Rockshelters at Mammoth Cave National Park

The view from within a cave at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Ask a Southeastern archeologist if she studies cavemen…and she may tell you that she does! SEAC archeologists Robert Hellmann and Timothy Roberts have just returned from a week of site condition assessments at Mammoth Cave National Park (MACA).

MACA is part of the longest cave system in the world.

Tradition holds that enslaved cave guide Nick Bransford purchased his freedom by selling eyeless fish to park visitors.

It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve. The park includes approximately 53,000 acres of topographically diverse above-ground terrain and hundreds of miles of subterranean caverns with their own geological, social, and industrial history. Rivers, sinks, springs, creeks, and swallets water the land and the caves alike. The diverse range of plants and animals at MACA is a product of the unique environments protected by the park.

More than a half million people visit MACA every year to tour the caves, camp, hike, bike, and horseback ride. Unfortunately, some visitors engage in other, often illegal activities that damage, sometimes irreparably, natural and cultural resources within the park.

Disturbance caused by a fallen tree root ball at a MACA archeological site.

It is the mission of the National Park Service to “preserve, unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” The preservation and integrity of cultural resources, including archeological sites in National Parks are threatened by plants, animals, wind, and water. Burrowing critters can tear up archeological deposits from the top down and vice versa. A living tree’s roots can grow straight through archeological deposits. Trees can fall onto historic structures and the roots balls of falling trees can rip large sections of sites right from the ground. The adverse effects of flooding and erosion can almost go without further comment and wildfires present their own set of preservation challenges.

But by far, the worst and most preventable negative impacts to archeological sites are willfully caused by human beings.

Hand-carved sign at the entrance to Crystal Cave reads “Great Crystal Cave Discovered Dec 18, 1917 by Floyd Collins

In a previous post, we explored the juxtaposition of historic graffiti as a cultural resource and modern graffiti as destructive vandalism at MACA. But, as an eyesore that also contributes to ecological degradation, graffiti pales in comparison to looting. Revolutionary and Civil War battlefield sites across the Southeast have suffered from unauthorized excavations by selfish metal detectorists. Native American burial and sub-structural mounds have suffered from the wanton shovels of pot hunters.

Like prehistoric mounds, rockshelters are often beacons on the landscape. They are silent repositories created by the social and ceremonial activities of past Native Americans, and imbued by them with spiritual significance in the eyes of their living descendants. Unfortunately, these sites are also beacons for so-called relic hunters.

View from within a small MACA rockshelter.

While no prehistoric mounds have been identified at MACA, there are more than 150 rockshelters among the park’s documented archeological sites. During our recent round of site condition assessments we visited 18. They ranged in size from that of a covered city bus stop to that of a Broadway theater stage. Some are set high on steep ridges. Others are just above creek terraces next to spectacular waterfalls. Some are remote and others are accessible just off of park roads and hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. They range from being possibly unknown to any living people save archeologists, resource managers, and park law enforcement officers, to those regularly visited by hikers, illegally used a campsites, defaced by vandals, and attacked by looters.

Take nothing but pictures…

w250x249_THIEF OF TIME croppedThe damage caused by looting goes beyond the willful destruction of archeological sites in violation of the Archaeological Resource Protection Act; defacing government property in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1361; theft of government property in violation of 18 U.S.C. 641; disturbing human remains and funerary offerings in violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

With rare exceptions, unauthorized removal of artifacts and excavation of archeological sites destroys context, the most important concept in archeology. This is like tearing pages out of a one-of-a-kind book, and becomes particularly upsetting at sites with the potential to contain intact stratigraphy.

A large rockshelter above a creek and alluvial terrace.

When diagnostic artifacts are stolen, features churned up and destroyed, and organic materials that can be radiocarbon dating are displaced, much of the potential information these objects contain can become essentially obsolete. The goal of an archeologist is not simply to find neat stuff but to understand the relationships between neat (and not-so-neat) stuff to answer questions about past human experience. The relationships are key, and context is the relationships.

Some rockshelters in Kentucky contain deposits extending more than 10,000 years back to the Paleoindian period; others have evidence of more recent historic uses. They provide excellent opportunities for testing hypotheses about past climate, settlement and mobility, subsistence, economic organization, trade and exchange and other big picture questions regarding change through time that archeology is especially suited to answer.

MACA rockshelter with historic and prehistoric artifacts.

