Into the ice cave

Search of cavern yields stone circle, remains of flint knapping and historic beer parties

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For perhaps thousands of years, humans have been stashing food and supplies amid the icy stalagmites of a remote Bighorn Mountain cave. That includes people who apparently stored their beer in the ice cave as recently as 50 years ago.

State archaeologists and a team of volunteers spent last week mapping and investigating the previously uncharted cavern in the northern Bighorns.

The most notable feature inside the cave is a large stone circle, possibly of prehistoric religious or ceremonial significance. It was discovered along with prehistoric and historic artifacts, said Greg Pierce, state archaeologist for the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist.

“We found out about [the cave] earlier this year. It has never been recorded and as far as we know it’s never been investigated,” Pierce said. “We’re in the process of mapping it and recording all the information we can find.”

The team — accompanied by citizen scientists — found both prehistoric and modern historic artifacts (that is, those at least a half-century old). The significance of the previous cultural use of the cave, including the stone circle, remains a mystery until the team can study the artifacts found. The stone circle may have been altered through the years, Pierce said.

“We’re not sure if it’s prehistoric, historic or modern. My guess is it could be all three,” he said.

The stone circle could be part of a dwelling, like tepee rings. The cave is more than high enough to accommodate a large tepee, but that’s not likely, because the cave already offered excellent shelter. It is more likely religious or ceremonial in nature, Pierce said.

Evidence of flint knapping — the shaping of flint, chert, obsidian or other stones to manufacture stone tools and weapons — was also found near the mouth of the cave, and a stone point was found in an adjacent one. Several caves line the steep limestone walls of the canyon, most showing signs of use.

Obsidian flakes and a core found at the site will undergo testing to source their origins to help understand who was using the cave and when.

“It’s hard to say until we’ve had time to investigate, but it appears the entire canyon has seen lots of use and I wouldn’t be surprised if people have been using [the canyon and caves] for thousands of years,” Pierce said.

While some may consider beer and food cans found in the cave as litter, the team was thrilled with the discoveries. Russell Richard, an archaeologist from Cheyenne joining the team, was able to pinpoint the age of the cans, giving the team an idea of the frequency of the cave’s modern historic use.

“Cans are nice because they’re datable,” Pierce said.

The youngest cans found were from the mid to late 1960s, Richard said. Both Coors and Rainier ring-pull cans were found as well as Budweiser’s early efforts in tab-pull cans and several Coors churchkey-opened cans from the ‘50s. The oldest cans Richard dated came from the turn of the 20th century — as early as 1908. The ice was handy in keeping the beer cold, he said, but it also was used to store meat. Bones can be seen frozen in the ice stalagmites, most likely from processing game in the cool chamber. A livestock fence had been built at one point to protect the ice, indicating the importance of the feature to visitors and residents, he said.

As part of the study of the cave, the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist tested a brand new program that includes citizen scientists — in part to excite residents about the importance of archaeological studies and in part as an act of self-preservation.

The program filled up shortly after being announced. Many of the 15 volunteers in the program — some traveling from outside the state — took time off work to be on site with the scientists.

“This is my vacation. It’s a fun time,” said Brian Snyder, a jewelry designer from Cheyenne. Snyder has traveled throughout the West and has traveled abroad participating in archaeology programs.

“The team is understaffed, so why not help out,” Snyder said. He found the arrowhead — a reworked archaic point made out of quartzite, as he described it.

Volunteers came from as far away as Colorado, including Bob Buck, who traveled from Denver with his wife, Jill.

“It’s incredible. We’re helping to record a site that has never been recorded,” Buck said.

The cave, located north of Bald Mountain on state property, will now go through the process of being listed on the National Registry of Historic Places for protection, said Marcia Peterson, assistant state archaeologist and state coordinator for the avocational program. The cave should qualify for the registry due to the potential the cave has for providing significant information in the future, said Peterson.

“We knew nothing coming in — including [not] knowing exactly where it was,” said Peterson, adding, “It’s a large cave and there’s a lot going on there. We got a big chunk done.”

But there’s still more work to do, including digging through sediment to look for more prehistoric clues — and a lot of paperwork.

An immense amount of land, both private and public, hasn’t been surveyed simply because there are so few scientists available. Even as the state investigates the ice cave, nearby guest lodges provide maps of sensitive sites to explorers — some who may be inclined to loot artifacts.

There has been some vandalism within the ice cave site, but the team members were generally surprised by its excellent condition; the team asked the exact location be withheld to protect it.

The Office of the State Archaeologist is funded through the Legislature. While the state is ripe with important sites, lawmakers could cancel its funding if they saw fit, so it’s important to get the backing of the state’s residents, Peterson said.

“We’ve been trying to find ways to increase our public outreach. It is essential to the survival of our office we keep the public interested and engaged in archaeology,” she said.

The office has three archaeologists and the field season has been fast-paced. The discovery of mammoth remains west of Cody this past spring was a surprise for the team, adding to an already hectic schedule. Two projects are being eyed for the avocational program during the 2019 field season.

For more information, or to get tickets to volunteer, visit http://wyoarchaeo.state.wy.us/ or check out the office’s Facebook page www.facebook.com/officeofthewyomingstatearchaeologist/.

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