The Moriah Ranch is a rich archaeological find because it hasn’t been picked over by artifact collectors. This is one of the many artifacts found this summer at the ranch. (Photo courtesy Rich Adams — click to enlarge)
The Moriah Ranch is a rich archaeological find because it hasn’t been picked over by artifact collectors. This is one of the many artifacts found this summer at the ranch. (Photo courtesy Rich Adams — click to enlarge)

Moriah Ranch tells 10,000 year-old story

by Kelsey Dayton
— August 13, 2013

Hallie Meeker knew she was seeing something special the moment she first saw the huge granite outcroppings and the expansive grasslands watered by natural springs on the Moriah Ranch.

“It just spoke to me,” she said. She knew it was a place people could have lived. She knew there was a story. She just didn’t know how much of one she’d find.

Kelsey Dayton

Meeker was a student at Colorado State University in 2012 when she first arrived at the ranch near Laramie with Richard Adams, adjunct faculty at Colorado State University and the University of Wyoming to look at a recorded archaeological site.

Adams read an announcement that Wyoming recently acquired the nearly 13,000-acre ranch.

Adams knew there was at least one standing wickiup, a domed dwelling used by some early American Indians on the property.

That was just the beginning.

In August Meeker and Adams returned with other archeologists and students to see what they could find exploring 22 acres.

“In 10 days we found 10,000 years of archaeology,” Meeker said.

They found spear points from big game hunters 10,000 years ago, rare metal arrowheads from the 19th century and items from every time period in between.

From Aug. 5 through 14 teams scoured the area and documented 70 different sites. Each site must have at least 15 artifacts, Adams said. A final count on what was found hasn’t yet been compiled, but the archaeologist know what they have found is unusual.

“There’s 10,000 years of occupation there,” Adams said. And even more importantly the sites are nearly pristine, not yet picked over by artifact hunters the way most sites are now often discovered.

The pristine condition of the site provides a sample of what archaeology was like in the area, before development and collectors.

Artifact collecting is an ongoing problem in Wyoming, Adams said. Most people don’t realize there is any harm in taking something they find.

One family donated 50 gallons of projectile points a relative collected before she died.  That was 50 gallons of artifacts no one would ever learn the story behind, Adams said.

Artifacts tell a story about the people who lived in the area. The Moriah Ranch is rich in discovery because it is home to artifacts spanning 10,000 years. (Photo courtesy Rich Adams).

If someone brings him an item, like an arrowhead, Adams can likely determine the age by the size and shape. But if Adams can see the arrowhead where it was left, in what type of landscape and what other artifacts were near it, he can begin to discern a larger story. How many people were in the area, was it home, or a stop on a journey? Why were they there and how long did they stay? When and why did they leave?

“If you yank an arrowhead out of its context, it’s just a pretty rock,” he said.

There are laws, depending on where you are, against artifact collecting, but most people don’t realize taking items is wrong, Adams said. Adams has caught a mayor of a small town looting a site and even seen a Sheriff collecting artifacts. Most aren’t taking things to make money.

“It takes a great act of will power to walk away from a complete obsidian arrowhead glistening in the sun,” Adams said. “They are just so cool to behold.”

Collecting artifacts isn’t a problem unique to Wyoming, said John Laughlin, an archaeologist with the State Preservation Society who also was a crew leader at the Moriah Ranch in August. As soon as fields are tilled in the spring out East people are looking for artifacts. Most people pick up items because they find them interesting, but new television shows dedicated to following collectors is likely making more people want to collect and sell items they find.

The Moriah Ranch in its mostly undisturbed state has potential to answer more research questions than other sites, Laughlin said. It provided a perfect classroom for students this summer who learned how to properly record sites and identify items found. The variety of time periods represented gave students a chance to learn the small differences in artifacts from different eras.

Hopefully the ranch will be used for more study in the future, Adams said. The August work was meant to assess the potential of the land for archaeology, Adams said. The work the teams started this summer just scratched the surface. The discoveries on the ranch have only just begun.

Adams would like to see a field school at the ranch and hopes graduate students will tackle research projects at the site.

Meeker, now a master’s student at Colorado State University, would be one of the first to sign up.

“I hope to get back there every time I can,” she said.

For Meeker, the draw of archaeology is time travel.

Holding an arrowhead she can study its size and flaking to figure its age. A the Moriah Ranch she then can look around the landscape and think about why it was where it was found and the people who left it and slowly a story unfolds.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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