Even seemingly “simpler” questions about how people have used rockshelters through time would be nearly impossible to answer without archeological investigations.

For example:

What researchers are able to do with paleofeces is remarkable! While analyzing 100 specimens of prehistoric dried human feces from Salts Cave at MACA, archeologists Patty Jo Watson and Richard Yarnell (1966) identified wild strawberry seeds in the same specimens as hickory nuts and acorns, among other species. Since the berries were likely eaten immediately whereas the hickory and acorns could be stored with relative ease, this data strongly suggested that the end-user who created the coprolite visited the cave sometime in the late spring or early summer.

Thirty years later,
chromatography and radioimmunoassay were used to measure levels of testosterone and estradiol in

Example of paleofeces from Furna do Estrago. Wikimedia Commons.

both modern fecal reference samples and paleofecal samples from Salts Cave (Sobolik et al. 1996). That is to say, researchers can test whether a coprolite was made by a man or woman!

Other important insights from paleofeces analyses include the nature of health and nutrition, human parasites, and evidence for prehistoric plant domestication.

Park resource manager Larry Johnson accompanied us to two rockshelters where he had observed evidence of unauthorized excavations. He described looting as a pathology; a compulsive or obsessive behavior tantamount to an addiction. For some, the excitement is derived from the hunt for artifacts more than the objects themselves. He related stories from when he served as a park law enforcement officer and observed looters in plain sight so focused on collecting that they were unaware of his presence until he had announced himself.

SEAC archeologist Robert Hellamann and MACA resource manager Larry Johnson at a rockshelter with evidence of unauthorized excavation. Note the spoil piles from looter’s pits just below the center of the frame.
It is illegal to harvest wild ginseng at MACA.

One park employee remarked that it is almost as though there’s a fringe group of people who are essentially career criminals bent on stealing from the public for private profit. At MACA, illegal artifact collecting and the illicit antiquities trade often go hand-in-hand with littering, growing marijuana and illegally harvesting ginseng in the park, the possession and sale of illegal firearms, poaching dear and turkey, and the like.


Eastern Ratsnake
There are plenty of rattlesnakes at MACA, but this eastern ratsnake was the only serpent we encountered.

The disregard of law and public property, or at best carelessness and selfishness, that accompanies a relic hunting mentality apparently also seems to lend itself to conspiracy theories that somehow justify  the looting of sites. Of those shared with us by park personnel, my personal favorite revolves around the abundance of deer in the park. At one point, there were so many deer in the park that some were humanely captured by resource managers and released into Wildlife Management Areas. The conspiracy theory holds that the deer were being exchanged for rattlesnakes that were then dropped in crates with parachutes from black UN helicopters into the park. No one is quite sure how this patently false rumor was started…the Onion, perhaps?

A remote rockshelther hidden by vegetation.

Maintaining a park service presence at rockshelters is a challenge given the sheer number of them in the park, their wide distribution, and in most cases remote locations. Furthermore, park visitors are allowed to visit rockshelters. However, they are not permitted to remove, deface, or otherwise disturb the natural and cultural resources associated with a rockshelter…or anywhere else in the park.

America depends on you to serve as a steward of our cultural resources. Be a part of the solution: If You See Something, Say Something!

If you visit a rockshelter or other archeological site and see evidence of vandalism or disturbance, notify park staff. If you know someone who engages in these activities, let them not that it’s not cool and they are in violation of federal law.


During this trip, SEAC archeologist also evaluated the condition of a range of other site types including open-air prehistoric lithic scatters, historic homesteads and stores, and Civilian Conservation Corps camps. They even found time to map a newly rediscovered cemetery.

Check out this interactive online map of cemeteries at Mammoth Cave National Park!

Mapping Minyard Cemetery.


20160427_100811Read about one MACA visitor’s experience! 

Or check out MACA park ranger Cole Goodman’s #FindYourPark story!

Interested in more modern human habitations in Kentucky? Check out this award-winning blog!


Watson, Patty Jo and Richard A. Yarnell

1966 Archaeological and Paleoethnobotanical Investigations in Salts Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. American Antiquity 31(6):842-849.

Sobolik KD, KJ Gremillion, PL Whitten, and PJ Watson

1996 Sex determination of prehistoric human paleofeces. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 101(2):283-90.



