Skeletal biology, mortuary behavior, and legal issues

Southwest Virginia’s burial caves: Skeletal biology, mortuary behavior, and legal issues

Boyd, C Clifford Jr


Over 50 prehistoric mortuary caves have been identified in Virginia, primarily in the southwestern portion of the state, dating to the Late Woodland period (ca. A.D. 900– 1600). Recent surveys of these sites, as well as one archaeological test excavation, give insights into the skeletal biology and mortuary practices of the individuals interred. All sexes and ages were buried in these caves in a variety of burial forms. Dental caries and antemortem tooth loss are the most common pathologies noted on skeletal remains from the caves. Two recent cave investigations carried out through the Marginella Burial Cave Project illustrate the legal, political, and other challenges surrounding the conservation of these highly endangered natural and archaeological resources in Virginia.


The use of caves as mortuary sites by prehistoric Native Americans of the southeastern United States is well known for the Green River area of Kentucky (Haskins 1983; Watson 1986), the Tennessee Valley region of northern Alabama (Walthall 1980; Walthall and DeJarnette 1974), and the Valley and Ridge physiographic provinces of southwest Virginia and upper East Tennessee (Barber and Hubbard 1997; Boyd and Boyd 1997; Clark 1978; Holland 1970; Hubbard and Barber 1997; Hubbard and Boyd 1997; Kimball et al. 1992). This article focuses on the 52 known mortuary caves in Virginia, the majority of which are located along the Powell, Clinch, and Holston Rivers in the Valley and Ridge physiographic province in the southwestern portion of the state (Figure 1) and date to the Late Woodland period (ca. A.D. 900-1600). Although professional archaeologists have recognized the existence of burial caves in southwest Virginia for over 50 years, only one site has been professionally test excavated using current methods (e.g., flotation). Other Virginia caves have undergone limited surface reconnaissance by professional archaeologists and geologists. However, with the exception of a series of papers published in a 1997 volume of the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, no comprehensive summary of information on these sites has been compiled. At the same time, destruction of the natural and archaeological resources contained within these caves has continued unabated, in spite of state laws meant to curtail such damage.

This article summarizes what is currently known about southwest Virginia burial caves. It includes a review of the mortuary behavior reflected by cave interments as well as a biological profile of the prehistoric inhabitants the recovered human skeletal remains represent. Finally, legal and political issues surrounding research in and protection of these caves will be illustrated by a detailed look at two case studies which provide a deeper understanding of the challenges associated with Virginia cave research and conservation.

Historical Perspective on Virginia Mortuary Cave Research

Early reports of burial caves in southwest Virginia were based on a survey conducted in the 1940s by Waldo Wedel (1951) as well as informal exploration of burial caves like Elk Garden (44RU6) in Russell County (Egloff 1992; Newman 1951; Robertson 1951) and Higginbotham (44TZ25) in Tazewell County (Caldwell 1951). Numerous burials were removed from the latter two vertical shaft or pit caves (an estimated 69 to 113 individuals from Elk Garden and over 100 from Higginbotham), with mortuary forms including cremations, secondary “bundle” burials, and ossuary-like piles of disarticulated bone (Robertson 1951). Higginbotham Cave produced an uncalibrated radiocarbon date of AD 141565 (Boyd and Boyd 1992; Willey and Crothers 1986).

In his 1963-1964 survey of southwest Virginia, C. G. Holland (1970) recorded a total of 18 mortuary caves (some previously identified, some not), all of which had been looted. Most of these sites were not actually visited by Holland or described in detail. Clark (1978) expanded this list to 24 known burial caves in southwest Virginia. All of these were vertical shaft caves or caves with steeply sloped entrances located in the limestone-dolostone karst of the Valley and Ridge physiographic province.

Bull Thistle Cave (44TZ92), explored by cavers in 1985, is significant in that the exposed human remains appeared to be undisturbed, making this only one of two documented caves in Virginia unaffected by vandalism (the other is Burt Cave, 44LE281). Preliminary reconnaissance and mapping of this vertical shaft cave by the University of Tennessee’s Midsouth Anthropological Research Corporation in 1986 identified a minimum of 11 individuals as well as a shell-tempered pipe stem; human remains were not removed from the cave (Willey and Crothers 1986).

