Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



Major Professor

Charles H. Faulkner

Committee Members

Joseph C. Douglas, Jan F. Simek


During the 19th century, the increasing demand for saltpeter, a vital ingredient in gunpowder, led to both large- and small-scale saltpeter-mining operations in caves throughout Tennessee. Although the general procedures in the historic processing of saltpeter are fairly well understood, very little archaeological research has been undertaken on specific saltpeter-mining sites. Historic documentation of mining activities within these caves is scarce, thus systematic studies of these sites are integral to a greater understanding of this early extractive industry. The research presented in this thesis is the first in the region in which archaeological and dendrochronological investigations were used in conjunction in an attempt to remedy this absence of formal study.

The dry environment of deep caves allows for excellent preservation of the material record, thus many saltpeter-mining sites still contain the equipment used in the mining operations, much of it still in context. The subject of this study, Cagle Saltpetre Cave, in Van Buren County, Tennessee, is one such site. My research design was focused on outlining the social history of the site, examining specific mining activities and saltpeter processing technologies employed, establishing specific temporal parameters for when the mining activities took place, and delineating changes in processing technology over time. Both archaeological and dendrochronological principles were employed to address these questions.

The archaeological investigation of Cagle Saltpetre Cave consisted of archival research, a comprehensive survey and mapping project, and Geographical Information Systems (GIS)-based data management and analyses. Archival research was conducted in an attempt to locate historic documentation of the mining operations at Cagle Saltpetre Cave. The cave was comprehensively surveyed and mapped in detail in order to document the location of prehistoric and historic cultural remains. The data generated from the mapping project were then examined for spatial patterns using GIS software. By documenting the spatial relationships of extant artifacts and features, information was gleaned to account for specific activities that took place at the site. In addition, these analyses allowed the reconstruction of other important aspects of the mining operations.

During the mining episodes at Cagle Saltpetre Cave, wooden leaching vats needed for the lixiviation of saltpeter, or calcium nitrate, from mined sediment were constructed and used within the cave. When mining operations ceased, these artifacts were abandoned and preserved in situ, some remaining virtually intact. Their remarkable preservation enabled tree-ring dating of timbers associated with these artifacts. The results of these analyses indicate that saltpeter was mined and processed at the site during three discrete episodes throughout the 19th century. Additionally, saltpeter-processing technology changed throughout the course of the mining operations.

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