Jan 13, 2016

Melting alpine snow revealing ancient history in Shoshone National Forest

Ancient patches of snow are melting in the wilds of the Shoshone National Forest and “exposing things that haven’t been exposed for hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of years,” said archaeologist Larry Todd.

Todd and other volunteers have been working to document artifacts in the high alpine terrain of the Washakie Wilderness over the past two summers. The Meeteetse researcher — who’s a professor emeritus at Colorado State University and the chair of the Park County Historic Preservation Commission — recently secured funding to help him and six others return to the remote area next summer.

University of Wyoming professor Robert Kelly (foreground), Colorado State University professor emeritus Larry Todd (at left) and Cambridge University student Rachel Reckin (center) document materials at a melting ice patch high in the Shoshone National Forest in the summer of 2015. Photo courtesy John Laughlin, Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office
“The primary goal is to provide a fuller archaeological context for the rare and endangered materials being exposed by the melting ice,” Todd wrote in a grant proposal.

He explained last month that the shrinking patches of snow are “sort of like opening the door on the refrigerator, and stuff’s falling out on the ground.”

“As they melt, tremendous amounts of information are being lost,” said researcher Larry Todd.

Snow patches appear to have been key to the ancient peoples who lived at high elevations, Todd said — maybe because animals congregated on the ice to escape heat and flies, maybe because the patches were a source of water or maybe because of “something else we don’t understand yet,” he said.

Whatever the reason, the patches have yielded a wealth of information to researchers.

“We were overwhelmed by the amount of the material we found — and the diversity of the material,” Todd said.

Among the many discoveries were a nearly complete fragment of a roughly 625-year-old wooden bow and a 660-year-old piece of a bison’s jaw.

This bison mandible is believed to be about 660 years old; researchers believe microsampling of the tooth enamel should provide insight into the animal’s diet. Photo courtesy John Laughlin

Funding for last summer’s work, done in collaboration with the Shoshone National Forest, came from the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office.

Those on the trip included John Laughlin (an archaeologist with the Historic Preservation Office), University of Wyoming Archaeology Professor Robert Kelly, students Rachel Reckin and Emily Brush (of Cambridge University and Iowa State University, respectively) and volunteers William Dooly of Buffalo and Larry Amundson of Lander.

Earlier this month, the State Historic Preservation Office gave the Park County Historic Preservation Commission another $10,000 of federal money to continue the survey work.

Melting ice patches high in the Shoshone National Forest are providing researchers with a lot of information about the past. Photo courtesy John Laughlin
In 2016, the plan is for a Todd-led team to spend 20 days cataloging the things they didn’t have time to record last summer. They hope to inventory objects across roughly 470 acres of alpine terrain, located at around 10,500 feet elevation.

“One of the key things about the ice patches is that the record they contain about past environmental conditions is as important, if not more so, than the archaeology they contain,” Todd added in an email. “And as they melt, tremendous amounts of information are being lost.”

The recent grant will pay for renting four GPS receivers and antennas ($5,600), food for the crew ($2,100), transportation costs ($1,500) and radiocarbon dating ($800).

While the main point of the 2016 “Ice Patch Landscape Inventory” will be to document the disappearing ice, Todd also has a broader goal of expanding what we know about ancient life in remote, high elevation areas. He said relatively little research has been conducted on Wyoming’s alpine landscapes.

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