History, Salt, and MASTODONS!!!

[It has been a long time since my last post. As many of you know, a lot has happened in the last two years. Most significantly, we moved from the Illinois State Museum to East Tennessee State University. I’ve wondered whether the concept of this blog still applies in our new environment. Excavations over the last few weeks have re-assured me, it does. Hopefully many more will follow]

2017-06-23 09.29.03

Gratuitous picture of a Saltville mastodon tooth.

Last Friday we wrapped up three weeks of excavations in Saltville, VA. This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, we’ve been working in this locality within the valley for a number of years. To date, we have found a variety of large Pleistocene fauna that include: Mastodon (Mammut), Mammoth (Mammuthus), Short Faced Bear (Arctodus), Stag Moose (Cervalces), and Helmeted Muskox (Bootherium). However, there is another, deeper layer of ecosystem understanding to be had at the site. Also present are the remains of beetles and insects, plenty of plant remains, large dung boluses (mastodon?), possible footprint casts, and the bones of small mammals, fish, and amphibians. This is a rich site, and despite having worked the area for the last decade(+) we still have many questions that drive research forward.

Well #69. Mathieson Alkali Works, Saltville VA.

Collapsed well where remains of extinct fauna were found in 1917. O.A. Peterson.

However, there is a second reason why Friday was significant, it marked the centenary of scientific research conducted in the valley. In June of 1917 a well collapse prompted a call to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh PA with a report of large bones. On the 23rd of June, O.A. Peterson responded, collecting bits and pieces of mastodon (from adult molars, to tiny juvenile chin tusks), giant ground sloth, stag moose, and horse. Although bones of extinct species had been documented in the valley before (most notably in Thomas Jefferson’s natural history classic, “Notes on the State of Virginia“), this was the first time these remains were collected and ultimately deposited in a museum for scientific study (Peterson, 1917).

See Peterson’s paper here: https://archive.org/stream/annalsofcarnegie11carn?ui=embed#mode/1up

At the time, this was a one-off find. However, industrial-scale salt mining continued, and bones of Pleistocene fauna continued to be found. Researchers from Virginia Polytechnic (now Virginia Tech) and the Smithsonian Institution followed up on Peterson’s work in the 1960s with a multi-disciplinary project to examine not only the large fauna from the valley, but also also in-depth discussions of the vegetation history (via pollen analyses) and geology.  This project also added mammoths, caribou, and bison (although not directly from excavated deposits) to the list of taxa from the valley.

Beginning in the 1970s an Abingdon (VA) geologist, Charlie Bartlett, became interested in the Saltville area. Bartlett taught geology at the nearby Emory & Henry University, where he and his students developed an interest in mastodons. Excavations in 1980-81 undertaken in collaboration with Jerry McDonald (then at the Smithsonian) recovered a partial skeleton of a male muskox. This study remains an intriguing venture into the taphonomy (e.g., carnivore modification) of extinct large herbivores in the valley. It also presents a modern take on valley geomorphology, suggesting major late Pleistocene changes occurred in the hydrology of the valley (Bartlett and McDonald, 1983).


Vertebral column of Saltville Muskox. From McDonald and Bartlett, 1983.

Jerry McDonald continued regular field excavations in the valley through the 1980s and 1990s. During this time, we learned more about the vertebrate paleontology (McDonald, 1986), paleohydrology (McDonald, 1985), and paleoecology (McDonald, 1984; Delcourt and Delcourt, 1986) of the valley, ultimately culminating in a detailed report of excavations, with the blockbuster conclusion that the Saltville valley was home to Pre-Clovis groups over 14,000 years ago (McDonald, 2000). Although still highly debated, McDonald’s work had a lasting impact on the local community. Through his efforts to promote the importance of the site, the Museum of the Middle Appalachians (or “MOMA”) was formed, and currently occupies a building on main street, only blocks from the well fields. Today, MOMA interprets valley history, from the Ice Age through the modern age. This small-town hub was home to extinct beasts, but was also “Salt Capital of the Confederacy” during the Civil War (2 battles were fought here), and a significant source of industrially-mined salt since the 1880s.

