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VCU Archaeology

With a Dash of Salt: The Mysteries of the American Incognitum and a Century of Scientific Excavations in Saltville, VA

bkm_mastodon molar

Drawing of mastodon molar adapted from James Hall’s (1843) Tables of Organic Remains from the Report on the Geology of the Fourth District of New York. Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.62637

Just over three centuries ago, in 1705, a massive molar was uncovered along the banks of the Hudson  River in New York.  Some individuals erroneously concluded that this tremendous tooth must have come from the mouth of a biblical giant. More bones of this mysterious creature were soon uncovered throughout the eastern U.S., including associated tusks, skulls, and post-cranial remains. Eventually, a complete skeleton was found almost a century after the discovery of that first tooth. The overall similarity of this skeleton to modern elephants soon became obvious.  But, the teeth of this “monster” differed from the modern elephant, consisting of a series of sharp points, rather than the parallel ridges of modern elephants and elephant-like creatures found in Siberia–the latter we now know as woolly mammoths. As bones of this mysterious giant beast began to circulate throughout the North American colonies, and skeletal elements made it across the Atlantic Ocean to the learned halls of England and France, this creature became known as the American Incognitum.


Rembrandt Peale’s 1801 Illustration of a Mastodon. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SimplifiedPealeMastodon.jpg

Eventually bones of the American Incognitum became prized possessions of those American colonists who led the fight for freedom from England: George Washington, Ben Franklin, and, especially Thomas Jefferson.

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Mastodon tooth found in Franklin Court, Philadelphia.

Solving the mystery of the American Incognitum became part of developing a distinct identity for the fledgling United States as a newly-born country that sought respect from Europe. This was especially important after French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon, wrote that animals and plants in the Americans were smaller and weaker–less virile–than those in the Old World. And, further, he argued that people and  animals–colonists and their livestock–that moved from the Old to the New World became themselves smaller and weaker over time. Determining the nature of the clearly  large American Incognitum, particularly whether or not it was carnivorous, was perceived as central to disproving Comte de Buffon’s emasculating theory. Paul Semonin’s work, American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National  Identity (2000, New York University Press) delves deeply into the social and political undercurrents that drove the quest for unmasking the American Incognitum.  Today, we know that the teeth, tusks, and bones of this creature represented a mastodon (Mammut americanum)–an extinct relative of modern elephants and the equally extinct woolly mammoths.

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Part of an exhibit on salt in the Museum of the Middle Appalachians.

While the identity of this American monster is now known, there is still much to be discovered. This is why last Monday, June 19, I made the five-hour journey from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to the small town of Saltville, Virginia.  Not surprisingly, this town is known for its extensive and historically significant salt deposits–two Civil War battles were fought over the South’s main source for this critically important food preservative. But, in the more distant past, these salt deposits attracted and then ensnared now extinct Ice Age animals, including giant ground sloths, woolly mammoths, and, of course, mastodons. In addition to being Museum Week, the week beginning June 19 coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s scientific excavations at Saltville, where they recovered giant ground sloth and mastodon remains (see here for the report on these excavations).

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Excavating Ice Age animals in Saltville.

This week featured new excavations into Ice Age deposits at Saltville under the direction of Drs. Blaine Schubert and Chris Widga of East Tennessee State University (ETSU). I was actually invited to Saltville by Dr. Elizabeth Moore of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH).    Dr. Moore was assisting with ETSU’s as well as the Archeological Society of Virginia’s (ASV) efforts, alongside long-time ASV member Charlie Bartlett. Charlie kindly arranged accommodations for VMNH staff, ASV volunteers, and myself in a rooming house maintained by Emory and Henry College. The first day I was in Saltville, excavations were actually impossible because of the rainy weather,  and water was a constant source of concern for the excavation site–each morning and throughout each day, pumps labored to remove water that accumulated over night to make possible the paleontological and archaeological investigations.

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Other than visiting the excavation site on Tuesday and Wednesday, I spent my three days in Saltville focused on 3D scanning items in the collection of the Museum of the Middle Appalachians. The museum is devoted to telling the story of the region, especially its Ice Age animals, American Indian inhabitants, Civil War battles, and years as a company town–and, of course, the story of its namesake, salt.

bkm_butch surber picture of me 3D scanning a mastodon

Using the Sense 3D scanner to scan the skull of a mastodon replica in the Museum of the Middle Appalachians. Photograph courtesy of Butch Surber.

I focused on scanning Ice Age animal remains, including mastodon, mammoth, and the extinct bovid, Bootherium bombifrons.

Three of the spectacular carved shell gorgets that are on exhibit were also scanned.

Butch Surber and Janice Orr of the Museum of the Middle Appalachians were on hand to facilitate my various 3D scanning requests.


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Mastodon and giant ground sloth fossils from 1917 Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s excavations at Saltville.

I also 3D scanned mastodon and giant ground sloth remains that were uncovered in 1917 by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History through a loan to the Museum of the Middle Appalachians arranged for by ETSU’s Dr. Blaine Schubert. Dr. Schubert obtained permission for my scanning efforts of these century-old findings.

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Brian McNeill, standing, interviews Dr. Jerre Johnson as VCU student Kristen Egan listens.

At the end of Museum Week 2017, on Friday, June 23, I was back in the Virtual Curation Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia, editing the digital files generated from my 3D scans earlier in the week. I was also in the lab to meet with Dr. Jerre Johnson, retired geologist from the College of William and Mary. Dr. Johnson made the early morning journey to my lab at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to pick up a mastodon rib and tooth that had been found near Yorktown, Virginia, and that he had loaned for 3D scanning. He was also there to be interviewed by Brian McNeill of VCU News, who is doing a story on our work with mastodon fossils. Also present was Kristen Egan, a VCU senior who spent part of her Spring semester painting a 3D printed replica of the worn molar from the Yorktown mastodon.  The entertaining and dynamic Dr. Johnson brought along some additional mastodon remains, including a tusk, phalanges, and a jaw fragment that are currently being 3D scanned in the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

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Painting of a mastodon at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians.

The 300-year fascination with the American Incognitum is exploding, especially as new technologies are directed toward the mastodon.  In addition to 3D scanning, CT scanning is providing a look at the interior of mastodon skeletal remains. The Western Science Center in Hemet, California, where I spent a week last August with support from the Smithsonian Affiliations program has provided CT scan data of mastodon remains.

bkm_ct scan mastodon jaw

Digital model rendered by Terrie Simmons-Ehrhardt from a CT scan provided by Dr. Alton Dooley of the Western Science Center.

VCU’s Terrie Simmons–Ehrhardt has translated these CT scans into printable 3D models. The Western Science Center is hosting a workshop tied to a new exhibit, entitled “Valley of the Mastodons,” this coming August, and I will be among the participants–but that will be the focus of another blog post.



  1. Pingback: History, Salt, and MASTODONS!!! | Backyard Paleo - June 27, 2017

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