Robert Smet's Diary
Mammoth Cave, USA
July 16-25, 2003


Friday, July 25, 2003
Thursday, July 24, 2003
Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
Monday, July 21, 2003
Sunday, July 20, 2003

Saturday, July 19, 2003
Friday, July 18, 2003
Thursday, July 17, 2003
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
Friday, July 11, 2003

Related Sites

Friday, July 25, 2003

The time on the project passed with unbelievable speed. As I drove away from the park, I reflected on the diverse group that had come together to work toward a common goal. My thanks to Alcoa, Earthwatch, and the USNPS for this wonderful opportunity. It was an incredible learning experience and a wonderfully refreshing way to break up the summer. Thanks as well to the team: Chuck, Daran, Dave, Don, George, Helaine, Ilana, Joanna, Nancy, and Nayoko. I can't remember when I have had such fun. A hearty 'Gratz' to you all.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Today will be taken up by mapping and photographing the remaining flagged artifacts. This last day has me in a melancholy mood. I am looking forward to rejoining my family but am already missing the cave. The silence while underground is palpable. A hint of the unknown and mysterious is present as well. Crawling belly-to-rock, away from the boardwalks and trails constricting the tour's movements, has deepened my appreciation for the cave. The siren's song is there just beyond the glow of our lanterns, beckoning. I can taste a bit of what I've seen in the eyes of the experienced cavers we've met during this time. They know more of the belly crawls through slabs of stone, exhaling to squeeze through a hole in the wall of a cave or crossing underground rivers, chins tilted, to keep their mouths above water. Our trips through the huge airy passages we have worked in would hardly be considered true caving by most spelunkers.

I am beginning to see the appeal of pressing onward into tighter, less traveled spaces.

Bob Ward returned to express the U.S. National Park Service's appreciation for the work the team had done. All of the Mammoth Cave National Park staff members I had the pleasure of dealing with were most knowledgeable and very courteous.

The last day in the cave was swallowed in a frenzy of completing tasks still unfinished. As I carried the last of the team's equipment to the surface, I reflected with amusement on the hesitancy the team had shown on the first trip below. Time underground has become a preferred option to the surface. Fondly, I tried to fasten the last images of the cave in my mind as I moved upward and out into a charnel warmed by steam.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Good progress was made on continuing to map and document our discoveries. The cave is none the less beautiful after all of our trips in, and the cool air is just as welcome.

Before entering the cave, I made time to hike to the River Styx Spring. It is at this point that the waters flowing through the lower levels of the cave emerge at the surface and continue their journey to the Green River. New passageways are being formed even today. The flowing water continues to eat away at the layers of limestone, just as it has for millions of years.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Discovery, mapping, and the final task of photography of the more noteworthy artifacts are underway simultaneously. The team members are comfortable in any of the roles and are working well together. I continue to be amazed by the scale of the cave. Between the side trips taken and those sections the team is working in, we will be able to see almost 100% of the areas open to the public as well as a few additional areas the public cannot visit. Even then, we will have traveled only around 2% of the total cave's length! The enormity of Mammoth is staggering.

Some of the signatures smoked onto the ceilings or scratched onto the walls hold more weight than the usual 19th century tourist names. Past owners of the cave and many of the famous guides of the 1800's have left their mark as well. One of the most recognized is the name Bishop. Stephen Bishop was perhaps the best known of the Mammoth Cave guides. A slave, Stephen Bishop was part of the transfer as the cave traded hands from Franklin Goran to Dr. Croghan in the 1850's. Bishop, well respected for his knowledge, was literate and charming. Early visitors wrote glowing remarks about their daring guide. Bishop's explorations and map remain key components in the history of Mammoth Cave. His great-nephew, Ed Bishop, carried on the family tradition, becoming well known as a guide and explorer.

Understandably, I was thrilled and humbled to discover and record the name BISHOP scratched into the gypsum crust under an overhanging ledge on the cave wall.