The only cave recently documented in detail by professional archaeologists is Bone Cave (44LE169) in Lee County (Kimball and Whyte 1994). Phase II test excavations by Appalachian State University (ASU) in 1994 were initiated at the request of the Virginia Department of Transportation through its expansion of Virginia State Route 58 (Hubbard and Barber 1997; Kimball and Whyte 1994). Excavations of five 1 x 1 -in test units in two areas of the cave were performed to assess the integrity of the site and its eligibility for listing in the National Register. The results of these investigations are discussed in more detail later in this article.

The Marginella Burial Cave Project

The Marginella Burial Cave Project (MBCP) was initiated in 1992 by two of the authors (DAH and MBB) to identify burial caves in the karst region of southwest Virginia, to assess the effects or potential effects of vandalism, and to initiate means to protect these caves (Hubbard and Barber 1997; Hubbard and Boyd 1997). This was a National Speleological Society (NSS) project involving reconnaissance and surface collection of disturbed bone and artifacts from mortuary caves.

Prior to implementing any collection of human skeletal material or associated artifacts, Virginia law required that an analytical research design be developed for both archaeological and physical anthropological study. These research designs were submitted to and approved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) (Barber et al. 1992) and reflect the following goals of the MBCP:

1. To record the locations and edaphic attributes of burial caves in Virginia including geologic setting, elevation, aspect, association with water, drainage, slope, landform, and physiographic province;

2. To document the amount of vandalism perpetrated on burial cave resources and ascertain its history (whether recent or in the past);

3. To elevate an understanding of the importance of burial caves in the eyes of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in order to encourage a program of preservation of the dwindling resource;

4. To collect a sample of disturbed human skeletal material for scientific study;

5. To collect disturbed artifacts from the surface of the cave floors for scientific study;

6. To encourage public education (especially cave landowners) emphasizing the importance of such resources and to encourage law enforcement efforts in upholding and implementing Virginia’s state burial cave laws.

Permits for limited collection of cultural and skeletal material on cave surfaces were granted by the VDHR and the Department of Conservation and Recreation; written permission to investigate these sites was obtained from cave landowners. As a survey project, no excavations were planned and none were implemented-only disturbed surface material was collected.

Twenty-four caves were visited during the MBCP permit period, 18 of which were recorded as sites with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for the first time. All of those visited had been or were currently being vandalized. The caves were all located in karst environments where the eroded limestones and dolostones lend themselves to cave formation. Most were found on hillside slopes although some were located on hilltops or knolls. Entrances ranged from vertical to horizontal and from constricting to broad, attractive walk-in openings. Lengths also varied greatly from a 60-foot-long passage to caves miles in length.

Identification of burial caves has continued on an informal and opportunistic basis by one of the authors (DAH), without collection or disturbance of any archaeological or cultural resources. Currently, at least 52 mortuary caves have been identified in the southwest Virginia counties of Lee, Montgomery, Pulaski, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, and Wythe (Figure 1) (Boyd and Boyd 1997; Hubbard and Boyd 1997). For security reasons, the names and precise locations of the most recently identified caves are not listed here.

Mortuary Behavior and Biological Profile of Prehistoric Southwest Virginia Cave Interments

Mortuary Behavior

Human remains have been documented in publications or examined by the authors for 36 Late Woodland burial cave sites in southwest Virginia (Table 1). Remains of 397 individuals have been identified, many of which have not been removed from the caves. In spite of extensive post-depositional alteration of mortuary assemblages in these caves, it is clear that these remains reflect a variety of burial modes. For example, reconnaissance survey of Bull Thistle Cave failed to identify smaller, more distal skeletal elements, suggesting a pattern of secondary burial. Willey and Crothers (1986) caution, however, that more extensive investigation of the cave is needed to determine the form of initial interment of the remains. The recovery of small hand (carpals, metacarpals, phalanges) and foot (tarsals, metatarsals) bones from the more detailed excavations at Bone Cave indicate that at least some primary interments occurred at that site (Boyd and Boyd 1994). However, clusters of disarticulated bones almost certainly from the same individuals (noted in two excavation units) may reflect secondary bundle burials. The presence of individual (primary) interments, cremations, and ossuarylike secondary burials at Higginbotham and Elk Garden Caves has already been noted (Clark 1978; Newman 1951; Robertson 1951).

