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Paleo Dig returning to Saltville with a few volunteer positions available

Paleo Dig returning to Saltville with a few volunteer positions available

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The 2015 Saltville Paleo Dig will be taking place the week of July 20-24. Dr. Charles Bartlett will direct the dig in an entirely new location, the Saltville Golf Course. An auger test in June located an ancient rocky river bed below the soft gray clay lying under the well-maintained and grass-covered fairway.

The site is near a drainage canal where local informants have said that many bones of Ice Age (Pleistocene Period) animals were found. This ancient river bed has been studied at different locations throughout the valley, producing fossil remains of a variety of now extinct animals and evidence of human existence over 10,000 years ago. Visitors are welcome at the Saltville Dig site, which is off Palmer Avenue on the golf course. The site will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. A few openings for volunteer diggers are available for those wishing to participate and assist Dr. Bartlett at the dig site. Volunteers must register by calling the Museum of the Middle Appalachians at 276-496-3633 or Dr. Bartlett’s office at 276-628-4136.

Saltville has long been noted for its Ice Age paleontological research. In 1782 explorer Arthur Campbell reported finding “bones of an uncommon size” and sent a large specimen tooth to President Thomas Jefferson, who described them in his Notes on Virginia. The first scientific excavation dates to June 23, 1917, when O.A. Peterson arrived in Saltville from the Carnegie Museum to examine the profile of a cave-in at the Mathieson Alkali Works’ salt well #69. The profile revealed a layer of rounded cobbles bearing bone fragments that Peterson identified as an ancient river course. From that layer of cobble he extracted and identified a crocodile tooth, a Megalonyx tooth, Equinae (horse) and Mastodon along with “fragments of jaws, portions of vertebrae, ribs, limb-bones, and foot bones.” During the 1960s’ interest in Saltville’s geology, archeology and paleontology was so great that VPI built a permanent field station for on-site classes. Since 1978 there have been intermittent excavations along the north side of the Saltville Valley by Smithsonian Institute, Virginia Museum of Natural History, Emory & Henry College, Radford University, Virginia Tech, East Tennessee State University, and others having considerable scientific success. Dr. Bartlett’s excavation planned for the week of July 20-24 will expand knowledge of this river’s contents to include the lesser studied southeast part of the Valley. 

The 2015 Saltville Dig is dedicated to Charlie Bill Totten, lifelong resident of Saltville, U.S. Army veteran, Virginia Tech alumni, Saltville tourism director, and a longstanding advocate of the archeological and paleontological history of Saltville. His years of interest in the Saltville digs helped to initiate and continue research of the history lying beneath the valley floor. His discovery of two Musk Ox vertebrae led to work with Dr. Jerry McDonald and the recovery of the nearly complete skeleton of the first such extinct animal so far found in the Saltville River bed. That dig site was continued by McDonald for his field classes at Radford College. Totten contacted Dr. Bartlett when he noticed the great specimen of a flint knife hide scraper that is believed to have come from McDonald’s pit and is likely a tool of the Paleo-Indian dating to 15,000 years ago. This find helps to prove early man was roaming the river’s shoreline during the last Ice age. Totten and his keen eye for artifacts and fossils will be missed by the students who “dig” Saltville’s history.

For more information about the dig and a map to the site or how to become a volunteer digger, individuals may contact the Museum of the Middle Appalachians in Saltville at 276-496-3633. The museum is open daily 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and Sunday 1-4 p.m. Individuals may also inquire with Dr. Charles Bartlett, dig supervisor, at his office at 432 East Main Street or phone him at 628-4136. 

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