Following Prehistoric Footsteps

A Time Capsule Beneath the Ozarks

In April 1985, a landowner discovered Lon Odell Memorial Cave (LOMC) after a sinkhole collapse in a fallow field near Springfield, Missouri. Shortly after, members of the Ozark Highland Grotto (OHG) of the National Speleological Society were contacted to survey the cave. The sinkhole contains the only entrance into the cave, which is gated and locked with an installed 14-foot vertical culvert that leads to a small limestone ledge. From there, it is a 40-ft. descent into the talus cone.

1985 Cave Exploration Discoveries

During the 1985 survey, cavers realized they were not the first humans to enter LOMC. Exploring the new discovery, cavers found unshod human footprints, cougar tracks, bear tracks, bear beds and torch fragments deep within the cave Cavers acknowledged the activity must have been prehistoric, since the only entrance into the cave was the recently opened sinkhole. To prevent further damage, the OHG cavers flagged a trail throughout the cave.

To prevent further damage, the OHG cavers flagged a trail throughout the cave. Through contact with the late Dr. Ken Thomson, cavers Tom Dunham and Steve Ortner first documented the footprints and torch marks shortly after the entrance formed. There are roughly 20-25 unshod human foot impressions within the mud banks of LOMC, three of which are complete footprints.

Prehistoric footprint

Collecting Torch Samples and Gating the Cave

In 1986, Dr. Russ Graham and Jim Oliver of the Illinois State Museum visited the cave to collect torch remains for carbon dating, however, the torch samples collected were never tested. At the same time, Jon Beard and other Ozark Highland Grotto members gated the vertical pit on the surface.

Additional Sample Collections and Studies

George Crothers and P. Willey visited the cave in 1995 to study the footprints, torch marks, torch fragments and charcoal concentrations. In July of 2000, Dr. Jack Ray, Matt Forir and Dr. Gina Powell visited the cave to take photos and collect a small sample of torch remains for carbon dating. Matt Forir returned in 2001, to collect another sample of torch remains and conduct a .5 x .5 m test excavation near the probable prehistoric cave entrance, which is now sealed. Forir recovered part of an aquatic turtle shell and a burnt chert flake during excavations.

Carbon Dating Places LOMC in the Neosho Phase

The torch remains Jack Ray and Matt Forir collected in 2000 were sent to an Arizona lab for carbon dating and returned a date of 1435 A.D. The second sample Matt Forir gathered in 2001 was sent to the same lab with result of 1410 A.D. The 1435 A.D. and 1410 A.D. dates fall within the Neosho Phase (A.D. 1350-1600) which represents a temporary and intermittent occupation of the Southwest Prairie Region of Missouri during the Mississippian period. Were people entering the cave to hunt bear or etch images in the cave walls as part of a cermony?

Recent Research Yields More Findings

CAIRN’s involvement with Lon Odell Memorial cave began in 2008 when Jon Beard of the Springfield Plateau Grotto group contacted CAIRN about a cave near Springfield, MO that contained prehistoric footprints and had been investigated briefly by archaeologists in the 1980s and 1990s. CAIRN made the trip and checked it out. Not only did the cave contain footprints, but each new visit yielded more findings, including distinct torch marks, big cat tracks, bear claw marks, bear beds and most recently petroglyphs. Notably, the cave is designated as a research cave. All visits must be research oriented, guided and approved by the Springfield Plateau Grotto. Rock art expert (and MCKC member) Carol Diaz-Granados (Washington University) analyzed one of the petroglyphs in February 2009. According to Diaz-Granados, the image appears to represent an “underwater spirit,” which has been reported in other sites such as Picture Cave in eastern Missouri. According to Diaz-Granados, indigenous rock art images such as those in LOMC are also referred to as cat monster, underwater panther, uktena and paisa, finding a depiction of the supernatural creature in a wet cave is not unusual. Discovery of the underwater spirit petroglyph appears to point to a ceremonial use of the cave.

Advanced Scanning Equipment Field Tested in LOMC

In September of 2010, CAIRN teamed up with University of Kentucky College of Engineering staff who were developing advanced scanning equipment. The College was looking for a suitable location to perform a field trial of their equipment. LOMC made an excellent candidate. CAIRN applied for and received a grant through the Missouri Humanities Council/National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the visit by CAIRN and the U of K teams to visit the cave. Generously, the U of K team donated their time for the project. The team consisted of Dr. Laurence Hassebrook, Professor of Computer and Electrical Engineering at the University of Kentucky, Eli Crane, a graduate student at UK, Bill Gregory from the University of Kentucky Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, and Dr. Chris Begley, an archaeologist from Transylvania University in Lexington, KY. The team met with CAIRN archaeologists and cavers who would guide them in the cave.

