In an area known for producing wind for turbines and a cattle ranching culture that influenced a young Charlie Russell’s art in the 1800s, some old bones and stones have caused a local stir, thanks to a badger.
The badger had dug a hole along a spring on David Bradley’s Ubet Ranch, north of Judith Gap in central Montana. Jim Bergstrom, who was leasing the ranch to farm and ranch 17 years ago, was strolling along the spring when he spotted the hole and something unusual.
“About one foot down there was a pretty good-sized leg bone,” Bergstrom said. “I started digging and sifting — it must’ve been the fall of 2002 — and I found a lot of bone and arrowheads.”
Prior to finding the badger hole, Bergstrom said he had found “quite a substantial amount” of tools like scrapers and knives nearby.
“So I figured something had happened back in that area.”
Bergstrom had stumbled upon an ancient bison kill site that may date back 2,000 years. The area close to the Little Belt Mountains was so popular as a hunting site that the bones of the animals eventually stacked up 3 feet deep at the bottom of the hill.
“I always thought you had to run them off a cliff,” he said, but the surrounding terrain, although steep, was no cliff-like drop-off. So it’s possible natives had built an entrapment, or corral, along the spring to capture and kill the big animals.
Greater detail of what has been buried in the ground for centuries came to light in late May and early June when Montana State University professor Mike Neeley and instructor Nancy Mahoney, from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, led an undergraduate field school to excavate portions of the bison kill site.
The instructors and students were invited by the landowner, Bradley, who is also an MSU graduate. Now a missionary in South America for most of the year, he became concerned after other people began digging at the site and contacted the university.
“So this whole archaeology thing, the goal behind it is rather than pilfering the site, which is fine, but we don’t know the story,” Bradley said.
Based on the MSU students and faculty’s month-long dig, they have provided a first chapter to that story.
What the dig revealed was that part of the site had been used between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago. A analysis of charcoal found at the site should give the researchers more definitive dates.
“There were so many bone fragments, so many big boulders we had to move,” said MSU student Amelia McGrath, 21, of Butte.
After encountering so many rocks, she and her partner moved to a different site and uncovered what may have been a place where the bison were butchered and cooked. In that pit, McGrath found a small point that was likely a stone drill.
“I had no idea what it was. I thought it was a flake,” she said.
At the top of the excavation pits, Avonlea points were found — small, thin, side-notched, triangular-shaped arrowheads.
“The Avonlea points are beautiful,” Mahoney said. “They are super thin, quite small and delicate. Some look like carbon copies of each other.”
Likely attached to arrows, the theory is that the archers saved the arrow shafts but left the arrowheads inside their game.
Older Besant points were found deeper at the excavation sites. A broader side-notched point, Mahoney said they were more likely attached to atlatl shafts. Atlatls predated bows as hunting tools. It is estimated bows and arrows were first used by Native Americans about 500 years ago. Atlatls — which are levers used to throw large darts — may date back 25,000 years or more.
Pieces of obsidian were also found, which may have been harvested from Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone, one of the nearest sources of the glass-sharp black rock.
Near the kill site Bergstrom also found numerous scrapers and knives on top of the ground.
From bison jawbones recovered at the dig, tooth eruption will provide information on the age of the bison when they were killed, as well as the presence of milk teeth and tooth wear.
“We can, hopefully, pinpoint what season they were out there,” Mahoney said.
Very little is known archaeologically about prehistoric use of central Montana because most of the land is private, Mahoney said. Archaeological digs often take place on public lands or when land-disturbing activities like a pipeline or road construction is planned, she added.
“This is the first time in decades we’ve been on private land.”
In part that’s because of rural skepticism about such digs, according to Bradley.
“Most people think the government is going take your land” if an archaeological dig is allowed, he said. “That is not true.”
So to Mahoney, almost as exciting as finding an ancient bison kill site is the fact that the school, faculty and students are connecting with locals, which could lead to future excavations that expand scientific knowledge about people’s longtime use of the area.
“How many more bison kill sites might be out there?” Mahoney said. “There could be many more of these.
As part of that outreach, the Montana Site Stewardship Program trained volunteer site stewards who wanted to learn how to document private artifact collections. Documenting artifacts collected by amateurs can help archaeologists fill in the gaps in their knowledge about the deep native prehistory of the region, Mahoney said.
“So we wanted to reassure people that we just wanted to fill this gap in our knowledge,” she added, and in the process connect with the community.
Student Emily Askey and Mahoney retrieved some of Bergstrom’s artifacts to compare what he found with what the students unearthed.
“There’s a huge variety,” she said. “A lot of chert, some sandstone and the occasional piece of obsidian.
“We really worked hard to involve everybody to build trust and familiarity.”
Bradley said the entire project was good for his community and may someday even lead to a Judith Gap museum of some kind.
“I don’t know where this is going to go,” he said. “I’m not interested in any income off them.”
The entire Judith Gap School, a total of 24 students, visited the site, giving the MSU students a chance to teach others about what they had learned. The MSU students, in turn, were taught how to distinguish bone from rock and rock flakes from tools, and how to decide where to dig.
“I took away so much from it,” said Emily Skyberg, 21, who grew up on a farm near Fort Peck and is majoring in anthropology with a minor in museum studies. “The basics of how to dig, actually seeing that come to life was super, super cool.”
The work in rural Montana and involvement of the community was a surprise to Skyberg and her fellow students.
“We all expected a similar thing, you know, bored as hell,” she said. “But we played pool at Bar 100 and everyone was very nice to us.”
“It was a bit of a culture shock to go from Bozeman to a small community, but everyone made us feel right at home,” Askey said.
“I would go again tomorrow if I had the chance,” McGrath said. “And it confirmed that this is something I’d like to do. It puts everything in perspective.”