Since 2003, ETSU paleontologists have partnered with the City of Saltville (VA) to investigate the paleontology of the surrounding valley. With city support, ETSU manages annual excavations and public outreach. The Gray Fossil Site & Museum supports paleontological exhibits at the Museum of Middle Appalachia (MoMA) in Saltville, and curates excavated specimens from the Saltville Valley through a memorandum of understanding with the City. 

The Saltville valley in southwest Virginia is a classic Quaternary vertebrate locality that has been the subject of paleontological investigations since the 18th century. In 1917, O. A. Peterson made the first professional collection from the site for the Carnegie Museum after the collapse of a salt extraction well exposed megafaunal remains. Subsequent work by Virginia Polytechnic, the Smithsonian Institution, Emory and Henry, Radford, and the Virginia Museum of Natural History revealed faunal, floral, and stratigraphic records. Since 2003, the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) has been involved in a long term project to better understand the paleontology and paleoecology of the Saltville locality. 

The ETSU excavations in Saltville have focused on two inundated localities. SV10 is the location of a well-preserved mammoth skeleton showing scavenging by large carnivorans, interpreted to be giant short-faced bear and wolf. In 2010, work began on a nearby locality (SV5/7) where Arctodus simus, Mammuthus sp., Mammut americanum, and Cervalces scotti were recovered. Sediments contain in situ faunal remains as large as mammoth, and as small as insects, pollen, and ostracodes. A series of radiocarbon dates indicate the fauna dates from terminal Pleistocene to beyond radiocarbon dating. Recent exploration for genetic material in the late Pleistocene megafauna has revealed extraordinary preservation of ancient DNA. Further analyses of these sedimentary units in upcoming field seasons will shed additional light on site taphonomy, paleoecology, evolutionary relationships, and hydrologic history of the valley.

Each year, ETSU and the City of Saltville host a popular kid’s Dig Day for ages 5-12. Participants learn about paleontology, the Ice Age in southern Appalachia, and search for fossils in Pleistocene-aged gravel deposits. 

Active research includes:

  • Chronology building through 14C dated megafaunal remains
  • Ancient DNA from Saltville mastodons and short-faced bears
  • Understanding the Quaternary history of valley sediments 
  • Analysis of pollen and fungal spores from SV5/7
  • Analysis of ostracodes from SV5/7
  • Land-use and diet of Saltville megaherbivores through isotopic analyses 

Species list

American Mastodon (Mammut americanum)

Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

Short-faced bear (Arctodus simus)

Stag Moose (Cervalces scotti)

Helmeted Muskox (Bootherium bombifrons)

Jefferson’s Ground Sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii)

Giant Beaver (Castoroides sp.)

Horse (Equus sp.)


ETSU publications and theses related to Saltville

Schubert, B. W., & Wallace, S. C. (2009). Late Pleistocene giant short-faced bears, mammoths, and large carcass scavenging in the Saltville Valley of Virginia, USA. Boreas, 38(3), 482–492.


Silverstein, R. (2017). A Paleontological Analysis of Late Pleistocene Proboscidea from Saltville, Virginia: Taphonomy, Systematic Paleontology, and Paleobiology. Department of Geosciences, MSc. thesis, East Tennessee State University. 74pp. 


Simpson, E. (2019). Paleoecology and Land-Use of Quaternary Megafauna from Saltville, Virginia. Department of Geosciences, MSc. thesis, East Tennessee State University. 97pp.