Painted Bluff is one of the most significant open air rock art sites in the Southeastern United States. It's red ochre paintings occupy a towering, 400-foot high limestone bluff with commanding views of the Tennessee River. For centuries the site has acted as a beacon drawing prehistoric and historic travels along the Tennessee River corridor. Although often marred by spalling and historic graffiti, the site contains over 80 individual images.
"Painted Bluff Towers of the Tennessee River"
One of the most impressive is a long serpentine red ochre painting that overlays a previous and very faded circle. On top of both the circle and the serpentine figure is a clear human form.
Carbon 14 analysis of a river cane torch recovered from the bluff yields an approximate date of AD 1400 and the assumption is that most of the older painting come from that era. However, the bluff is a conspicuous stopping point and passageway along the river corridor. Painting and drawing clearly continue into modern times.
Besides the serpentine painting, there are several prominent figures on the lower levels of the bluff.
Note the very fine lines of catfish whiskers coming from the head of this painting.
This anthropomorphic figure has distinctly hooped ears.
The site is owned and administered by the Tennessee Valley Authority and there is no convenient public access. We visited Painted Bluff to assess building a 3 dimensional model of the entire 400-foot tall bluff face. As you can see from the images and the model a portion of the lower panel below there is extensive spalling of the limestone. This is a natural weathering process and eventually, all the panels will disappear.
The TVA does a wonderful job of administering and caring for the site. In 2014 the TVA had all the modern graffiti removed to restore the site.