Saltville Dig

Members of the East Tennessee State University paleontology department are conducting a dig this week and next at the site in Saltville under excavation for many years. Talks about this site and others in the area will be given at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians in downtown Saltville on June 6 and 13.

The dig is under way again this summer to discover more about the ancient history of Saltville and the creatures that once roamed the valley.

Members of the East Tennessee State University paleontology department, who have been coming to Saltville for 15 years, are back at the dig site along the Helen Barbrow Trail. They will be sharing information about their work at two public talks this month.

On Thursday, June 6, ETSU paleontologist Nick Brand will talk about fossil animals that are found in Saltville, and how scientists use geology of the region to understand past environments. His talk is titled “Geology and Fossils of the Saltville Valley.”

At the same event, ETSU paleontologist Emily Simpson will explore the link between Pleistocene megafauna found in the Saltville valley and the regional formation of a unique, highland floral community, the grassy bald. Her talk is called “Movement and Diet of Large Herbivores from Saltville, Virginia.” Her research examines chemical signatures in the teeth of herbivores to understand diet and mobility patterns and ask the question, “Were Saltville megafauna responsible for the formation of grassy balds?”

On Thursday, June 13, Chris Widga, PhD, head curator of the Natural History Museum and instructor in geosciences, and Blaine Schubert, PhD, director of the Center for Excellence in Paleontology at ETSU and director of the Gray Fossil Site, will present a program on “Current Paleontological Research in the Saltville Valley.”

 ETSU has partnered with the town of Saltville and the Museum of the Middle Appalachians since 2004 to investigate the Ice Age paleontology of the Saltville valley. Saltville fossils are an active part of paleontological research and are helping to train the next generation of paleontologists.

According to information from ETSU, “The fossil site in Saltville – a town so named for its salt deposits – has been known for its paleontological significance since the days of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote about bones discovered there. In 1917, the first scientific publication on Saltville occurred following a large collapse in the valley well fields at Well 69. This collapse, according to Schubert, 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 around 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.”

“But in many ways, as paleontologists, we are just starting to understand Saltville and what the environments were like in the late part of the Ice Age,” Schubert said. “And we’re starting to see that there’s a lot more to this story than we can figure out. The potential there is immense.”

The talk by Schubert and Widga will review the most recent developments in this research, including the age of the fossil bearing deposits, recovery of mastodon DNA, 3D scanning and printing efforts, and other topics.

Both programs will take place in the museum conference room beginning at 6:30 p.m. There is no admission fee.

Visitors are welcome at the dig site.

For further information, call the museum at 276-496-3633. To learn more about ETSU’s research in Saltville, go online to the university at

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