Blake De Pastino
A wildfire high in the alpine forests of northwestern Wyoming has revealed a vast, centuries-old Shoshone campsite, replete with cooking hearths, ceramics, and stone tools and flakes numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
The site, found along Caldwell Creek in the Absaroka Range, had likely been used intermittently for as much as 2,500 years, archaeologists say.
But most of the artifacts point to a prolonged and impactful presence by the Mountain Shoshone some 300 to 400 years ago.
“This time period is significant,” said. Dr. Laura Scheiber, archaeologist at Indiana University, who reported the find, “because a massive campsite of this age is extremely rare in the mountains, without evidence of historic trade goods but with a wide variety of activities implied by the range of materials.”
“We have documented small arrow points, pottery sherds, bone tools, distinctive bifacial knives, grooved mauls, and hundreds of thousands of tiny chipped stone flakes,” she said.
The camp was first discovered after the Norton Point fire, which burned 23,000 acres in the Washakie Wilderness in the Shoshone National Forest throughout the summer of 2011.
A small exposed section of the campsite reveals the distribution of artifacts . (Photo courtesy L. Scheiber. May not be used without permission.)
When the trails in the area were re-opened that fall, archaeologist Larry Todd went to survey the burned ground and found “many newly-exposed sites radiating out from an extremely-popular modern trailhead and campground,” Scheiber said.
“This is how the Caldwell site was first discovered — during a half-hour stop during a blitzkrieg trip to record the locations of as many sites as possible.”
In time, Scheiber, who has spent more than a decade studying alpine sites in the Absaroka range, was called in to help study the site in depth.
Reaching it required a four-mile hike from base camp with pack mules and horses at an altitude of 8,300 feet, but the scene that awaited Scheiber and her team was worth it, she said.
“It was obvious that we were camping on top of an archaeological site,” said Scheiber, who described the ground where the burn had been most intense as a “carpet” of stone artifacts.
“On the black ground were thousands of exploded red and orange and yellow pieces of chipped stone artifacts.
“Rarely would archaeologists have the opportunity to witness a site in its full aerial scope like this.”
Some of the artifacts were projectile points fashioned in a style that’s at least 2,500 years old, Scheiber said.
But the bulk of what remained were stone tools and ceramics made and used by the Mountain Shoshone, likely a few centuries before contact with Europeans.
Taken whole, the scene provides a deep view into the history of the Tukudika people, once known as the Lemhi or Mountain Sheepeaters, whose modern descendants include members of the Shoshone-Bannock and Eastern Shoshone tribes.
“The site did indeed prove to be a late period Mountain Shoshone campsite, with triangular arrow points, beveled knives, sherds from at least three different ceramic vessels, large grooved mauls, ground stone, and dozens of bifaces in different stages of production and use,” Scheiber said.
Thousands of years of use have made the site a palimpsest of artifacts, which makes it difficult to discern one period of occupation from another, she noted, but a few areas of the campsite stand out in bold relief.
“For instance,” she said, “on the other side of camp is another incredibly complex site, where people left behind thousands of pieces of chipped stone in a primary reduction area, reducing locally-available chert cobbles into manageable pieces.
“In the middle of one of the large clusters of thousands of flakes was a perfectly preserved complete Mountain Shoshone tri-notched arrow point.”
Upstream from there, she added, a series of hearths was found, along with a Shoshone knife and what appears to be a grinding rock.
Perhaps most striking, the site also included hundreds of fragments of Intermountain Ware, the thick, flat-bottomed pottery that’s distinctive of pre-contact Shoshone culture.
“The recovery of more than 1,000 ceramic sherds is especially exciting,” Scheiber said, “since this robust dataset effectively triples the number of high-altitude ceramics in the region and will allow us to explore a number of fine-grained temporal and spatial questions about late pre-contact Shoshone life in the mountains.”
In addition to big-picture issues about the history and movement of the Mountain Shoshone, the campsite at Caldwell Creek also offers glimpses into their day-to-day lives hundreds of years ago, Scheiber noted.
“Excavations at the Caldwell Creek site have revealed a tremendous variety of artifact types and hence, of people’s activities,” she added.
“People were cooking and hunting and re-sharpening tools and making tools.”
Biface blades, or Shoshone knives, were among the stone tools found at the site. (Photo courtesy L. Scheiber. May not be used without permission.)
In all, the site uncovered by the Norton Point wildfire is a microcosm of pre-contact Mountain Shoshone life, Scheiber said.
Since her study was first conducted, the forest has reclaimed the surface of the site, she noted, re-covering it with new grass, wildflowers, and brush.
But its lessons are manifold, from the new insights it provides into the migrations and lifeways of the Mountain Shoshone, to the need it demonstrates for more study of high-altitude sites like it.
“Mountains are often identified as the ultimate wilderness,” Scheiber said.
“They are seen as pristine natural worlds that reflect things as they used to be. …
“[But] the mountains are not unmodified by humans. People had, and have, entrenched and persistent connections to those places.”
“The Shoshone world in particular in the Central Rockies is broader than previously imagined,” she said.
“It extends farther across space, and farther back in time.”