Monday, July 21, 2003

The 21st was set aside as a free day for the team. I chose to travel to Lexington, Kentucky. I spent time in the Kentucky Horse Park and visited Keeneland Raceway. Seabiscuit fever is alive and well in Lexington due to the bestselling novel and movie about this famous racehorse.

That evening, we were able to explore a new piece of the cave. The Frozen Niagara section was the jewel of Morrison's holdings. Kenna Brophy, USNPS, led the team through that section. Unlike the main body of Mammoth Cave, which is protected from surface water intrusion by the mostly intact sandstone cap rock, the Frozen Niagara section is wet. Moisture from the surface makes its way through and around the sandstone to the limestone layer of the cave. Here, the slow-moving water continues to dissolve the limestone. As that limestone, now in solution, is redeposited, many of the more familiar cave formations take shape. Stalactites, stalagmites, and other features are common in this section of the cave. One of the most spectacular is the Frozen Niagara formation, which does indeed appear to be a waterfall frozen in place.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Another U.S. National Park Service employee, Coleen Olson, was kind enough to take us into the cave through what is known as the Carmichael entrance. Here, we were able to see gypsum crystals, or flowers, clinging to the walls and ceiling of the cave. The gypsum has been all but removed from the main cave where we are working. The prehistoric peoples carefully and thoroughly scraped the gypsum from the walls of the main cave. It is suspected that the gypsum was used for making pigments or as a commodity for trading.

We followed the final tours of the day into the historic entrance. The section of the cave we are working in is called Broadway. Mapping of the artifacts—task two—started today. Using a piece of surveying equipment known as a theodolite that is linked to a data recorder, we entered the location and type of each artifact found. In addition, we mapped several areas that had been excavated by staff and students from the University of Kentucky. These excavations are being done in anticipation of planned upgrades to lighting and pathways by the USNPS. Knowledge of where artifacts are buried will allow the work to proceed with the minimum amount of impact to cultural resources.

In addition to the historic entrance we use to enter the cave each day, there are several other access points to the cave. Some are not natural. A few were created early in the 20th century. One individual, George D. Morrison, spent a great amount of time in Mammoth Cave during the first part of the 1900's. On these trips, he came to the realization that sections of the cave must extend beyond property owned by the Mammoth Cave Estate. He subsequently purchased property adjoining the Mammoth Cave Estate's holdings and began the search for his own entrance to Mammoth Cave in earnest. In 1921, Morrison blasted what has come to be known as the new entrance. Frenzied competition by Morrison and others to draw tourists away from the main cave to the new entrance and other caves in the area culminated in the Cave Wars of the 1920's. Scruples were cast aside in the competition for travelers' dollars. Ultimately, many of the tracts outside of the original Mammoth Cave Estate holdings were secured for inclusion in the National Park.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Ready to return to the cave upon waking but limited to the afternoon and evening due to the tour schedule in the cave, we find other means of occupying our mornings. I explore the park's hiking trails—many deer, many turkey. They did well to set this area aside as a U.S. national park.

The cave's cool conditions are a relief after sweating in the hot sun for the early part of the day. We continue moving slowly and methodically over the broken chunks of limestone. Our world is restricted to the illuminated circle cast by our headlamps. The team continues, lights shining between, around, under—seeking anything that might indicate the passing of others.

Lunch is taken in a section of the cave called Gothic Avenue. This swooping chamber winds far beyond the point we stop to eat. The ceiling, covered with names and dates smoked on with the flame of a candle more than a century ago, makes for interesting reading as we eat. We recline against a shallow shelf on one wall. The top of this shelf is where one of the Mammoth Cave mummies was on display during the 1800's. Rumors of ghosts and hauntings abound in this section of the cave. Nobody wanders too far into the darkness.

