Ancient Life in the High Tetons

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Rebecca Sgouros investigates a permanent snowfield for possible artifacts melting out of the ice. (photo by Matt Stirn - See more at: http://wyofile.com/kelsey-dayton/ancient-life-high-tetons/#sthash.WJaYCPiK.dpuf
Rebecca Sgouros investigates a permanent snowfield for possible artifacts melting out of the ice. (photo by Matt Stirn)

Excerpt from Ancient Life in the High Tetons by Kelsey Dayton

They would have seemed, to the untrained eye, just pieces of clay. But near a backcountry campsite high in Grand Teton National Park, Matt Stirn and Rebecca Sgouros recognized the flakes as something more. They saw shards of ancient pottery, the first found and documented at high elevations in the Tetons, and a clue that perhaps thousands of years ago people didn’t only venture above 9,000 feet to hunt or travel. They may have lived in alpine villages for extended parts of the year.

The surveys were the first conducted on major tracts of high-elevation landscapes in the park and could shed light on how ancient people used the mountains, as well as their relationships to those who lived in the Wind River Range.This summer, archaeologists Stirn and Sgouros conducted two eight-day surveys above 9,000 feet in Grand Teton National Park and in Caribou-Targhee National Forest where they found 30 new archeological sites, some dating back 10,500 years and others as recent as 1,000 years. Shapes of the spear heads found dated the sites.

The park was surveyed in the 1970s and 1980s, and there have been occasional projects since, but often the higher elevations were neglected, Stirn said. Most people thought of the higher elevations as too harsh for prehistoric living. High-elevation archaeology is challenging. You must carry all your equipment with you, which means taking a minimum amount of tools. Weather and terrain also challenge the archeologist.

A few years ago Stirn worked with Colorado State University archaeologist Richard Adams, discovering and surveying alpine villages at 10,000 feet in the Wind River Range above Dubois. The sites, which date from about 150 years to 2,000 years old, were situated in whitebark pine forests, likely for easy access to the pine nuts, an important fat source, Stirn said. The survey work, which used computer modeling to help discover the village sites, led to the discovery of tools, pottery, knives and arrowheads, as well as remnants of structures. At one time there were more than 80 dwellings in one area.

“We were absolutely flabbergasted by how much archaeology was up there,” Stirn said.

Stirn published a paper last year in the Journal of Archaeological Findings on the modeling used to locate the villages.

The discoveries in the Winds changed the way Stirn thought about the mountains. If people lived deep in the Wind River Mountains, maybe people also lived high in the Tetons…

– Read more in Ancient Life in the High Tetons, from WyoFile, a nonprofit news service focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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