  1. Hi Tim. I bet you were wondering if you were going to get any comments. Here are a few:

    1) You said: “One park employee remarked that it is almost as though there’s a fringe group of people who are essentially career criminals bent on stealing from the public for private profit. At MACA, illegal artifact collecting and the illicit antiquities trade often go hand-in-hand with littering, growing marijuana and illegally harvesting ginseng in the park, the possession and sale of illegal firearms, poaching dear and turkey, and the like.”

    I frequently hear statements like this from federal or state agency archaeologists, but I never see any comprehensive evidence or statistical sets to back them up. I am not an artifact collector myself, but I grew up knowing many artifact collectors in my geographic area. Out of all those people (perhaps about 100 people), I only knew about four or five people who were rumored to occasionally collect artifacts on public lands. That would be about 5 percent tops, and to the best of my knowledge, none of them were involved in parallel illicit or illegal activities of any sort. From occasionally visiting artifact collector forums and websites on-line, I know the majority of artifact collectors who do not hunt or dig for artifacts on public lands get really offended by anecdotal reporting like that expressed in your statement above. In the news media, they feel professional archaeologists intentionally use the occasional looting drug addict, illicit firearms dealer, or poacher to wrongly libel, slander, and smear the entire American artifact collecting community before the eyes of the American public. I think a good example is the Arkansas NPS archaeologist who famously left the news media with the impression that all artifact collectors are drug addicts, crack cocaine manufacturers, and drug dealers.

    Being a professional archaeologist myself, I am in no way a supporter of looting (illegal or otherwise) or irresponsible artifact collecting. However, I do believe the American public and taxpayers like me are entitled to objective and unbiased information and data reporting from federal archaeologists and other federal employees in news media venues. I believe any such reported information in the news media, including your article, needs to be backed up by the presentation of reliable evidence and credible statistics rather than anecdotes and opinions. For example, if 100 people have been caught looting on Mammoth Cave property, I would like to see you report the actual percentages of those people who were involved in each type of parallel illegal or illicit activities. If you know the 100 regular artifact collectors who live in the Mammoth Cave area, and I hope the NPS does because I sure would make it a point to know them if I were an NPS archaeologist there. I would like to know what percentage of these overall collectors have actually been charged or convicted of looting on Mammoth Cave lands.

    2) Have any NPS archaeologists at Mammoth Cave ever attempted to identify all of the legal and illegal artifact collectors who live in their geographic area within Kentucky? I would think that would be a bit difficult to do—but not too difficult. I feel absolutely certain that I could do so.

    3) I know they must have “no looting” signs at Mammoth Cave. But I think there is more to stopping looting than just putting out a sign. I recall with more than just a little bit of horror and amusement the construction workers who intentionally rolled their heavy equipment over both the signage and the orange plastic fencing surrounding some cultural resources at the Cumberland Gap NPS facility about 10 years ago. For whatever crazy reason, even the best of people—like these construction workers—tend to ignore signs from time to time. Once identified, do you think comprehensive NPS education of Mammoth Cave area artifact collectors about the illegality of looting might reduce the amount of looting at the park? See my blog article on this subject:

    Run this by some of your NPS buddies—for a few laughs if nothing else.

    Thanks Robert—good article overall!!!

    • I was indeed wondering about the public response to the article. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments and for sharing your interesting blog! To respond:

      1) The LOOT Clearinghouse might contain data on the association between illegal antiquities and other illicit activities (possible future blog post?). Still, I can’t disregard the statements I have heard again and again from other archeologists, law enforcement agents, and resource managers – this is testimony not intuition.
      2) I am not aware of any program to systematically identify artifact collectors in the Mammoth Cave area. The upcoming 22nd Annual Elizabethtown Prehistoric Artifact Show would probably be a good place to start.
      3) There really aren’t many “no looting” signs at Mammoth Cave. This is partly due to concern for the integrity of the view shed, but small, tastefully placed signage might help. Increased park personnel presence in the backcountry might also help. I don’t think that education on the “finer nuts and bolts” of antiquity law would help but would it harm?

      It has been my experience that many collectors feel what they do is hardly different from the work of an archeologist. There is probably greater ignorance surrounding how professional archeology is done than the illegality of collecting artifacts on federal property. This is the fault of archeologists. Too many of us disregard the importance of public outreach and engagement. I hope that we are helping to change that in some small way through these blogs.


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