Prehistory of the Rockcastle and Jackson County Cave Regions

By Ken Tankersley

From the SWORCA DIGEST 1975

The beautiful karst countryside of Rockcastle and Jackson Counties has not always been peppered with sinks or opened its hills to the vast subterranean underworld. The caves we come to know and love were once formed under a vast ocean that existed during the Mississippian Period of the Paleozoic Era (310-325 million years ago). This is not to say that the actual caves formed at this time, but the sediment that formed the limestone that the caves developed in, was deposited. Organisms that lived in and around this vast ocean include the following, which are represented as abundant or characteristic fossil groups.

Fusuline Forams, Arachnids, Rugose Corals, Crinoids, Conularoids, Blastoids, Cryptostome Bryozoa, Perichoechinoids, Clonetoid Brachiopods, Conodonts, Productoid Brachiopods, Sharks, Davidsonioid Brachiopods, Amphibians, Athyridoid Brachiopods, Lycopods, Spiriferoid Brachiopods, Sphenopsids, Goniatite Ammonoids, Seed Ferns, Insects, Cordaites

These fossil groups bespeak the time and environment in which they lived. The paleo ecology can be reconstructed through good exposures of the fossil record in many caves of the area. A good example of this is the caves of the Crooked Creek Cave Region of Rockcastle County. Here a paleo bioherm of Litho Strotionella Tetracorals can be observed. Within the entrance of Goochland Cave the Tetracorals are so massive that their chert replacement has formed a resistant layer forming the present ceiling of the "Twilight Zone" portion of the cave.

These corals can also be seen in caves near the Mt. Vernon area. Pine Hill and Sinks of the Roundstone are excellent examples. The Archimedes Bryozoan can be seen in the Tight Mother Cave section of the Cave Springs Cave System of Jackson County. At the bottom of Jingle Hole, brachiopods and pelecypods can be seen on the pit walls. Blastoids, Gastropods and large crinoid stems can be observed on the walls of the "Crinoid Canyon" in the Big W Cave.

Many caves in this region hold exposures of the fossilized past. Smokehole, Thomas Owens Saltpetre Cave, Skull Pit, Crooked Creek Ice Cave, Mullins Springs, Climax, Pebble and the Cave Ridge Caves are just a few among the many fossiliferous caves of the region.

Between the Carboniferous Period of the Paleozoic Era and the Pleistocene Epoch of the Cenozoic Era there exists a large hiatus. The sediments were either eroded away or not deposited. The Pleistocene also has left a fossil record in the caves of the Rockcastle and Jackson County Cave Regions. Remains of fossilized mammals often appear in the entrances of certain caves. Besides the actual remains, Coprolites have been known to exist within certain caves. Rampart Cave has been left with excellent fossilized ground sloth dung. Fossil Peccary are among the most common Pleistocene fossils found within the caves. These fossils date up to 20,000 years of age. By 13,000 B.C. man appeared on the scene.

Archaeologists today have divided certain cultural sequences of Eastern North America into stages and periods according to time. This enables one to sort advances of culture according to time. The oldest stage is the Paleo-Indian. Man of this culture inhabited Eastern North America between 13,000 B.C. and 8,000 B.C. By the time PaleoMan made it to Rockcastle and Jackson Counties he was manufacturing projectile points resembling the Clovis-Fluted. These points are 12,000 years old. Digs within cave entrances will find these artifacts at the lowest artifact-bearing layer. Most points have been associated with mega fauna yielding good distributional studies.

The next stages of man in the area are the Archaic's. The Early Archaic period lasted from 8,000 B.C. to 6,000 B.C. Man at this time was hunting bison, elk, bear and small game. Large cave entrances are great locations for sites. Thebes, Kirk and Dove Tail points are several projectile points associated with the early archaic excavations. The Middle Archaic period lasted from 6,000 B.C. to 4,000 B.C. Excavations from this time yield the appearance of ground stone tools, bone tools and the spear thrower., Mussel shells are often associated with this layer. The Late Archaic lasted from 4,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C. It is often characterized by the use of Atlatl plates. These are often called banner stones. They were used as spear throwing weights and often associated with burials of importance. Copper was known by this time and marine shells were traded. Red Ochra was used along with soapstone steatite and bone. Micro tools are seen at this layer along with artifacts produced from the Harrison County flint. Jackson and Rockcastle Counties abound in rock shelters that exist in the sandstone that cap the hillsides. Indian Rock House is an excellent example.

The Central Sinks have yielded many archaic artifacts. An interesting note I would like to add is that they are identical in composition to the chert modules of Wind Cave a mile away. Mr. Lakes, former owner of Big W Cave turns up archaic artifacts yearly. The site is located in front of the cave and is well exposed. John Abrams, owner of the Cave Springs Cave System, also turns up archaic artifacts yearly. The site here is located just to the right of a karst window. The cave probably served the people as a water source. Man of the Archaic Stage was in this cave region and did make use of many caves. Caves we thought to be virgin were known 9000 years ago. Man has been attracted to caves since the beginning of his existence.

The next cultural stage is the Woodland. The Early Woodland period (Adena) existed from 1000 B.C. to 300 B.C. The Woodland saw the shift from hunting to agriculture. Also the beginning of house building. No longer are the caves used for shelter, yet the cultures did remain in the cave areas.

The Middle Woodland Period (Hopewell) existed from 300 B.C. to 450 A.D. This was followed by the Late Woodland Period that existed between 450 A.D. to 800 A.D. or contact with Europe. Between 800 A.D. and European Contact Cultures in the area saw influences of the Mississippian Stage.

By the 1800's the blind karst valleys of the area were being settled for farming. The area of Wind Cave was settled by the Lakes family in 1840. Many log cabins still remain in the area and bespeak the long forgotten past. By the 1850-60's the caves of Rockcastle and Jackson Counties were being mined for Saltpetre. During the 1880's and 90's the area was being surveyed for its great mineral resources, namely coal. After the turn of the century and the over-mining of coal, man started mining limestone. Today we find ourselves in a hush from the busy past. We know the area as a tranquil retreat that leads us to the discoveries in the unexplored underground we so love.


Scanning and OCR work done by Andy Niekamp