Researchers discover giant bear, other Ice Age fossils in Saltville

The long sought-after rock, with a cast of the short-faced bear jaw lying next to it.

JOHNSON CITY (July 17, 2013) – East Tennessee State University paleontologists recently returned from conducting excavations at an Ice Age fossil site in Saltville, Va., where they rediscovered the location of a giant short-faced bear that researchers had been trying to relocate, leading to the discovery of more of the creature’s remains.

The university-led excavations have focused on two areas of the site, one of which held a mammoth skeleton that was heavily scavenged and gnawed on by large carnivores. The second area contained a wide variety of fossils, ranging from giant short-faced bears to tiny salamanders and from musk-oxen to huge mammoths.  This wide variety of fossils gives researchers a more detailed picture of what the southern Appalachians were like at the very end of the last Ice Age, which was a time when climates were changing dramatically, people were just becoming established on the continent, and the megafauna, or large animals, were on the verge of extinction.  

One of the most significant finds for the ETSU team was a simple rock, since in 2000 a giant short-faced bear jaw was recovered by another excavation team, and the location information for the dig, and the jaw, were lost.  However, a picture existed of the jaw sitting next to a specific rock, and the general area where the rock was located was known. After much searching for the past five years, the exact rock was rediscovered this year and the research team was able to put a cast of the jaw back in place and map it.  As a result, paleontologists were able to continue the excavations in that area and recover more of the short-faced bear skeleton, including teeth.  Scientists expect future digs to uncover much more.

The ETSU research team consists of Dr. Blaine Schubert, Dr. Jim Mead and Brian Compton.  Schubert is the director of the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology, director of the ETSU and General Shale Natural History Museum, and an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences. Mead is professor and chair of the Department of Geosciences and a curator at the museum.  Compton is a surveyor and preparator at the museum. 

The researchers were accompanied by ETSU’s Sandra Swift, museum research technician, who oversaw the screenwashing activities; ETSU graduate students; other museum staff; students from other universities; and volunteers from as far away as New York state.  In addition, the ETSU Governor’s School visited the site one day to participate in the excavations, and there was a one-day Paleo Camp for kids, which was overseen by Sarah Mullersman, museum education and exhibit coordinator.

Schubert has led excavations at Saltville since 2008, after a curation agreement was developed between the town and ETSU.  ETSU maintains two major excavations, Saltville (which ranges in age from 11,000 to more than 40,000 years old), and the Gray Fossil Site (which dates to 4.5 to 7 million years old). 

Fossils from the Saltville Valley have been known since the late 1700s, when Thomas Jefferson first wrote about the large animal remains recovered from there.  At that time, he thought that mammoths and other large creatures might still have been alive in western North America.  Though a number of paleontologists have conducted work in the valley over the years, very little has been published to this point and much remains to be learned.

The museum is now preparing an exhibit on recent Saltville discoveries.  More information on this exhibit and its opening date will be provided as it becomes available. 

The museum is open Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and is located 1.8 miles off Exit 13 on Interstate 26.  For more information, call (866) 202-6223 or visit
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