Dennis Cassinelli: A visit to Lovelock Cave is a visit to prehistoric Nevada
This is the first column 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. 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 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’s 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 250 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 more than 10,000 well-preserved specimens from the cave between April 1 and Aug. 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. I’ve written extensively about Lovelock Cave in my books, Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians, Legends of Spirit Cave and Uncovering Archaeology.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.