As people were starting to flock to Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation on Friday a group of archaeologists were packing up after a summer of exploring the history of the Bear’s Paw Mountains.
Anna Prentiss, a professor in the University of Montana Anthropology Department, led a team of students, both graduate and undergraduate, on the summer project, living out of the Stone Child College vo-tech building from the end of June until last week.
Starting with educational component from tribal leaders, the group then surveyed and excavated sites on top of Square Butte on the western edge of the mountains, near Box Elder.
“It offers an opportunity to learn about camping and bison hunting and bison processing and also plant gathering in the area, ” Prentiss said. “The tribe is really concerned about modern land use practices up there and not disturbing some of the important archaeological resources. ”
The interaction with the tribe, who invited the group out, set the trip apart for many of the participants.
“It made this a unique experience, ” Kristen Barnett, one of the UM graduate students, said. “You don’t always get to sit down and have those conversations and get those backgrounds. ”
Prentiss said the mountains themselves are quite interesting, geographically, biologically and anthropologically.
“They are one of these islands in the plains, ” Prentiss said. “Because of that they were magnets for game animals. They were magnets for people hunting and for collecting a variety of plants. Apparently some of the berries and some of the herbs that grow here are not found very often in other places. Historically Crees and other people would come from way up in what is now Canada, especially here to get these special things here. So there’s a lot of archaeology here. ”
And people appear to have been visiting for quite a while. Some artifacts Prentiss estimated to be around 500- or 600-years-old, but some of what they found could be more than 1,000-years-old.
Man-made artifacts were a very small part of what they found, but evidence of people’s presence was abundant, in large amounts of bison bones at kill-sites and collections of specific bison leg bones in what seems to indicate was a bison processing site, where the meatier part of slain bison were eventually taken.
One of the most exciting discoveries of the trip, according to Prentiss, started as a couple of teepee rings but turned into more.
“The site was already known, but they only thought they had a couple of rings up there. And when we got working on it, we discovered that they just kept going … a ring of about 30 teepee rings arranged in a circle. You see pictures of those things in the old ethnographies of the tribes but you rarely find that in the archaeological record. And we’ve actually found one here. It could represent an aggregated camp for a larger group there for bison hunting, something like that. ”
Unfortunately the academic’s “research season” is coming to a close, for another year of school, but Prentiss, and many of her students, look forward to returning next year and discovering more secrets of the Bear’s Paw Mountains and Cree culture.