Detail of breccia

Jacob’s Cavern

This blog represents the third entry in a blog new series – Peabody 25 – that will delve into the history of the Peabody Museum through objects in our collection. A new post will be out with each newsletter, so keep your eyes peeled for the Peabody 25 tag!

Contributed by Marla Taylor

The unassuming and muddled looking object below is a piece of loosely formed breccia from Jacob’s Cavern in McDonald County, Missouri.

Breccia from Jacob's Cavern
Breccia from Jacob’s Cavern

Breccia is a type of rock that is composed of broken fragments of other rocks that have been cemented together by a fine-grained matrix – this process can take thousands of years. While this piece is not yet solid rock, it is on the way.  In this case, the matrix (or glue) is ash from thousands of fires that sustained life in the cavern for hundreds of years.

Acting on a tip from a local named E.H. Jacobs, Charles Peabody and Warren Moorehead traveled to Jacob’s Cavern in April of 1903 to examine the site.  Upon arrival, they found a large rockshelter of limestone with hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites, and the floor was covered with a thick layer of fine ash up to 1.5 meters (nearly 5 feet) deep! This ash is most likely the direct result of untold numbers of small fires in the cavern to keep the occupants warm over the years of use.

Peabody and Moorehead excavated the thick layer of ashes in using a careful grid system and uncovered hundreds of artifacts.  The stone tools were primarily projectile points and blades with relatively few large tools like axes.  They also found a ‘considerable’ number of bone needles and awls.  These small bone tools are essential in daily life to create, maintain, and repair clothing and other basic equipment.  The sheer volume of ash and artifacts in the cavern indicates long-term occupation.

All evidence of human occupation – stone and bone tools, food debris – in the cavern was found in the layer of ashes and intermingled with breccia.  And, most notably, many artifacts are visible within the breccia (see the photo below).  This means that they were created, used, and discarded before the formation of the breccia and were left undisturbed for possibly thousands of years.

Detail of breccia
Detail of breccia with stone tools circled in green and bone fragments circled in yellow.

Peabody and Moorehead brought samples of the breccia and hundreds of collected artifacts back to the Peabody in 1903 while excavations continued by Mr. Jacobs for another couple years.  Published in 1904, the report of their work became the first Bulletin published by the Department of Archaeology.  The entirety of this report can be found here.

The work done by Peabody and Moorehead with Jacob’s Cavern became a foundation for later work at the Peabody.  Explore and excavate a little-known site, bring the materials back to Andover for study, publish about that work, and provide invaluable new research and insight into the field of archaeology.

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