SALTVILLE — Laura Emmert lifted up the damp sponge to reveal a dark stone lodged in bluish-gray mud.
Only it wasn’t a stone. It was the partial jawbone of the largest bear species ever to roam North America — a fearsome ice-age predator called the giant short-faced bear.
Although the bears were known to roam the continent for hundreds of thousands of years, finding one in Saltville “is a new data point,” said Blaine Schubert, director of the East Tennessee State University Museum of Natural History and leader of the digs.
“This is very exciting for us,” said Emmert, crew chief for this year’s ETSU fossil dig, which took place over three weeks in June.
After nearly 100 years of study, the town’s ancient fossil beds continue to yield surprises.
ETSU paleontologists are the most recent in a long line of researchers to collect specimens in the Saltville Valley. This year is the 50th anniversary of a Virginia Tech agreement with the Smithsonian Institution to excavate and study specimens found here in the 1960s, including a 7-foot-long section of mastodon tusk.
Scientific digs began much earlier, in 1917, when a collapsed industrial salt well revealed a rich layer of prehistory that drew the attention of the Carnegie Institution. The town’s Museum of the Middle Appalachians, which now oversees the digs, is planning to celebrate next year with a centennial symposium, executive director Janice Orr said.
But accidental finds go back at least to the 18th century, and possibly much further.
In a letter dated 1782, Arthur Campbell wrote to Thomas Jefferson, former Virginia governor and future U.S. president, about the discovery at Saltville of the bones of a “large jaw tooth of an unknown animal lately found at the Salina in Washington County.”
There are records from 1854 of the finding of the remains of three or four “monsters,” according to Abingdon geologist Charles Bartlett.
Put shovel to ground in many areas of the valley, and fossils emerge, Bartlett said.
Over the years, Bartlett has collected binders full of information on excavations, many begun as construction projects and industrial work, but leading to paleontology.
As a geology professor at Emory & Henry in the 1970s, he brought students to Saltville for field studies and found “lots and lots and lots of bones” of various animals. In the 1980s, he and former Radford University biogeographer Jerry McDonald excavated one of the most complete ice age musk ox fossils ever found.
In his 80s now, Bartlett still visits the dig sites when they’re active, as he did last month with binders in hand.
“You cannot help but get fascinated by this stuff,” Bartlett said. “It just sort of catches you.”
Hunting ancient predators
Saltville’s 300-acre Pleistocene fossil site was formed about a million years ago by an ancient river that ran through the valley until 14,000 to 15,000 years ago, when it dammed up and formed a large lake, Schubert said.
Over time, the deep layers of sediment washed in, trapping the bones of the area’s megafauna. Because the grayish mud sealed out air, the fossils are strikingly well-preserved, Bartlett said. Saltville is thought to be the largest site of its kind in North America.
But the damp conditions and the highly concentrated brine from the town’s 300-million-year-old salt deposits make the bones soft and tricky to preserve, Emmert said.
Today ETSU students, with help from the museum and the town, drain ponds in a marsh near a shopping center on the edge of downtown. They excavate several feet, first with heavy equipment and then with hand tools, to get to the gravel river bed. There, chips of mammoth and mastodon teeth, bone and tusk dated from 18,000 to 30,000 years ago are abundant, but shattered from tumbling in the extinct currents.
The group pulls fossils from the gravel but is focused on the younger mud layers, where in 1999 people working a Virginia Museum of Natural History dig reported finding the canine tooth of a giant bear . The site, however, was not well-documented and was hard to find.
By working from old photos, ETSU teams eventually located the site and have dug there the past two years, finding more traces of what Schubert suspects is the remains of the single giant bear.
Standing up to 12 feet tall on two legs and 6 feet at the shoulder when on all fours, Arctodus pristinus was significantly larger than the modern Kodiak bear.
According to the North American Bear Center, the extinct species had a keen sense of smell, good eyesight and massive jaw muscles with shearing teeth that gave it a “vise-like killing bite and the ability to crush bones to obtain marrow.”
Thought to have ranged across North America during the last ice age, Arctodus pristinus likely could run faster than 40 mph and weighed about 1,500 pounds, according to the bear center.
The giant bear was one of several Pleistocene predators living in the valley, including saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and black bears, according to the Museum of the Middle Appalachians. Herbivores also were abundant, from massive mastodons and mammoths, to giant ground sloths, ancient musk oxen, bison, the stag-moose and other species.
Very few giant bear fossils have been found in the southeastern U.S., Schubert said. The team is hoping to find a tooth inside the new jaw that could yield intact DNA. Genetic analysis could shed more light on the species’ life and extinction.
In 2009, another ETSU team found a mammoth anklebone showing teeth marks from both a giant short-faced bear and a dire wolf, or Canis dirus, the “fearsome dog.” The extinct wolf averaged about 150 pounds and had a more powerful bite than any living wolf species.
Because the predators were gnawing on the mammoth’s feet, Schubert said it was likely scavenging, not hunting, behavior.
Since then, the team has unearthed a giant bear claw and another partial jaw bone, Emmert said. Next year, they plan to expand the pit and search for more of the bear.
The team is not interested in only giant fossils, however. They’re looking for tiny ones, too.
Called “microfossils,” these are the bones of fish, salamanders and snakes lodged in the more sandy sections of the extinct lake. Pat Monaco, a para-paleontologist and camp cook from Colorado, spent her time sieving buckets full of sediment for these bones, which she will identify over the fall and winter for ETSU.
“Small things can often tell us more about the environment than a large animal,” Emmert said.
Specimens recovered at the site will go to ETSU on permanent loan under an agreement with the Museum of the Middle Appalachians and the town. In return, the university studies and preserves the fossils.
“I think they are doing us a great favor,” said Orr, the museum director.
Passing on a passion
Generations of children in and around Saltville have memories of the fossil pits, including museum manager Harry Haynes. He said that as a young man just out of high school he hung around with Virginia Tech students doing fossil field work.
Orr said she worked on excavations, “many years ago, when I was a younger person.”
Tom Heffinger left nearby Chilhowie as a young man, first for college and then the military. Eventually he wound up in Florida, working for Walt Disney Co. for three decades before retiring back home in 2005. Heffinger said he remembered the Tech diggers bringing up bones in the mid-1960s.
“I’ve been interested in it all my life,” he said.
Last year Heffinger volunteered to work on Schubert’s team, which found a vertabra from a musk ox . He was back this year, digging in the mud, sun beating down through the humid air, when the teamfound the giant bear jaw.
The town and the university hope to use the digs not just for science, but to grow new crops of scientists. The site gives master’s students in paleontology experience with a wet ice-age site, Schubert said.
It gives schoolchildren a field experience that could ignite a passion.
Once a season, the ETSU team helps the museum staff with digs for second- through seventh-graders. This year the kids’ dig was held on June 11.
Penny Jones, a Saltville elementary school teacher and one of the organizers, said the event gives the youngsters practice with “hands-on sensory processing. They get much less sensory play than in the past,” she said, because computers are so much more a part of their schooling and their free time.
The science aspect also “takes them a step beyond school,” she added.
Schubert’s son, Briar, 7, participated in the kids’ dig this year, turning up a mastodon tooth chip in the gravel bed, as well as a lot of rocks. Briar said it was the fifth time he’s dug for fossils.
Haynes said specimens from Saltville can be found in collections across the country, including the Carnegie Muesum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Virginia Tech, Radford University, Virginia Museum of Natural History and East Tennessee State University, as well as the Museum of the Middle Appalachians.
For more information, visit http://www.museum-mid-app.org.