Extensive carnivore and rodent damage to many bones may offer clues to the depositional context in which the remains were placed. For example, over 49 percent of the 144 Mer site (44LE280) bones were rodent gnawed, as were 45.9 percent of the bones from Indian Burial Cave (44LE II) and 26.6 percent of identifiable bones from Bone Cave (44LE169). This impact suggests that many bones may have been placed on or near the floor of the caves rather than deeply buried within the sediments. The likelihood that bodies or bones were placed on cave floors rather than deeply buried is supported by the fact that many cave entrances are vertical shafts with drops of several dozen feet (Clark 1978). The jumbled “ossuary-like” appearance of bones at the base of these entrances suggests that many bodies may have been dropped into the caves. Amateur caver accounts of the placement of skeletons and artifacts on rock shelves or underneath rock slabs on cave floor surfaces also suggest that limited, if any, burial of individuals may have occurred.

Biological Profile

Few detailed studies of the human remains from southwest Virginia caves have been completed-opportunistic and anecdotal summaries of observations of bones encountered by amateurs and professionals have been the norm. For example, studies of human remains from the Elk Garden Burial Cave by Newman (1948, 1951) focused on the different “racial type” of the cave inhabitants compared to individuals from the nearby Late Woodland Elk Garden village site (a goal deemed outdated by physical anthropologists today). Newman did note several cranial fragments with artificial deformation and several maxilla and mandible fragments with caries or antemortem tooth loss.

Willey and Crother’s (1986) brief analysis of in situ human remains at Bull Thistle Cave noted the presence of osteoarthritis and osteophytosis on a few adult elements and anomalies such as supernumerary teeth and a septal aperture on one adult right humerus. They identified subadults and adult males and females among the skeletal remains they examined.

At least 61 (15.36 percent) of southwest Virginia’s cave individuals have undergone formal skeletal analysis by two of the authors (DCB and CCB) as consulting physical anthropologists for the Marginella Burial Cave Project and the Phase II test excavations at Bone Cave (Boyd and Boyd 1994, 1997). A total of 103 teeth and 2,159 bones was examined, most coming from the surface collection and test excavations of Bone Cave (39 teeth, 1,650 bones). These remains were generally quite fragmentary. For example, 79.6 percent of bones from Bone Cave were catalogued as unidentifiable long bone fragments. The high proportion of fragments may be related in part to the use of fine waterscreening and flotation of test excavated deposits (Kimball and Whyte 1994). The Ton site (44WG3) skeletal assemblage differed, as it included nearly complete cranial elements and long bones excavated by vandals in the 1950s. Although the human bone assemblages from these caves derive from limited surface collections and excavations, they can still provide some basic information about the biological profile these individuals represent.

There is a clear pattern of all ages and sexes represented at these cave sites. Both adults (of both sexes) and subadults were interred (Table 2). For the 14 sites examined by the authors, a minimum of 15 subadults and 46 adults (representing 25 males, 13 females, and 8 adults of indeterminate sex) were identified.

Pathologies are comparable to southwest Virginia Late Woodland village sites in terms of type and frequency, with dental pathologies ranked as the most common (Table 3). For example, 13 out of 30 teeth from Bone Cave (44LE169) had caries, including three teeth with two caries each. Caries rates for the Ton (44WG3) and Mer (44LE280) sites also were high (22.6 and 50.0 percent, respectively). These caries rates are well within the range of agriculturally-dependent populations (Smith 1983). Further support for an agricultural (maize-based) diet comes from stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of samples from four femora from the Mer site (Trimble and Macko 1997). The delta ^sup 13^C values averaged 11.0 per mil and the delta ^sup 15^N values averaged 7.5 per mil. These figures suggest that the individuals interred in this cave were heavily dependent on a C4 (maize) plant diet. The low ^sup 15^N value also suggests the consumption of animal protein, likely from grazers such as white-tailed deer (Trimble and Macko 1997). Faunal and floral assemblages from contemporaneous Late Woodland village sites support these dietary influences (Barfield and Barber 1992).

