Northeast Wyoming dig finds artifacts as early as 280-460 AD

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

GILLETTE — People have been camping near Keyhole Reservoir for thousands of years.

Long before pop-up campers and pontoon boats descended upon the reservoir on Labor Day, American Indians, European traders and homesteaders looking for a new life set up camp near the Belle Fourche River along what would in 1952 become the shoreline of Keyhole.

Fast forward to August 2013. A team of archaeologists sets up camp at the Bureau of Reclamation's Keyhole Unit with a mission to preserve the history of those people recorded in the artifacts and features near the shoreline before they disappear.

"It's our shared cultural heritage, and those resources belong to the people of the United States," said Kristin Hare, one of the archaeologists. "Through archaeology we get to see how people lived thousands of years ago in our own backyard."

In November, the Bureau of Reclamation's area archaeologist Renee Boen of the Rapid City, S.D., office planned to go to the bureau's Keyhole Unit to renew grazing permits. But she decided that before signing off on the permits, she wanted to see how much historic flooding in 2011 had threatened two archaeological sites near the shoreline.

After inspecting them, Boen realized that the flooding had caused increased erosion and had heavily impacted the sites. Something would have to be done to mitigate the damage.

"(Mitigation) is like if your dog got out and dug a hole in somebody's yard, you have to mitigate that issue. You might have to put some dirt back in the hole and plant some grass for that neighbor. The damage is done, but you have to mitigate it, and then you have to make sure you keep your dog in so it doesn't do any more damage," Boen said. "Under federal law, the Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for taking care of these sites and managing them properly," she said.

The Bureau contracted with SWCA Environmental Consultants' Sheridan office to determine what damage was done by the flooding, and to map, record and excavate the sites and collect artifacts. The team began mapping Aug. 25.

SWCA Environmental Consultants' Sheridan office was hired to investigate both the Catclaw and Stocks Millar Homestead sites on the shoreline of the reservoir, as well as a separate project on portions of a Late Plains Archaic and Late Prehistoric periods site that may be disturbed because of an underground waterline replacement.

The team, led by SWCA field director Andrew Owens of Sheridan, finished its field work after 20 days at Keyhole, excavating, recording and mapping the sites, and camping near the shore at night.

For many, the job would sound like a nightmare. It involved 20 days of digging holes in the earth while covered in dirt and sweating under the hot sun, with the only baths available in a lake with reported high levels of cryptosporidium. Food was cooked only by campfire or small charcoal grills, and they had only a thin layer of sleeping bag separating them from the dirt floor while they slept.

But to the SWCA team, nothing could be better.

Collin Smith of Central City, Colo., Mark Cervantes of Fraser, Colo., and Greg Meldrum of Idaho Springs, Colo., were classmates with Owens at Western State Colorado University, and admit that even if they weren't on the job, they'd probably be camping and talking about archaeology anyway.

Meldrum has been studying archaeology for eight years, and every job is fascinating to him.

"Somebody hunted here thousands of years ago. Maybe they got something, maybe they didn't. But we're the first people to see that in what could be thousands of years," he said.

Team member Cody Newton always found arrowheads while growing up in Buffalo and Sheridan. The mystery of the dig keeps him going.

"You never know what you're going to find," Newton said.

SWCA archaeologist Kristin Hare of Sheridan has been studying the way people lived since childhood. She has been working as Owen's right hand for the past six years. Studying the way people lived came from her parents' influence.

"Anywhere we went (we) would always go with the specific point to go to archaeology sites, and I just fell in love with it when I was a child," she said. "It's our shared cultural heritage, and those resources belong to the people of the United States."

Bureau of Reclamation contracts have been rare for Owens and his team. Most of their projects have been for oil and gas companies needing a study of areas before constructing pipelines, wells and pads, as well as some Bureau of Land Management contracts.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires that any project that involves federal land, money or permits must have archaeological reconnaissance and an inventory of all known and unknown cultural resources.

"The Powder River Basin is probably about as intensely studied as anywhere else in the world due to energy resource development," Newton said.

Severe droughts in the 1930s and the nation's increased energy needs created an explosion of dam construction. Public concern for the potential loss of the cultural resources in the areas flooded by the creation of the dams prompted the Smithsonian Institution to create the River Basin Surveys project in 1945 to conduct surveys to identify cultural resources, and excavate what they thought were the most significant and most threatened sites.

"Usually, you have to go out and determine whether there is stuff there or not. This site was different, it was already known," Hare said referencing previous work done by the River Basin Surveys project in 1948, and limited excavations done by the University of Wyoming in 1985.

That work suggests that at least part of the Catclaw site was occupied between 280-460 AD. The SWCA team excavated three prehistoric rock-filled fire pits at the Catclaw site and found signs, such as tepee rings, indicating that the site extended away from the shoreline. Artifacts such as arrowheads were collected for further research and curation.

The Stocks Millar Homestead site is one of only a few historic ranches deemed significant for listing on the National Register of Historic Places near the reservoir, and university researchers determined that it was occupied between the 1800s and 1950s.

At the homestead, the team excavated a historic trash dump that contained bottles, children's plates and toys, a pocket watch, decorative glass figurines of a crocodile and a bull dog, can fragments, Prince Albert-style standing tobacco tins, marbles, safety pins, old battery cores, horse shoes, saddle tack, cowboy and children's boot soles and fragments. And there were lots of bones from different animals.

"(They) tell the story of early pioneer ranching in good ole Wyoming," Owens said.

Part of SWCA's charge was not only to determine what damage was done by the flooding, but also if the threat from further erosion will require additional protection.

Owens said SWCA probably will recommend that some of the sites be protected with rip rap (piles of stone placed against the shoreline to protect against high water/shoreline encroachment and the potential destruction of the site due to erosion.)

The team also is trying to set up a display at the museums in Moorcroft or Sundance. "But that is still a ways out as artifacts and reports still need research and writing," Owens said.

Damage from erosion is not the only threat that concerns Boen and the team from SWCA. People collecting artifacts from the sites cause irreparable damage. It is illegal to collect artifacts from federal lands or Native American tribal lands.

"If people find something, they can always contact the Wyoming State Archaeologist's office and report it," Boen said. "However, if they are at a park, they can contact the park manager as well. Don't collect."