Digging up ancient history in Saltville

Digging up ancient history in Saltville

SALTVILLE, Va. - One would think after all this time that all the history about Saltville, Virginia would have been uncovered. Not true -- it's still being discovered one shovelful at a time.

Over the past week, a paleontological research dig has revealed pieces of history tens of thousands of years old.

It may be an odd place for a research dig, but a hole beside a picnic shelter in the Well Fields Recreation Area of Saltville is revealing quite a bit of history. Dr. Charles Bartlett, a geologist, first became interested in the late 1960s while teaching at Emory & Henry College. 

He had just missed a dig by the Smithsonian in 1967. "The only time that there was an excavation any earlier than that, that I could find in the literature, was where one of the salt wells here caved in and it exposed this river of gravel," Bartlett says.

That's what the volunteers are looking for -- that layer of gravel from an old river that flowed through here. Bartlett created a class of geologic history for students to gather some of what was in that gravel. "When we dug here in 1978 with Emory & Henry students we discovered that this gravel layer, rounded cobbles, and mixed in with it was pieces of ancient extinct animal bones," he said.

Like a mastodon kneecap and pieces of a tusk that had been created by man, and an ancient tool used to scrap skin from animals. "This was the first place we dug, and we found about four feet down that gravel layer that had been reported back in 1912 from that cave in," he says.

That's about where the dig is now, so each piece of what may appear to be a rock is cleaned and examined very carefully. 

An East Tennessee State University paleontologist from their Gray site will soon join the dig to help identify what might be found.

Who knows; a piece may end up in the Museum of the Middle Appalachians to help visitors learn about the history of this ancient place.

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