Subsequent paleontological work in the valley was performed by Ralph Eshelman (1999-2003), and beginning in 2003, Steven Wallace (ETSU). The Center of Excellence in Paleontology at ETSU (primarily under the direction of Blaine Schubert, but also including Jim Mead, Brian Compton, and now–me) continues to conduct excavations in the Saltville valley. The theme of large mammal taphonomy continued in 2009 when Schubert and Wallace reported a scavenged mammoth carcass from the valley. Recent research has focused on the paleoecology of deposits in localities in the central part of the valley (forthcoming).

But the last 3 weeks were my FIRST sustained visit to Saltville. This small community tucked away in a narrow valley in the southern uplands of Clinch Mountain VA is unique. The folks that live here are connected to their history, and protective of their rich paleontological heritage. They value the museum and have invested heavily in presenting the history of the valley in a rich, multi-facetted way. Every day we were on-site we had a slow but constant flow of visitors asking about the most recent finds and chatting about new questions we were chasing answers to. For example, when we told them about the potential for DNA recovery from mastodon teeth in the underlying gravels, they asked follow-up questions about implications for late Pleistocene extinctions and modern elephant conservation. These folks are very engaged, and a pleasure to work with. We couldn’t continue what we do without them.


Blaine Schubert discussing recent Saltville research with 2017 SEAVP attendees.

This summer, to some degree, also offered a taste of the future. Bernard Means (Virginia Commonwealth University–Virtual Curation Lab) spent a few days on-site 3D scanning specimens in the museum, offering a high-tech view of the future of collections (a statement that should be punctuated by lasers). Staff from the Virginia Museum of Natural History were on-site for many days to help with the excavation, showing the highly collaborative way that the modern sciences advance (and providing valuable regional context on the archaeology and geology to a Appalachian newbie such as myself). We hosted a field trip for paleontologists who were attending the Southeastern Association of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting at the Gray Fossil Site. We began to lay the groundwork for future spatial pyrotechnics (plans are to bring in the drones this fall) and isotopic work on the large fauna. And a very successful kids’ dig day points to the potential of more substantive collaborations with local educators.

Stay tuned. Despite 100 years of science in the valley, there are still plenty of questions to answer and things to do. Next year we’ll be back to begin the second century of paleontological science at Saltville!

Added bonus…an annotated 3D model of Saltville, locality SV5/7 as it appeared on the final day of excavations.


Cooper, B. N. (1964). New fossil finds at Saltville, Virginia. Mineral Industries Journal, 10(4), 1-3.

Jefferson, T. (1999). Notes on the State of Virginia. Penguin.

McDonald, J. N., & Bartlett Jr, C. S. (1983). An associated musk ox skeleton from Saltville, Virginia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 2(4), 453-470.

McDonald, J. N. (2000). An outline of the Pre-Clovis archeology of SV-2, Saltville, Virginia, with special attention to a bone tool dated 14,510 yr BP. Virginia Museum of Natural History.

McDonald, J. N. (1984). Paleoecological investigations at Saltville, Virginia. Current Research in the Pleistocene, 1, 77-78.

McDonald, J. N. (1985). Late Quaternary deposits and paleohydrology of Saltville Valley, southwest Virginia. Current Research in the Pleistocene, 2, 123-124.

Peterson, O. A. (1917). A Fossil-bearing Alluvial Deposit in Salt-ville Valley, Virginia. Carnegie Museum.

Ray, C. E., Cooper, B. N., & Benninghoff, W. S. (1967). Fossil mammals and pollen in a late Pleistocene deposit at Saltville, Virginia. Journal of Paleontology, 608-622.

Schubert, B. W., & Wallace, S. C. (2009). Late Pleistocene giant short‐faced bears, mammoths, and large carcass scavenging in the Saltville Valley of Virginia, USA. Boreas, 38(3), 482-492.


About cwidga

Chris Widga is a vertebrate paleontologist with the East Tennessee Museum of Natural History at the Gray Fossil Site. His research is focused on the ecology of Quaternary mammals (and increasingly, Neogene).

Posted on June 27, 2017, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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