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A Missouri cave containing Native American artwork dating back more than 1,000 years was auctioned on Tuesday, disappointing Osage Nation leaders who hoped to purchase the land to “protect and preserve our most sacred site.”

A bidder has agreed to pay US $ 2.2 million to private owners for what is known as the “Picture Cave”, as well as the 43 rolling acres that surround it near the town of Warrenton, about 60 miles away. (97 km) West of St Louis.

Bryan Laughlin, director of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers, the St Louis-based company that manages the auction, said the successful bidder declined to be named. A family from St Louis who have owned the land since 1953 has mainly used it for hunting.

The cave was the site of sacred rituals and burial of the dead. It also has more than 290 prehistoric glyphs, or hieroglyphic symbols used to represent sounds or meanings, “making it the largest collection of full color paintings of native Missouri people,” according to the auction website.

Carol Diaz-Granados opposed the sale. She and her husband, James Duncan, spent 20 years researching the cave and wrote a book about it. Duncan is a specialist in Osage oral history and Diaz-Granados is an associate researcher in the anthropology department at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Auctioning a sacred American Indian site really sends the wrong message,” said Diaz-Granados. “It’s like auctioning off the Sistine Chapel.”

The Osage Nation, in a statement, called the sale “really heartbreaking.”

“Our ancestors lived in this region for 1,300 years,” the statement said. “It was our land. We have hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried in Missouri and Illinois, including Picture Cave. “

‘Heartbroken’ Native American Leaders Denounce Sale of Sacred Missouri Cave with Ancient Artwork |  Native Americans
The “image cave” was the site of sacred rituals and burial of the dead. It also features over 290 prehistoric glyphs. Photograph: Alan Cressler / AP

The cave features drawings of people, animals, birds and mythical creatures. Diaz-Granados said that various means were used to create art. Charred botanical material was used to draw. For a representation of a mythical being, the artist created a white figure by scratching the brown sandstone.

Diaz-Granados said the intricate details set the Missouri Cave apart from other sites with ancient designs.

“You get stick figures in other rock art sites, or maybe a little feather on the top of your head, or a figure holding a weapon,” she said. “But in Picture Cave, you get real details about the clothes, the details of the headdress, the feathers, the weapons. It’s really unbelievable.

Years ago, analytical chemists at Texas A&M used pigment samples to determine that designs were at least 1,000 years old.

The cave also has another story, Laughlin said. European explorers traveled in the 1700s and wrote the name of the ship’s captain and the names of some of the crew on the walls. It’s also the year-round home for endangered Indiana gray bats.

Laughlin said there are plenty of reasons to believe the cave will remain both protected and respected. On the one hand, he said, Selkirk checked out potential buyers, and then there’s the law.

Missouri’s revised law 194.410 states that any person or entity who “knowingly disrupts, destroys, vandalizes, or damages a marked or unmarked human burial site commits a Class D felony.” The statute also makes it a crime to profit from cultural objects obtained from the site.

Finally, there is the location.

“You can’t take a vehicle and just drive to the cave. You actually have to walk through the woods to higher ground and go through a three by three foot opening that is secured by the Missouri Historical Society with steel bars, ”Laughlin said.

Diaz-Granados hopes the new owner will donate it to the Osage Nation.

“It’s their cave,” she said. “It is their sacred sanctuary, and it should be theirs.”

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