|14 November 2003
Excavation funding sought for Alabama cave
Officials from the Russell Cave National Monument in Jackson County (USA) have asked the US National Park Service for funds for a major archaeological survey of the 330 acre park. Native American stone tools, pottery and other artefacts were first discovered at Russell Cave by amateur archaeologists in the 1950s. The site was explored further by teams from the National Geographical Society and the Smithsonian Institution, helped by local coal miners. The layers revealed thousands of objects and the bones of seven humans, evidence that the cave had been inhabited from about 9,000 years ago down to the arrival of European settlers. “Back in the 1950s this was the hot spot for archaeologists in North America,” says Jason Money, a local park service guide. Russell Cave was deemed so important that it was purchased by the NGS and later donated to the National Park Service. President John F. Kennedy designated Russell Cave a national monument in 1961.
The cave system is thought to extend some ten miles, 7.5 miles of which have been mapped. One of 1,527 know caves in Jackson County, it was formed by underground water action on limestone rock. Russell Cave has two large side-by-side entrances, which merge within a few hundred feet. The first, 60ft high, is the path of a creek running into the cave. The second cave mouth is where the evidence of extensive occupation has been found. The site provides running water, faces away from the winter northerlies, is cool in summer and lets in plenty of light. The surrounding forest was a tremendous resource for hunter-gathering activity. The cave would have been almost like a “prehistoric condominium,” according to Harry Holstein, director of the Archaeological Resource Laboratory at Jacksonville State University. Indians may also have set up villages nearby, and a burial mound with more remains has been found on the hill above the cave.
Since the 1950s only a small portion of the rest of the cave and the surrounding area has been surveyed or excavated. “We would like to go in and re-excavate the cave with 21st century techniques,” said Holstein. New research would reveal whether Indian occupation went back earlier than indicated by the first digs, and would provide archaeologists with information on diet, tool-making capability and climate for each excavated stratum. There are also places within the park that have never been surveyed for artefacts, says John Bundy, superintendent of Russell Cave and the Little River Canyon National Reserve. “We have a responsibility to the public to know where those artefacts are.” Researchers want to divide the area into grids and take samples to locate the most “artefact significant” areas. This would lead to a fully-fledged dig, probably taking several years, followed by many more years of artefact analysis and care.
Park officials hope for a positive outcome to their funding request early in 2004. If funds are refused they intend to apply again in subsequent years.
Sources: The Birmingham News/al.com (11 November 2003)
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