Frequencies of other types of pathologies are much lower, particularly evidence for non-specific infections and lesions. This could easily be explained by the biases of limited collection and high rates of post-depositional alteration at the majority of the cave sites.

Beyond this summary, we know very little about the cultural affiliation of the interred individuals and their relationships to burials from nearby Late Woodland villages. Protection of caves for future research is the only hope we have for addressing these unresolved questions.

Virginia Cave Conservation

The Virginia Cave Board is a 12-member body established by the 1979 Virginia Cave Protection Act within the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Its duties include advising other state agencies about cave resources and their preservation and educating the public about these resources. Members include professionals in a variety of disciplines (e.g., archaeology, geology, biology), with an interest in cave research.

The Virginia Cave Protection Act also provides penalties for any person who without permission willfully attempts to:

Excavate, remove, destroy, injure, deface, or in any manner disturb any burial grounds, historic or prehistoric resources, archaeological or paleontological site or any part thereof, including relics, inscriptions, saltpeter workings, fossils, bones, remains of historical human activity, or any other such features which may be found in any cave, except those caves owned by the Commonwealth or designated as Commonwealth archaeological sites or zones, and which are subject to the provisions of the Virginia Antiquities Act. [Virginia Register of Regulations 1979:230]

In spite of this law, vandalism of Virginia caves is rampant. What follows are two case studies of recent investigations of southwest Virginia caves which illustrate the legal and political complexities involved in Virginia cave conservation.

Bone Cave (44LE169)

Bone Cave (44LE169) has achieved a level of notoriety in Virginia through a recent series of events which exemplifies a worst-case scenario of cave resource protection. The site was located on an unnamed tributary of the Tennessee River. Situated on the southeastern flank of a valley system ridge and about 6000 feet southeast of the crest of Cumberland Mountain and Kentucky, the cave is in a significant karst area within the Valley and Ridge physiographic province. The southeast facing entrance is on a hill slope at 1440 feet above mean sea level, beneath the former Louisville and Nashville Railroad grade, and lies 400 feet northwest of the unnamed tributary. Bone Cave is developed in the Woodway Limestone and is rather unimpressive with an easily reached entrance, low ceiling, and small size. The cave is approximately 15 feet in width and 60 feet long with a maximum ceiling height of 6 feet.

This site was missed during the initial Phase I archaeological reconnaissance required by the VDHR in preparation for a state highway project. When Bone Cave finally was identified, it was noted that project plans called for construction impact directly over the cave. The cave’s destruction seemed imminent. Bone Cave was visited by MCBP representatives when the Virginia Cave Board recommended a significance evaluation. Exposed human remains were noted and permission was obtained from the cave owner for collection of them along with associated artifacts. Virginia Cave Board members were notified and concem was voiced to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the implementing agency. The Cave Board unanimously passed a motion calling for a Phase II evaluation of the archaeological resource in order to better understand the site’s significance and to develop a management plan (Kimball and Whyte 1994).

The Phase II evaluation project was awarded to Appalachian State University (ASU). Due to miscommunication between ASU and VDOT, no burial removal permit was applied for and none was issued at the time of excavation, in apparent violation of the Cave Protection Act and the Virginia Antiquities Act. However, a burial removal permit was subsequently issued by the VDHR for this project. Excavations uncovered and removed human skeletal remains from the cave. At the completion of Phase II testing in 1994, human bones were returned to the cave and placed in their relative positions of origin, although they were contained in plastic bags. This was done in anticipation of Phase III mitigation soon to follow.

Bone Cave was identified as an extremely significant archaeological resource in the Phase II report, which recommended Phase III mitigation if preservation and avoidance were not possible. At that point, project realignment suddenly became a possibility and Bone Cave, in theory, was beyond the impact zone. In order to further protect the cave, the entrance was gated. However, as the construction project proceeded, Bone Cave was significantly impacted. Two drill holes were made in the cave ceiling, one of which breached the roof and penetrated the cave. The other was loaded with explosives and detonated near the former cave ceiling level. The blast sent rock fragments ricocheting off the cave walls and deposited a cone of ceiling rock on the cave floor. Water from precipitation dripped through the other drill hole. The human skeletal material deteriorated because of condensation within the plastic bags, and much of this material was vandalized when the cave gate was breached.