Friday, July 18, 2003

July 18th marked the beginning of the team's real work. We began the first of three tasks we will be asked to do as part of the project. The discovery phase involves crawling over the floor of the cave through what is known as breakdown. Since the formation of the cave, large blocks of limestone have fallen from the cave's ceiling and walls. This limestone has, in some cases, remained intact but more commonly has broken into smaller pieces. We ply our lights in the cracks and crevices between those broken pieces of stone, searching for signs of previous cave occupants. In places, the breakdown is many meters high, loose, and dangerous. We move lightly across the stone.

When an artifact, either prehistoric or historic, is located, we flag the site and code and record what has been found. These flags will serve as beacons during the mapping and final photography phase.

Signatures on the cave walls from the 1800's, broken bits of glass, flashbulbs, debris from prehistoric torches, and signs of the nitrate mining that took place during the American War of 1812 make up the majority of the artifacts discovered on this first day of searching.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Today, we made our first venture into the cave. A phenomenon that will continue to amaze and delight is the air exchange at the mouth of the cave. As a person approaches, he or she is greeted by a constant wave of cold air roaring upward out of the mouth of the cave. The velocity of the rushing air is proportionate to the outside temperature. On the hottest days, the cold air rises with enough force to push the hair off of the forehead. The thermocline between hot outside air and cold cave air is abrupt—so much so that a coat, long pants, hat, and gloves are no burden when standing in the cave's cool breath. A person 10 feet (three meters) away in shorts and a light shirt perspires in the hot summer air.

Alexander Clark Bullitt, in his 1844 Rambles in Mammoth Cave, was equally fascinated. He wrote, "The ordinary visiter [sic], though rambling a dozen hours or more over paths of the roughest and most difficult kind, is seldom conscious of fatigue, until he returns to the upper air; and then it seems to him, at least in the summer season, that he has exchanged the atmosphere of paradise for that of a charnel warmed by steam—all without is so heavy, so dank, so dead, so mephitic."

This flow of air reverses direction during the winter months.

The scale of the cave is staggering. Vast domes and towering walls dwarf all visitors. The subtle colors of the stone, sharp shadows, and seemingly endless voids beyond the lantern's glow give a sublime quality to time in the cave.

Our USNPS guide for the day, Johnny Miller, described the geologic processes that led to the formation of Mammoth Cave. Some 350 million years ago during the Mississippian Period, central Kentucky was inundated by a vast inland sea. Sea creatures settled to the sea floor as they died, gradually becoming covered with silt. Eventually, these layers solidified under pressure and became limestone. In places, this sedimentary rock layer approaches six hundred feet (183 meters) in depth. During the late Mississippian Period, a river began flowing through the area to the north of Kentucky, ultimately emptying into the sea and forming a broad delta in the area of Mammoth Cave. Fifty feet of sand and sediment covered the limestone already in place. This, too, became rock.

Geologically known as the Kentucky Karst Belt, this limestone deposit is part of a large band extending from Tennessee, through Kentucky, and into Indiana. Rainwater combined with carbon dioxide in the soil to form weak carbonic acid. Eventually, this rainwater made its way through and around the sandstone cap to the vulnerable limestone below. The carbonic acid gradually dissolved the limestone as it ran through fissures in the rock seeking the level of the Green River. The fissures in the limestone expanded and merged. Trickles became underground rivers, sculpting and forming what we now know as Mammoth Cave. As the Green River eroded its own bed, the water in the cave dove deeper as it sought the lower elevation of the river. This process resulted in the different cave levels seen today.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The business day is over, at least for me. I drive northward, rising and rolling through North Carolina's mountains. The imagination can finally rush unimpeded toward Mammoth Cave. My path to Kentucky consciously avoids the interstate highways. Tracing state roads past shuttered gas stations—their signs long past reading—seems more appealing than driving 30 minutes south to gain the privilege of assuming my place in a string of cars desperate to reach their destination.

The back roads are empty.

Despite heavy use of Mammoth Cave by prehistoric peoples, credit for the discovery of the cave is given to 18th century hunter John Houchins. Houchins, hunting in what is now Edmonton County, Kentucky, supposedly pursued a wounded black bear to the cave's entrance. The account of the event is somewhat sketchy, but Houchins retains credit for the modern discovery of the world's longest cave.