New Technology Surpasses Caliper and Tape Measurements

The new equipment the University of Kentucky engineers designed uses an innovative ‘structured light illumination’ system, which projects a pattern on the target object using normal light. As the pattern is shifted and changed, changes in the appearance of the shadows are recorded on video. Using novel algorithms, the patterns are tracked as they move over the object and the shape of the object calculated to less than a millimeter. The degree of precision depends partially on the size of the area scanned, and can be as low as 15 microns, or 15/1000th of a millimeter. The distance between any two points is measured directly, so that accurate measurements to the limits of precision are possible – that is, distances can be measured to the tenth or even hundredth of a millimeter, depending on the scan. The new technology certainly surpasses any measuring technique using calipers or tapes. A high-definition color photo of the object is also taken and mapped onto the 3D surface, resulting in a 3D image that captures all the nuances of color and other attributes of the surface of the object. The goal of utilizing the scan technology in LOMC was to attain high-level detail of the features. The U of K team has used the technology in other archaeological settings. You can see examples of their work on their website.

Endless Applications for New Illumination Technology

The level of data obtained using structured light illumination technology could help set a precedent for studying and comparing archaeological features. Not only can the scans and 3D images pick up detail otherwise unseen by the naked eye, but 3D images and casts can also be generated for study. This type of evidence could be especially useful to collect data from fragile items or sites that exist in vulnerable locations. Application of the technology to rock art could be very useful and CAIRN is already exploring such opportunities for future research.

Lon Odell Cave Prehistoric Toe Scan Mold

To the left is an example of a toe scan mold that was made using the new light illumination technology.

Gathering evidence made possible through the light illumination system could be especially useful in collecting data from fragile items or sites that exist in vulnerable locations. Application of the technology to rock art could also be very useful and CAIRN is already exploring such opportunities for future research.

Lon Odell Memorial Cave a Protected Archaeological Site

The landowner, the caving community and C.A.I.R.N believe it is important to keep LOMC undisturbed and protected. As new technologies emerge or other researchers show interest, the cave will be available for future scientific investigation only. Lon Odell Memorial Cave is one of only eight known caves in the U.S. with prehistoric human footprints and is the only Missouri cave documented thus far with petroglyphs deep within the cave.

See Footsteps Into the World Beneath, a 30-minute documentary by Emmy-winning director Christian Cudnik, Watch the sequel Beyond the World Beneath, about the exploration of never before seen footage of prehistoric impressions on muddy ledges and lower passages.

Management of Lon Odell Memorial Cave

The Springfield Plateau Grotto(SPG) manages the cave for the owner. SPG members have assisted cave archaeologists and researchers on trips to field test the structured light illumination technology and for further studies since then.

The steep clay slope leading to the upper shelf is covered with prehistoric human footprints and bear claw marks. To preserve the prints on the slope leading to the upper shelf, researchers used a camera and light mounted on a wooden arm to get a look at the upper shelf. The surface of the shelf is covered with knee prints and other impressions.

Cave Archaeology Investigation Research Network

Founded in 2008, Cave Archaeology Investigation & Research Network (C.A.I.R.N.) is a state and federally recognized 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization. The organization’s mission is to research, document and protect archaeological sites within and surrounding caves and includes community outreach within the archaeological discipline. By making site visits, recording archaeological evidence and submitting all relevant data to the appropriate state historic preservation office, the group performs a public service. Based in St. Louis, CAIRN focuses its work on the states of Missouri and Illinois.

About the Author,

Susan Jansen began her archaeological career excavating at a field school at Cahokia Mounds World Heritage site in 2000. She went on to get her M.A. in Anthropology and worked for organizations such as, ITARP/ISAS, New Mexico State University and the National Park Service. Her interests include human osteological archaeology, perishable artifacts, cave ceremonialism and archaeological cave and rock shelter studies. For her Master’s project/thesis, Susan performed a re-survey and activity area analysis of the Pena Blanca Rockshelters in NM. She began caving soon after and realized that cave and shelter sites are often overlooked, which prompted her to collaborate on the founding of the non-profit group, Cave Archaeology Investigation and Research Network (CAIRN). Susan Jansen is Vice President of C.A.I.R.N.

If you have questions about our organization, would like a permit to visit an MCKC managed cave or need help managing a cave on your property, we invite you to contact us.