H.C. “Buddy” Brehm and Cave of the Medallions

Sometimes it seems as if life is about the inadvertent accumulation of assorted junk in the drawers, cabinets, closets, attics, and garages of our homes. One member of our household has been cleaning out these spaces and sorting through the accumulated junk to identify throwaways and keepers.  Sometimes I am required to issue a ruling on whether certain items should be kept or thrown away.

Three such items landed on the desk in my upstairs library this evening: an old receipt for picture framing, a hand-written cover letter from Dave McMahan in Alaska (accompanied by a small vial of crude oil from the famous Exxon Valdez oil spill where Dave had to do shoreline CRM for the cleanup effort), and an empty envelope that once contained a letter from my old and dear friend H.C. “Buddy” Brehm.  I will keep the letter from Dave—and I will especially keep the old envelope from Buddy Brehm and put it in a scrapbook one day.

Buddy Brehm was a very special person and one of the nicest, kindest, and most helpful men who ever lived.  He had a passion for Tennessee archaeology that surpassed anything I ever saw in my college years at The University of Tennessee (Knoxville). Buddy lived at 5311 Indiana Avenue in Nashville.  Although he worked at a blue collar job on assorted shifts, he devoted much of his free time to archaeological work. His base of operations was a small, concrete-block outbuilding in the backyard of his home. Basically, he had converted it into a combination office, library, and archaeology laboratory.  I visited him at his home office only one time, but I was impressed by his conversion of this outbuilding for archaeological purposes.  His Nashville area archaeological work through the Southeastern Indian Antiquities Survey, Inc.  (SIAS) is now legendary and well documented, so there is no need to go into any of that here.

Buddy was always enthusiastic about anything archaeological in nature, and he assisted me and Dave McMahan with some archaeological work at the Cave of the Medallions near Smyrna, Tennessee, in the early 1980s.  Between 1955 and 1962, some person(s) had entered this small cave and applied colorful paintings of ancient bison and human figures to the walls and ceiling of this cave with black and red paints. Dave and I worked the purely archaeological angle on these paintings, confirmed that no prehistoric artifacts were present in the soil of the cave floor, determined that the paintings were fakes, and performed some research to frame the period of time when the paintings were applied to the walls and ceiling of the cave. One key question that intrigued us was: “Who did these cave paintings?”  Dave and I were living in Knoxville at the time and could only come to the Nashville area to deal with this cave in short spurts, usually incidental to visiting our family members in the area.  We knew that tracking down the cave-painting artists would be difficult and would require some significant and extended research (including personal interviews) in the Nashville-Murfreesboro-Smyrna area. Because Buddy lived in the area, he was really interested in that question, fired up to do the research, and ready to chase down the elusive artists, so we encouraged Buddy to run with it to the best of his ability.

In the meantime, Dave went off to do archaeology in Alaska, and I lost total interest in Tennessee archaeology and archaeology in general—and dropped completely out of the archaeological realm.  A couple of years passed by, and I just assumed that Buddy had abandoned his chase to find the cave artists just as I had left archaeology far behind. I was wrong. Buddy had been diligently chasing the artists down for a couple of years in his spare time. To the best of my recollection, I received a letter from Buddy in 1984, and it said that he was almost certain he had identified the person(s) who did the paintings in the Cave of the Medallions. I think that letter arrived in the old envelope that was placed on my desk this evening. Buddy did not name the artists in his letter, but he did ask me to call him by telephone so we could talk about it. He apparently did not want to name the identified artists on paper in his letter for fear of potential legal ramifications.  Because I had left archaeology far behind, I no longer had any interest in the subject and did not immediately call Buddy—a matter that I really do regret today.

My last contact with Buddy was a telephone call that I made to his home years later.  Some part of me was getting interested in Tennessee archaeology again, and I may have been calling to follow up on that old letter about the cave paintings. I expected the friend that I had known for years to pick up the telephone in his usual happy mood, but it was not to be.  Buddy was already very, very sick and going into kidney failure. He was clearly too sick to talk archaeology and remember factual details from a small project done years before that moment, so we just exchanged some small talk about his health condition and a few related matters. He was only strong enough to talk for a few minutes.  Buddy was gone forever soon after that.

It was my understanding that Buddy was donating some of his archaeology files to the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville. If this was actually done  after his death, he may have included the names of the cave-painting artists he had identified in those files somewhere. If anyone at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (like Suzanne Hoyal) is ever interested in looking through what Buddy donated, there may be an old file folder marked as “Cave of the Medallions” or just “Cave Paintings.”  The names of the artists he had identified would most likely be in those files.

I really miss Buddy Brehm, and this old envelope that showed up on my desk this evening makes me miss him even more. Those of us who knew Buddy are a lot older now than we were back then.  A number of his old SIAS friends have died over the years, and I am not at all sure how many people who called Buddy friend and actually interacted with him face-to-face in his active years are still alive.  I am one of those people.  The only others I know about for sure are John Dowd, Charlie Faulkner, Kevin Smith, Mack Pritchard, Joe Benthall, Dave McMahan, Sam Smith, and  John Broster. For those of you who never met Buddy or never had a chance to work with him, you missed out on knowing a wonderful person with a real passion for Tennessee archaeology.  He was one of a kind. So, when you pick up a copy of one of his old Mini-Histories booklets or a journal article with his name on the “by line,” please pick it up with reverence for a person who (out of his own pocket and the goodness of his heart) contributed much to the archaeology of the Nashville area at a time when little professional archaeology (in the modern sense) had ever been done in that region. Buddy was not an artifact collector. He was a largely self-taught avocational archaeologist of the highest caliber, and I would even go so far as to include him with the likes of Glenn Black and Ellison Orr.

If you ever want to visit the Cave of the Medallions and take in some well-done Faux Lascaux, the paintings are most likely still there. In the early 1980s, the bison painting on the ceiling near the entrance was still in excellent condition, but the second bison painting on the right cave wall was eroding some and might not be as visible today. The human figure paintings and a couple of other painted images are relatively small compared to the bison paintings, and they are located on the lower left wall near the second bison painting. Most people who enter this cave miss those because you have to squat down to see them.

The location of the Cave of the Medallions and some of its history are presented  in Thomas Barr’s famous book entitled Caves of Tennessee, which is available on the shelves of many public libraries in Tennessee.  Under Tennessee state law, you will need landowner permission to visit the Cave of the Medallions, and if the owner does allow you access, please do not visit this cave after dark. In 1981, the trail to this cave was not easy to see in places, even in daylight, and it went through a minefield of small, circular, open, and quite deep limestone solution cavities. Falling into one of these cavities would be like falling into an early 19th century water well, and your survival would be in significant doubt. You can see these solution cavities easily in daylight and avoid a life-threatening accident.

Please be advised that these cave paintings are more than 50 years old now, and they technically qualify as cultural resources—meaning that even though they are fakes—they are now officially an interesting and valuable portion of the unique history of this cave.  Do not touch these paintings or mess around with them in any way. Use your eyes only, and let your only souvenir be a few photographs of the paintings and cave interior. In addition, please bear in mind that all Tennessee caves and their contents (including these fake cave paintings) are officially protected under Tennessee state law.  You can read up on the Tennessee cave laws and the associated criminal penalties at the following link:

http://www.southeasternoutdoors.com/outdoors/caving/tennessee-cave-law.html

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