Summer in Saltville
JOHNSON CITY (June 5, 2017) – East Tennessee State University paleontologists are returning today to Saltville, Virginia, for three weeks of excavations in the Ice Age fossil site, which is marking its centennial of scientific research.
ETSU has been involved in excavations at the historic fossil site since 2003, according to Dr. Blaine Schubert, an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences and executive director of ETSU’s Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology at the Gray Fossil Site and Museum.
Saltville, named for its salt deposits, was known for its paleontological significance since at least the time of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote about the large bones discovered there, Schubert said.
One hundred years ago, in 1917, the first scientific publication on Saltville occurred following a large collapse in the valley well fields at Well 69. This collapse, Schubert explained, exposed a number of fossil bones and prompted a visit from a Carnegie Museum scientist, who followed up with a publication describing a number of animals, including giant ground sloth, mastodon, horse and stag-moose, which went extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago.
Since 1917, numerous institutions have been involved in studying fossils from Saltville. Led by Schubert, ETSU and its natural history museum have been curating fossils from Saltville since 2008, working closely with the Museum of the Middle Appalachians. The university has accumulated a significant collection of these, some of which are on exhibit at the Gray Fossil Site and Museum.
“Our excavations in Saltville provide multiple opportunities for research, teaching and outreach,” Schubert said. “From a research and teaching standpoint, it allows students, staff and faculty to study a site that is a very different age and setting than that at the Gray Fossil Site.
“As a team, we examine and study the fossils to learn more about these giants of the past. We use multiple tools to establish their diets, life stories and environment. All of this allows us to better understand their changing world, and their extinction.”
ETSU’s current focus at Saltville is the short-faced bear and proboscideans, or elephant-like animals.
“For a number of years, we have been tracking the remains of a giant short-faced bear at Saltville,” Schubert said. “These bears were up to 5.5 feet at the shoulder when on all fours. To get a better idea of their size, folks can visit the Gray Fossil Site and Museum, where an exhibit has one standing on its hind legs.
“The Saltville bear remains are scattered over a large area, but are incredibly well-preserved. We hope to find more this year, and one of our goals is to obtain material retaining ancient DNA. We recently learned that mastodon teeth we recovered from the same area are yielding high-quality genetic information, so we have higher hopes for the bear now.”
Today, the ETSU crew will pump down the pit in which it will be working, which is located along the Helen Barbrow trail in Saltville. Excavation work will take place June 6-9, 12-14 and 19-22 before the team packs up to head back to East Tennessee on June 23.
Visitors to the ETSU dig site are welcome during the regular excavation hours of 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Visitors may stop at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians, 123 Palmer Ave., Saltville, where staff will provide direction to the dig area.
In addition to research and excavation activities, ETSU will host a kids’ dig at the Saltville site on Saturday, June 10. Information and registration materials are available from the Museum of the Middle Appalachians on the web at www.museum-mid-app.org or by phone at 276-496-3633.A special tour for visiting paleontologists is also planned for Saturday, June 17.