Artifacts recovered from Lovelock Cave

Lovelock Cave
Lovelock Cave

In this, the second article about Lovelock Cave, I will describe a few of the thousands of artifacts recovered from the site between 1912 and 1924. The remarkable things about Lovelock Cave were the state of preservation in this dry cave and the amazing variety of well preserved objects that were found there.

Llewellyn L. Loud first began recovering artifacts from the cave in 1912 after guano miners had finished removing tons of bat guano from the floor of the cave. Unfortunately, looters had already removed many items of archaeological value before Loud started his work. Despite the previous ransacking of the cave, Mr. Loud recovered many items of great archaeological and anthropological value.

Approximately 45 sets of human remains ranging from scattered bones to complete mummies and human skeletons were found. One Mummified child about 6 years old wrapped in fish netting was given to the Nevada Historical Society. Loud recovered the remains of a newborn child with the placenta still attached. I recall the days in the 1960s when some of these remains were on display at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno before the insensitive public display of them was discontinued.

Many examples of mammal remains were found in the cave. These included animals that had entered the cave seeking shelter, and others that had been brought into the cave as food by human occupants. examples of these remains include deer, bighorn sheep, wolf, coyote, badger, pronghorn antelope, jackrabbit and cottontail.

Human and animal excrement was found that gave an indication of what these mammals had eaten. Some coyote excrement contained human remains and human excrement revealed what the humans were eating in those days. It was an incredibly coarse diet of seeds, hulls, tough fibers and fish bones.

Bird remains included ducks, geese, pelicans, feathers, bird bone artifacts, and bird skin wearing apparel. The cave contained an abundant collection of artifacts made from bones of various birds and mammals. These included awls, flutes, beads, tubes, fishhooks, pendants and scrapers. Mammal horns and hoofs were used to make spoons, pendants and rattles.

The cave provided protection from the elements to preserve such things as blankets of fir and feathers, strips of rabbit skin made into blankets, skins of meadow mouse and muskrat. Textiles included plant fiber aprons, sandals, and moccasins of tule and rush. Matting was made from grass, spike rush and cane. Many examples of wicker basket work were found.

In 1924, Mark Harrington resumed excavations in the cave started by Llewellyn Loud in 1911. Undoubtedly, many artifacts were stolen from the cave during the 13 years no professional archaeologists worked there. A few of these were brought to Harrington when he started his work at the cave. The excavations done by Mark Harrington were mostly in the deeper areas of the cave where some of the older artifacts were found. Eleven perfectly preserved duck decoys were discovered.

Lovelock Cave decoy Autry

“Harrington, Mark R.?”, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Harrington decided to do a stratigraphic section in the deepest part of the cave. The layers of the stratigraphic section were called the older period, the transition period and the later period. By studying the types of artifacts recovered from these layers, Loud and Harrington were able to determine that atlatls (throwing sticks capable of hurling a lance with great force) were used only during the older period. They found that during the transition period, both atlatls and bows and arrows were used. Finally, the later period, being the most recent, had only bow and arrow artifacts for weapons and hunting.

A visit to Lovelock Cave

Lovelock Cave

Lovelock Cave

This is the first in a two-part series about Lovelock Cave, located on a terrace of ancient Lake Lahontan about 22 miles south of Lovelock in Churchill County, Nevada. The second in the series will describe some of the hundreds of artifacts recovered from the cave. It was excavated in 1912 by archaeologists Llewellyn L. Loud and again in 1924 by Mark R. Harrington. It yielded some of the richest archaeological Treasures ever found in the American West.

Scientists have determined the cave was inhabited by humans in several phases from about 3000 B.C. to about 1900 A.D. In more recent findings, the earliest habitation at the site may have been even older than originally determined by Loud and Harrington. In their classic book, “Lovelock Cave,” these two archaeologists collaborated to tell about the remarkable artifacts and human remains they discovered in the cave. I will describe many of these items in my next article in this series.

Family members and I first visited Lovelock Cave about 20 years ago. I also worked on several highway construction projects in the Lovelock area and hiked around parts of the mostly dry Humboldt Sink, which was once filled with marshes during the time the cave was inhabited. More recently, Phil Hanna and I returned to Lovelock Cave to see the improvements that have been made there to accommodate visitors to the site.

Unlike many other archaeological sites in Nevada, Lovelock Cave has been opened up to visitors who can freely take unescorted tours of the site and safely go inside on a well constructed platform to take photos and to see first-hand the interior of this remarkable site. There is a convenient parking area with a restroom and a path up the steep slope to the cave entrance.

In the early 1900s people exploring the cave found the uneven interior had a layer of bat guano several feet thick that had been deposited over thousands of years. When the ancient Humboldt sink west of the cave was full of water, swarms of bats lived there, eating insects from the marsh and depositing the guano in the cave where they nested. Before long, miners began to excavate the nitrogen rich guano and ship it by railroad to farms in California.

As the guano miners hauled the material away, they began to uncover items from the floor of the cave that had been left there by the former people who had lived there. Uninterested in the baskets, matting, furs, hides and other items, the miners piled much of it on the ground and left it there. Occasionally, bows, arrows, atlatls and other items were discovered. Sometimes, when human remains were found, people from lovelock would come out and take the skulls and some of the skeletons away.

Fortunately, when the amount of what the miners called “Indian Junk” interfered economically with their operation, they abandoned the venture. The guano miners left after removing two hundred fifty tons of guano from the cave. The Nevada Historical Society in Reno salvaged some of the archaeological material from the cave and contacted the University of California for assistance in conducting excavations. They sent L.L. Loud to conduct the unassisted recovery of over 10,000 well preserved specimens from the cave between April 1 and August 1, 1912. This material was divided between the Nevada Historical Society and the University of California.

In 1924, Mark Harrington was sent to the cave by the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation to resume further excavations. In my last article in this series, I will describe a few of the thousands of artifacts that were recovered by Loud and Harrington. No one knows how much valuable archaeological material had been removed from the cave by weekend collectors between 1912 and 1924.