Mammoth Cave was given authorization to pursue national park status in 1926. The park was fully established in 1941. In those early years, only 40 miles (64.6 kilometers) of passageways were mapped. At present, more than 360 miles (579 kilometers) of passageways have been documented. The dedicated and courageous efforts of the Cave Research Foundation and its members played a large role in mapping the additional miles.

Sign ahead: "Welcome to Mammoth Cave National Park, a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve."

I am startled by the immediate change from billboards and curio shops to greenery. At last I'm in the park. Slowing, I continue toward Maple Springs Research Center, which will be home for the entirety of my stay. A bit leery, I drive my vehicle onto the Green River ferry for my first ride across the river. The sunlight dims as I turn onto the narrow forest road leading to the center. A flock of wild turkeys and two whitetail deer welcome me.

Arriving at the research center, I introduce myself to the other team members and George Crothers, archaeologist and leader of the band. The U.S. National Park Service's (USNPS) Bob Ward arrives to welcome the team and acquaint us with the history of the park and the archaeology work underway. Tomorrow, we will experience it all for ourselves!

Friday, July 11, 2003

Even as I begin to sort and gather my gear for the trip, the shock at being selected to participate in an Earthwatch expedition hasn't entirely worn off. With afternoon temperatures in the southeastern United States predicted to climb above 32°C (90°F), the relatively constant cave temperature of 13°C (56°F) will be a wonderful change. I may have to wait until autumn to return to the surface!

The discovery, mapping, and recording of cultural artifacts within the toured sections of Mammoth Cave has been underway for several research seasons. Mammoth Cave is unique in that the location, type, and condition of artifacts can be recorded without excavation or other disturbance. The stable conditions inside the cave have allowed artifacts that would have normally degraded above ground to retain much of their original character.

The section of North Carolina where I live and work is incredibly rich in archaeological resources as well. Prehistoric fish weirs, quarry sites, pottery shards, and projectile points are not uncommon. The four Yadkin-Pee-Dee River reservoirs, dams, and powerhouses operated by Alcoa Power Generating Inc.'s (APGI) Hydro Division are licensed by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. As a federal licensee, APGI is obligated to protect cultural resources within the project and is fortunate to have several significant archaeological sites on its property. One of these, the Hardaway Site, was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. National Park Service. At the dedication of the site in 1990, the Statement of Significance read as follows:

"During the Paleo-Indian to Early Archaic Periods (12,000-6,000 BC), prehistoric Indian populations came here to exploit the lithic resources of the area to manufacture projectile points and stone tools; these activities created stratified cultural deposits as much as four feet in depth. This site has played a significant role in the development of archeological method and theory, by advancing knowledge and understanding of the sequential development of prehistoric cultures in the eastern United States, particularly with regard to the earliest periods of human occupation."

As part of my job, I have been fortunate enough to spend time at Hardaway, Doershuk, and other sites looking over the shoulders of professional archaeologists and others and trying to soak up as much as I could. I look forward to learning more in Mammoth Cave!

See you underground!


Related Sites


Paleoindians of Mammoth Cave
Explore the lives of ancient Indians who habitated the caves more than 5,000 years ago.
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Guide to the Mammoth Cave Region
Thinking of visiting? Here's a good place to start.
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Interested in caving?
Visit the National Speleological Society.
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Kentucky (USA)

Kentucky.gov
Official site for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
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Kentucky Department of Travel
Information to help plan a visit to Kentucky
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Photo gallery


View the images from Robert Smet's diary.
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Earthwatch Institute


Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.
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Mammoth Cave Expedition


Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.
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Mammoth Cave National Park


Information about archaeology, geology, biology, conservation, and activities at the park.
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Mammoth Cave National Park-for Visitors


Programs, activities, news, camping, and lodging at the park.
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