Inspection by the Virginia Cave Board led to recommendations to VDOT to remove the soil and rock fragments above the blast hole (by hand) and to prohibit further heavy machinery use over the cave (less than 2.75 feet of broken rock existed between the cave ceiling and the excavation above). The Cave Board encouraged the development of a protection and management plan for Bone Cave including recommendations for stabilizing the cave, removing the remaining bones from the plastic bags, reacquiring the vandalized archaeological and skeletal remains, and evaluating the effectiveness of the gate. No plan has been submitted to date. The Cave Board passed a subsequent motion to submit an additional inquiry to VDOT seeking a current status report and management plan for Bone Cave. Although materials removed from Bone Cave have been returned and placed in the cave, as of summer 2001 the Cave Board has not been informed of any other efforts to stabilize or protect this site.

The Mer Site (44LE280)

The Mer site (44LE280) is located within the Tennessee River drainage in the Valley and Ridge physiographic province. Developed in the Newala Dolomite of Ordovician age, the cave entrance faces west-southwest on a south facing hillslope at 1360 feet above mean sea level. The closest water source is an unnamed branch of Indian Creek about 400 feet to the southwest. Vandalism of the cave and its contents (including human skeletal remains) has been occurring for years, in spite of efforts by the landowner to protect it. During the MBCP’s visit to the cave, the stoop-sized entrance was found to access a walking-size passage about 90 feet in length. A concentration of human skeletal material was collected from a ledge and from the floor surrounding two vandal pits extending beneath an overhanging wall about 50 feet into the cave.

The skeletal collection consisting of approximately 79 bones and bone fragments was combined with previously removed remains in the custody of the Virginia State Police and Medical Examiner; all of these remains were submitted to the Radford University Archaeology and Physical Anthropology laboratory for formal analysis. In all, 144 bones and 16 teeth were examined from the Mer site, representing at least eight individuals: three adult males, three adult females, and two subadults. All remains were returned to the cave at the request of the landowner. With the support of the VDI-IR, the landowner and a local Native American group subsequently directed the reinterment of these remains. At this site, the landowner’s awareness and active participation in the protection of the archaeological and cultural resources on his property led to a relatively successful conservation effort.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The use of caves as mortuary sites by prehistoric Native Americans was widespread in the karst region of southwest Virginia. Virginia’s laws regarding the protection of prehistoric burial cave sites and the archaeological and skeletal remains contained within them are strong on paper; however, their application has not been consistent. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Virginia Department of Transportation are not law enforcement agencies. The VDHR’s mission is to educate the public about Virginia’s cultural resources and (as SHPO) to communicate with state and federal agencies concerning the impact of their undertakings on sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. VDOT’s main mission is to build roads while complying with state and federal regulations concerning the cultural and natural environment. When communication between these agencies breaks down-as it did at Bone Cave-Cave conservation is compromised.

Recently, some officers of the Virginia State Police and other investigative law enforcement entities have embarked on efforts to investigate, arrest, and prosecute cave vandals in Virginia. Also, public education about the importance of protection of the natural and cultural resources contained within these caves has increased. Only through cooperation among agencies and the general public in the dual efforts of enforcement and education can cave vandalism be curtailed and long-term preservation of these resources become a reality.


The authors thank Sarah Sherwood and Jan Simek for inviting us to submit our paper for this publication. We are also appreciative of the helpful comments of two anonymous reviewers and Bill Green, MCJA editor.


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C. Clifford Boyd, Jr., Donna C. Boyd, Michael B. Barber, and David A. Hubbard, Jr.

C. Clifford Boyd, Jr. and Donna C. Boyd

Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Radford University

Radford, VA 24142

Michael B. Barber

U. S. Forest Service

Washington-Jefferson National Forest

Roanoke, VA 24019

David A. Hubbard, Jr.

Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy

Division of Mineral Resources

Charlottesville, VA 22903

Copyright Office of the State Archaeologist Fall 2001

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