Big Bone Cave
|Big Bone Cave|
|Location||Van Buren County, Tennessee|
|Length||9.627 m (15.494 km)|
|Main Entrance, Arch Cave Entrance (collapsed)|
Big Bone Cave
|Location:||Van Buren County, Tennessee, USA|
|Nearest city:||Bone Cave, Tennessee|
|Added to NRHP:||April 11, 1973|
Big Bone Cave is a cave located in Van Buren County, Tennessee, in the community of Bone Cave. It is notable both for its history and current recreational use. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a 334-acre (1.4 km2) State Natural Area managed by Rock Island State Park (Tennessee). It is named for the discovery of the bones of a giant ground sloth in 1811. The cave was operated as a saltpeter mine, notably during the War of 1812 and the American Civil War. A variety of natural remains and human artifacts has been well preserved in the dry atmosphere of the cave. The cave is the 7th longest mapped cave in Tennessee.
Big Bone Cave is notable for the 1811 discovery of the fossil skeleton of a giant ground sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii), from which its name is derived. The skeleton is now in the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Later notable discoveries, in 1971, include the fossil bones of a large, Pleistocene jaguar (Panthera onca augusta).
Big Bone Cave was mined extensively by Native Americans from about 3,000 years ago to 1,500 years ago. These people were mining medicinal salts and gypsum. The exact use of the gypsum is unknown, but it may have served some religious purpose. Other caves in the region were also mined for salts and gypsum, including Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.
Because of the extremely dry nature of much of Big Bone Cave, some remarkable artifacts have been found inside the cave. These are items that would have rapidly deteriorated in surface sites. Especially numerous were cane torches, which have yielded Carbon-14 dates from 1,050 B.C. to A.D. 355. Other artifacts found in the cave include woven moccasins, gourd fragments, and a woven fiber bag. Desiccated human feces are also numerous in the cave. These were originally located by the Clayton County Cavers Grotto on December 13, 1981. This discovery led to a full-scale archaeological study conducted between August 1984 and August 1985. Archaeological studies continue in the cave to the present.
Big Bone Cave was operated as a saltpeter mine (the principal ingredient of gunpowder) from 1810 to 1815, and again during the American Civil War from about 1861 through 1863. Big Bone Cave was possibly the largest ever saltpeter mining operation in the United States. Mining ceased when Tennessee was occupied by Federal troops.
Saltpeter mining artifacts remain in a remarkable state of preservation. The area known as the "Skyway", which is located in the Bone Cave Branch, has dozens of large, square-shaped leaching vats, located beneath an aerial walkway, known as the "Skyway". There are also wooden water pipes and a few wooden ladders. The wood is basically as sound as when it was placed in the cave, probably during the Civil War. The area known as the "Musterground" has five large, square-shaped vats that are also in a well-preserved state. It is assumed that these date from the Civil War. However, there are dozens of smaller, V-shaped vats that are in a deteriorated state. It is assumed that these are older and date from the War of 1812. The cave had another entrance at the far end of the Musterground that was known as the Arch Cave Entrance. This entrance may have collapsed during the New Madrid Earthquakes that occurred between December 16, 1811 and February 7, 1812.
Big Bone Cave was purchased by the State of Tennessee in 1974 and is now a state natural area in the state park system.
The current map of Big Bone Cave shows 9.6 miles (15.5 kilometers) of surveyed passage. This makes Big Bone Cave the 7th longest mapped cave in Tennessee, the 60th longest mapped cave in the United States and the 230th longest mapped cave in the world. It is securely gated, and entrance is by permission only.
The state of Tennessee closed all state-owned caves to exploration and visitation in 2009 to quell the spread of White nose syndrome, a disease that affects only bats. Very few bats actually live in Big Bone Cave.
- Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Big Bone Cave Natural Area
- George M. Crothers, "Final Report on the Survey and Assessment of the Prehistoric and Historic Archaeological Remains in Big Bone Cave, Van Buren County, Tennessee", Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, April, 1986, 66 pages
 Further reading
- Smyre, John L. and Zawislak, Ronald L., (2007) Big Bone and the Caves of Bone Cave Mountain , Rocky River Press, Rock Island Tennessee ISBN 978-0-9779471-0-2 ISBN 0-9779471-0-6
- Matthews, Larry E. (2006) Big Bone Cave, National Speleological Society ISBN 1-879961-24-5
- Barr, Thomas C., Jr., "Caves Of Tennessee", Bulletin 64 of the Tennessee Division of Geology, 1961. See pages 451-460.