SALTVILLE, Va. -- Looking out over the well fields, paleontologist Blaine Schubert looks back in time.
His gaze takes him back more than 15,000 years, at the end of the last Ice Age, when a lake covered the area and giant creatures roamed the earth.
Evidence of those creatures has been found in these fields, and this month Schubert and a team of about a dozen others have been excavating a small site, which would have been the clay bottom of that water basin, to look for more.
Schubert, director of the Center for Excellence in Paleontology at East Tennessee State University and director of the Gray Fossil Site, is leading the team made up of college students, graduate students, community volunteers and others interested in that era.
"This entire area, you could dig over here or here and find bones," Schubert said, gesturing around the excavation site, where fossils have been found in previous years. "This valley was not only a watering hole but a salt lick" which led to a traffic flow of animals throughout the years.
Of particular interest this year is the short-faced bear, a gigantic bear believed to have lived in the area along with woolly mammoths, mastodons, caribou and musk oxen.
Previous digs yielded a scapula that shows bite marks matching the bear, a bear jaw bone and a tooth believed to be from the same bear. So far on this dig, which started last week, a tooth believed to belong to the bear and a tusk that belonged to either a mastodon or a mammoth have been uncovered.
"I'd found a few pieces and bones but nothing that big" before the tooth was discovered, said Diana Velasco, a graduate student at ETSU, who is on her first dig. "You could see it was shaped in a point."
It will take a while to uncover the layers of clay and gravel around the bones. The group is using 3D mapping technology to plot the size, location and orientation of each find, Schubert said.
Laura Gilmore, a recent ETSU graduate, has been on several digs with Schubert in Saltville.
"It's always cool when you sit down and think about it," she said. "You're digging into 30,000, 40,000 years of soil. But we have a skewed view of geologic time here - 30,000 or 40,000 years isn't all that much."
The tusk was first found by Cheyenne Crowe, a 16-year-old Knoxville native who has wanted to be a paleontologist since before she entered kindergarten.
"I didn't know it was this big," she said, working to sift the clay mud around the tusk, about 6 inches of which was visible poking up from the ground.
But that's the thing about excavations in Saltville, Gilmore said, the salty clay keeps the fossils wet, which preserves them and results in the large fossils.
The fossils found in Saltville are taken to the natural history museum in Gray, Schubert said. There, they go through a process to remove the salt and preserve them so they can become part of the museum's collection. Then, Schubert said, they are studied and a report is published.
He believes that because of the age of the fossils being found in Saltville, it is possible researchers will also discover evidence of early humans there.
"The end of the Ice Age was one of the most exciting times in earth's record," he said. "All of these monstrous creatures were going extinct."
That's part of Schubert's job - to figure out what was going on then to cause the extinction, and to paint the picture of what life might have looked like.
And, he said, that life could have included humans.
"We haven't found any leg bones yet," Schubert said of the mammoth fossil that was found nearby. "The leg bones were what people would have carried off. I'd love to get this site on the map as a record of early humans, but we haven't seen enough evidence yet."
Schubert will speak about the find and its scientific significance at 7 tonight at the Museum of the Middle Appalachias in Saltville. On Friday, a kids camp will be held.
Schubert said although Saltville is known as a dig site, not much has been published about what has been found there.
"We know there's a tremendous story here to tell, and no one has told that story," Schubert said.