They would have seemed, to the untrained eye, just pieces of clay. But near a backcountry campsite high in Grand Teton National Park, Matt Stirn and Rebecca Sgouros recognized the flakes as something more. They saw shards of ancient pottery, the first found and documented at high elevations in the Tetons, and a clue that perhaps thousands of years ago people didn’t only venture above 9,000 feet to hunt or travel. They may have lived in alpine villages for extended parts of the year.
This summer, archaeologists Stirn and Sgouros conducted two eight-day surveys above 9,000 feet in Grand Teton National Park and in Caribou-Targhee National Forest where they found 30 new archeological sites, some dating back 10,500 years and others as recent as 1,000 years. Shapes of the spear heads found dated the sites.
The surveys were the first conducted on major tracts of high-elevation landscapes in the park and could shed light on how ancient people used the mountains, as well as their relationships to those who lived in the Wind River Range.
The park was surveyed in the 1970s and 1980s, and there have been occasional projects since, but often the higher elevations were neglected, Stirn said. Most people thought of the higher elevations as too harsh for prehistoric living. High-elevation archaeology is challenging. You must carry all your equipment with you, which means taking a minimum amount of tools. Weather and terrain also challenge the archeologist.
A few years ago Stirn worked with Colorado State University archaeologist Richard Adams, discovering and surveying alpine villages at 10,000 feet in the Wind River Range above Dubois. The sites, which date from about 150 years to 2,000 years old, were situated in whitebark pine forests, likely for easy access to the pine nuts, an important fat source, Stirn said. The survey work, which used computer modeling to help discover the village sites, led to the discovery of tools, pottery, knives and arrowheads, as well as remnants of structures. At one time there were more than 80 dwellings in one area.
“We were absolutely flabbergasted by how much archaeology was up there,” Stirn said.
Stirn published a paper last year in the Journal of Archaeological Findings on the modeling used to locate the villages.
The discoveries in the Winds changed the way Stirn thought about the mountains. If people lived deep in the Wind River Mountains, maybe people also lived high in the Tetons.
Stirn grew up in Jackson Hole at the R Lazy S Ranch, enamored with the Tetons. He was 13 when he started down the path that would lead him to a career in archaeology, volunteering on a dig in town led by Adams.
While his studies and research took him around the world, including deep explorations of the Black Sea, prehistoric life at high altitudes became his speciality. The Tetons continued to intrigue him and the discoveries in the Wind River Mountains gave him hope he might find something similar in his home range.
Stirn and Sgouros surveyed the Tetons in August and September, taking along archaeology students from the University of Wyoming and the University of Montana. While they don’t disclose specific locations to protect the items, most of which they left at the sites, their work took place near high-elevation passes and basins, they said.
Stashed between rocks, as if waiting for their owners to return, they found soapstone bowls. They spotted remnants of tools and obsidian flakes. They also discovered flakes made of petrified wood from the Absaroka Mountains near Dubois, Sgouros said. That means there had to be trade or movement between the people who lived in the Tetons and those in the Absarokas and likely the Winds. The pottery found was similar to items found in the Winds, likely once flowerpot-sized and used for holding water or cooking over a fire.
While some of the sites were likely hunting spots, the pottery hints that people might have stayed at other spots longer and in larger groups. Additional exploration will paint a more detailed history of the people of the area and how they moved through the country, Stirn said.
At least one site closely resembled the alpine villages Stirn surveyed in the Winds where they found stone circles marking where lodge pads once stood. While an excavation next summer will determine whether the area was a village or not, the pottery provides a clue that whole families were spending extended periods of time in the areas.
It isn’t surprising when you think about it, said Sgouros whose specialty is the food and diet of early civilizations. There are wild edible plants at high elevations, including in whitebark pine forests, as well as animals to hunt in the summer.
While the archaeologists left most of the artifacts they discovered, they took some of the bowls and grinding stones found on national forest land, which they plan to send to a lab in England to see if it can reveal what species of plants and animals the ancient people ate.
The duo has a five-year permit with Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The permit allows them to return for additional surveys. They are also evaluating for the park the impacts of backcountry users at sites in high-traffic areas.
Stirn and Sgouros started the Jackson Hole Archaeological Initiative, a division of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, to expand research in the Jackson and Greater Yellowstone area. They serve as directors of youth education and public outreach with the museum.
They plan to make local presentations on their findings this year, as well as present at the Society for American Archaeology in the spring.
— This story was clarified on 10.7.14 to reflect that survey work also took place in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest for which the archaeologists have a five-year permit. This story was clarified on 10.16.2014 to reflect artifacts taken were on national forest land.