George Frison may be more than 90 years old and mostly retired, but the dean of Wyoming archaeologists still wields considerable clout.
And on Thursday evening, at the Washakie Museum and Cultural Center in Worland, the public got to see the fruit of Frison’s latest wishes. He was there to dedicate a redesigned permanent exhibit that interprets the lives of Wyoming’s ancient Paleoindian people.
“It was prompted partly by George Frison, who didn’t like the way the atlatl was displayed,” said museum curator Rebecca Brower.
The atlatl was made by Frison in the 1980s, a replica of an ancient hunting tool used before North America’s early inhabitants discovered the bow and arrow. When Frison first crafted the dart-throwing lever, he went so far as to test it out on dead elephants in Zimbabwe. He wanted to see if the darts could be thrown with enough force to penetrate the animal’s tough skin. It could.
An elephant was as close as Frison could get to a woolly mammoth, which the ancient people hunted with atlatls. Frison knows because he excavated a 12,900-year-old mammoth kill site not far from Worland, known as the Colby Mammoth Site.
Now Frison’s atlatl is again on display, this time with some better interpretive material to demonstrate how the tool was used. He even attached a new stone point to the dart.
“The way it was displayed before, it wasn’t clear how it would be thrown,” Brower said. “Now you can see how someone would hunt with an atlatl.”
That was just part of a $33,000 upgrade to the museum’s Ancient Basin gallery to better explain the historic and prehistoric inhabitants of the area, as well as a way to more thoroughly engage visitors.
The cost — about half of which was donated by some of the 5,000 inhabitants of the northwestern Wyoming community — also helped pay for a hand-crafted bow made out of a bighorn sheep’s horns. Tom Lucas, a Dubois artist and craftsman, is one of the few people to learn how to recreate the ancient process, right down to making the glue to adhere strips of sinew to the bow for greater strength.
“He even handcrafts the arrows and knaps the points for it,” Brower said.
For his unusual craftsmanship, in 2015 Lucas was named a recipient of the Governor’s Arts Awards.
“There are only three or four originals known, that’s how rare they are,” said retired curator Bob Stottler. “He has not created all that many, so they are pretty expensive and pretty unique.”
Lucas spent the summers of his childhood on Montana’s Crow Reservation. He started making wooden bows in grade school. When he began crafting bighorn sheep bows, he had to learn everything by trial and error.
“When I first took up the challenge, I was going to go to the library and find a book,” Lucas said. “But there was no information whatsoever available.”
So Lucas had to use his own brains and tenacity to figure it out. While it used to take a year to build one bow, Lucas has found that he can work on three at the same time to speed up the process. Even so, he said it will take him five to six months to make one bow.
“They all have their little particular nuances to overcome,” he said. “You have to navigate all those difficulties to come up with a bow.”
Lucas’ bow will be part of the Sheep Eater Indian Lodge exhibit. Sheep Eater is a name given to the nomadic mountain Shoshone people who occupied the high elevations of Wyoming and Montana, as well as Yellowstone National Park.
“I’ve often wished, over and over, that I could have visited with some of those early people about the wherefores of it all,” Lucas said.
The display also includes a replica lodge.
“It was kind of a dead corner,” Stottler said. “It was my desire to liven it up for our guests.”
The museum’s winter hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.