Dennis Cassinelli: The burning of Lovelock Cave

Diagrammatic section of stratigraphic area (1924 excavations).

Diagrammatic section of stratigraphic area (1924 excavations).

Lovelock Cave is located 20 miles south of Lovelock and can be reached by traveling through the ranching area south of town. It’s best to look online for directions to the well maintained site. Lovelock Cave has been completely excavated by archaeologists and visitors are allowed to tour the cave on their own. There’s a restroom, shade and a short uphill trail to the cave entrance. Inside, there’s a viewing platform for visitors.

Lovelock Cave originally was excavated by Llewellyn Loud and Mark Harrington between 1911 and 1924. Their work is documented in the book they wrote, “Lovelock Cave.” Most of what we know about prehistoric Nevada we have learned from the archaeological work done at Lovelock Cave, Hidden Cave, Spirit Cave, Winnemucca Lake and a few other sites.

There are numerous legends and stories about fires being set either accidentally or intentionally inside Lovelock Cave. Excavations have revealed places where cooking fires have spread leaving ashes and burned areas. In some places, guano deposits have smoldered for many days. Paiute writer Sarah Winnemucca has written a book, “Life among the Paiutes,” in which she tells about battles that occurred many years ago when the interior of the cave was intentionally set on fire to kill or “smoke out” unfriendly people living there.

My discussion today is about another fire I believe happened in the cave several thousand years ago. In 1924, Mark Harrington drew a diagram he called the “stratigraphic section” showing the various layers he called “periods” as the depth increased to reach the bottom of the cave. He also described the artifacts found in each layer and was able to identify changes in types for each period. For example, the later periods had only bow and arrow artifacts. The transition periods had both bow and arrow and atlatl artifacts. Finally, the older periods had only atlatl artifacts. This tells us the atlatl preceded the invention of the bow and arrow as a weapon.

What really interests me about the diagram is the bottom layer, which is “a layer of ashes of various thickness.” This layer of ashes had to have been from a fire that happened before any of the other layers had been deposited. This means the layer of ashes is the oldest layer in the cave. To me, this indicates an earlier culture inhabited the cave some time between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago. This early man culture lived in the cave long enough to leave deposits of grasses, baskets, bones, hides and other organic material to a depth of several feet.

The day finally came after thousands of years, when the accumulated deposits left by this ancient culture finally caught fire to leave the layer of ashes shown on the diagram. This theory makes the age of habitation for Lovelock Cave similar to that of nearby Hidden Cave and Spirit Cave.

This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.


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