This was our land. We have hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried throughout Missouri and Illinois, including Picture Cave.”
“It is our ancestors who are buried there in that cave,” Osage Nation tribal historic preservation officer Andrea Hunter told CNN. She added, “It is our ancestors that created the images that are on the walls and conducted the rituals that took place. It is absolutely the most sacred site that we have. And it rightfully should be in our ownership.”
Scholars Say Cave’s History Is ‘Amazing’
Washington University research associate Carol Diaz-Granados, who along with her husband spent 20 years writing a book about the cave, opposed its sale at auction. Moreover, she argues the buyers should donate the cave to the Osage Nation.
“Auctioning off a sacred American Indian site truly sends the wrong message,” she told the AP. “It’s like auctioning off the Sistine Chapel.”
Diaz-Granados said the variety and the level of detail in Picture Cave distinguish it from other sites of ancient drawings. The cave’s glyphs feature people, animals, birds and mythical creatures. They were drawn with charred botanical material or formed by scraping off the brown sandstone to reveal white rock underneath.
“You get stick figures in other rock art sites, or maybe one little feather on the top of the head, or a figure holding a weapon,” Diaz-Granados explained. “But in Picture Cave you get actual clothing details, headdress details, feathers, weapons. It’s truly amazing.”
As if that weren’t historical enough, in the 1700s, European explorers wrote their names on the walls. And in the present, the cave also plays host to a colony of endangered Indiana gray bats.