Artifact trove reveals Native American campsites at Grand Teton National Park

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Two or three millennia ago, American Indians used the flats above the wetlands along what’s now the northern Moose-Wilson Road as a base camp during seasonal sojourns in Jackson Hole.

Artifact trove reveals Native American campsites at Grand Teton National Park
This July 21 photo shows a piece of obsidian found at the site that shows evidence
 of large numbers of natives living in the Moose-Wilson road area 1500-3000 years ago. 
The volcanic glass was a form of currency in ancient times and now scientists can 
trace the origins of the artifacts to find where they came from 
[Credit: Price Chambers/Jackson Hole News and Guide]

For thousands of years these natives moved through the valley, tossing aside chunks of obsidian — scraps from toolmaking — and leaving behind arrowheads, knife blades and utensils. The circles of stones they used to hold down the edges of their tepees remain in place where they left them, telling part of the story of their passing.

Archaeologists at Grand Teton National Park are just now finding some of the late Archaic Period relics that were left behind. About 90 percent of the artifacts are obsidian, a prized glasslike volcanic rock.

“There’s so much else out here that is yet to be documented,” Shannon Dennison, the park’s chief of cultural resources, said Tuesday. “I think we’ve really just scratched the surface of this site and the archaeology of the corridor in general.”

Planning for the future of Moose-Wilson Road put the native artifact inventory for the area into overdrive.

To date, 11 archaeological sites have been identified in the corridor, some of which contain as many as 750 artifacts.

From the scene of an 11-acre site that spans both sides of Moose-Wilson Road known as “48TE498,” National Park Service archaeologist Jacquelin St. Clair pointed out a partial stone circle she surmised was a tepee ring. The stones were mostly buried by centuries of accumulated sediment. To the layman, the formation was almost impossible to pick out.

“There wasn’t just some guy sitting on the hill sharpening tools,” St. Clair said. “People lived here.”

Double tepee rings have also been found. That design, she said, allowed ancient peoples to stuff grasses between the two structures as insulation, and suggests occupation in the shoulder seasons or even winter.

Artifact trove reveals Native American campsites at Grand Teton National Park
Archaeologist
Jacquelin St. Clair and ranger Shannon Dennsion investigate one

 of many
ancient teepee rings found in the northern Moose-Wilson Road

 corridor on July 21. The National Park Service is trying to decide how 
to
interpret the find for visitors while trying to preserve the area

[Credit: Price Chambers/Jackson Hole News and Guide]

It’s unclear exactly what tribe roamed the site, the archaeologists said. The Shoshone, Shoshone-Bannock, Crow, Assiniboine, Sioux and 20 other tribes consider Jackson Hole part of their ancestral home.

“I would lean toward Shoshonian, because they had such a strong tie to this area and still do,” St. Clair said. “But I wouldn’t say that other tribes didn’t come through here, because they did.”

Given the nearby resources, ancient people’s decisions to set camp along the Moose-Wilson corridor isn’t all that surprising, Dennison said.

“This is a really great place for it,” she said. “It’s close to water, it’s at the base of the Tetons so you can get up into the high-altitude areas.”

Moose-Wilson Road is also about halfway between the hunting grounds of Teton Pass and fishing in Jenny Lake. Some of the obsidian flakes scattered around site 48TE498 match rock formations found on the pass.

“The only way for obsidian to get here is for someone to pick it up and carry it,” Dennison said. “Obsidian was part of a national economy, it wasn’t something that was just used locally. They found it as far away as Ohio, obsidian from Teton Pass.”

Since the early ’70s, when archaeologist Gary Wright surveyed the area, it’s been known that northern Moose-Wilson Road was a hub for ancient peoples. The latest surveying builds on decades of research. In 1991 archaeologist Ann Johnson recommended that site 48TE498 be included on the National Register of Historic Places, according to a new report, “Native Heritage in the Moose-Wilson Corridor.”

In other parts of the corridor, such as at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, there’s been much less historical surveying.

Three distinct archaeological sites containing more than 680 surface artifacts have been identified at the preserve just this year. The first of what would become seven tepee rings were discovered in June.

So far only 8 percent of the Moose-Wilson corridor’s 10,800 acres have been surveyed. And a tiny fraction of that area has been excavated.

“We don’t know if other parts of the park may have similar concentrations of artifacts,” Grand Teton park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said. “But as far as what we’ve documented this is the biggest concentration. The use of this area is greater than we ever thought.”

Dennison pointed toward staffing and funding as a constraint.

“As much as we’d like to look at all the archaeology in the park,” she said, “with limited resources and limited staff and a limited budget our archaeology work tends to be in advance of projects.”

As Grand Teton National Park presses forward with its analysis of Moose-Wilson Road, the archaeological findings will have to be weighed against other values and resources.

A human-bear interaction risk report recently advocated for an alignment to the road that would place it within an important archaeological site, park spokesman Andrew White said.

“How do we weigh those two interests?” White asked. “That’s really the challenge, as park managers, to figure that out.”

Leaving the northern site, Dennison eyed another obsidian chunk.

“There’s a flake that I just picked up, and here’s another flake, too,” Dennison said. “You can see that it’s just everywhere.”

Author: Mike Koshmrl | Source: Associated Press [July 30, 2015]