Apr 21

High-Altitude Archaeology

A 2,000-year-old basket…a 4,800-year-old atl-atl used to hurl projectiles…a 10,000-year-old spear shaft. These are some of the items found along the melting edges of high-altitude ice patches in and around Yellowstone National Park. As the ice patches recede as a result of global climate change, many of these archaeological treasures—if not retrieved—will disintegrate within days of being exposed to air.

To date, archaeologists have not had the resources to monitor these sites regularly and remove items as they are exposed. But a new project supported by Yellowstone Forever may enable the retrieval of priceless artifacts from the ice patches, before it’s too late.

The sites at risk are ancient ice patches found in very remote, high-elevation areas in the Absaroka mountains in the eastern part of the park. Since prehistoric times, Yellowstone wildlife—primarily bighorn sheep and other ungulates—migrated to these ice patches in the summer to get away from heat and biting insects. Indians knew this and hunted there, where it was difficult for the animals to flee.

At elevations around 10,000 feet, these mountaintops receive new snow year-round. Eventually, the snow compacts and turns to ice, encasing any items left behind by prehistoric hunters.

Frozen in Time

img_6005_webThere are many archaeological sites throughout Yellowstone, but park archaeologist Staffan Peterson explains what makes these high-altitude sites unique.

“The ice patches contain cryogenically preserved organic specimens. At lower altitude sites we only find stone artifacts, but in these unique settings we may also have items made from leather, skins, or wood,” said Peterson.

“The types of things we find at these sites offer insights into the daily lives of the people who occupied this land. The mountains and their resources also have spiritual significance to tribes. The ice patches are absolutely unique storehouses of information on prehistoric people in Yellowstone.”

There are no plans to excavate these sites in the traditional sense. Instead, archaeologists hope to collect items that were previously encased in ice from the edges of ice patches, as they are gradually exposed by melting ice. The ice patches vary in size from 1 to 100 acres.

Treasures at Risk

new_picture__4_A visit to one ice patch in the eastern part of the park last summer underscored the urgency to collect artifacts at these sites as soon as possible. “It’s a race to a disappearing finish line,” said Peterson.

Peterson said that his team had monitored the site on and off for the prior five years, but were shocked at what they found last summer.

“The ice patch had decreased in size by fifty percent since the our visit a year prior. We are very concerned by the dramatic loss of ice. It is an alarm bell for what is probably happening to ice patches across the park.”

In addition to the risk of destruction by the elements, there is also danger of looters getting to the items first. Even though removing artifacts from government land is a felony, it does occur, making it necessary for park officials to keep the exact locations of archaeological sites a secret.

Mountainous Challenges

2013-09-14_13_webDespite their historic and cultural importance, it is very difficult to monitor the Yellowstone ice patch sites on a regular basis. It takes on average two days for researchers to hike into the sites, off-trail, even with pack-mule support. Peterson is the only archaeologist on staff in Yellowstone, and funding for archaeological research is scarce.

Funds raised by Yellowstone Forever for the High-Altitude Archaeology Project would enable Peterson to partner with archaeologists from other government agencies, universities, and associated tribes of Yellowstone National Park to monitor the sites often and collect exposed items.

In addition to covering staffing and lab analysis like carbon dating, funds raised could allow the teams to take a helicopter to the sites to save multiple days of travel and visit the sites more often.

Peterson explained that there are currently three priority ice-patch sites to monitor in Yellowstone. He believes that a fourth was already lost due to inability to access it on a regular basis.

“Our goal is to preserve and protect in perpetuity any artifacts and specimens significant to the history of Yellowstone,” said Peterson. “It is our duty as stewards of the land to do our best to try to rescue these items before it is too late.”

Yellowstone Forever is working to fund the High-Altitude Archaeology project at $50,000 per year for three years. Call 406-586-6303  for more information on how you can help.

By Christine Gianas Weinheimer 

Photos courtesy of NPS/INSTAAR/USFS/Craig M. Lee