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Villages in the Sky

High in the Rockies, archaeologists have discovered evidence of mountain life 4,000 years ago

By MATT STIRN

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Wyoming Windriver Continental DivideThe Wind River Range in the Rocky Mountains stretches 100 miles across northwestern Wyoming and the Continental Divide, extending from the thick pine forests of Yellowstone National Park toward the vast grasslands of the Great Plains. From the river valleys and lakes below, the peaks of the mighty “Winds” rise toward the sky, reaching 13,000 feet above sea level. These granite towers pierce the clouds and are surrounded by high-altitude plateaus dotted with tundra and remnants of Ice Age glaciers. From a distance, they appear imposing, barren, and hostile, but closer inspection reveals a vibrant scene—herds of bighorn sheep traversing the horizon, marmots peeking up from boulder fields, and clusters of ancient whitebark pines standing watch over it all.

 

On the outskirts of a scraggly whitebark pine forest at 11,000 feet above sea level in the northern stretch of the range, a plume of smoke rises from a campfire as lunch is prepared in cast iron cookware over the open flames. Tents are spread out across the alpine meadow, and the whinnies of horses echo against nearby cliffs. It is a scene reminiscent of a nineteenth-century frontier camp, except for the presence of a bright yellow surveying instrument and the metallic ting of trowels as archaeologists scrape them against the pebbly soil. The site, known as High Rise Village, is perched on a hillside that would make a challenging black-diamond ski run. It was a large settlement occupied by the seminomadic Shoshone people from around 4,000 years ago until the nineteenth century. Discovered in 2006 by University of Wyoming archaeologist Richard Adams, High Rise Village was the first and largest of nearly two dozen high-elevation villages to be identified in the Wind River Mountains, and has provided new insight into how prehistoric people thrived in the high alpine zone of the Rocky Mountains.

 

Alpine archaeology is a relatively new field in North America. Conducting fieldwork in remote high-altitude areas is expensive and physically demanding. “Before the advent of modern, lightweight camping equipment, it often wasn’t possible to run prolonged projects in the mountains,” says Adams. As a result, the craggy peaks and wind-whipped ridges of the American West long remained a blank spot on the map of prehistoric North America.

 

Wind River MapIn the 1960s, Colorado State University archaeologist Jim Benedict identified miles of stone walls along the plateaus of Colorado’s Front Range, evidence of communal game drives constructed to corral large herds of bighorn sheep. Around two decades later, University of California, Davis, archaeologist Robert Bettinger discovered multiple alpine villages near 12,000 feet in California’s White Mountains. Farther east, at 11,000 feet in Nevada’s Toquima Range, David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History found the Alta Toquima site, remains of a massive prehistoric village high in the alpine tundra consisting of dozens of depressions known as house pits. The discovery of such substantial sites in remote alpine settings was astonishing to many scholars across the western United States who had long considered the mountains too hostile for sustained human occupation. What led ancient people to build at such high elevations was an open question—did they actively choose to live in the alpine tundra, or were they forced there by factors such as population pressure or climate change? This question has fueled debate among alpine archaeologists worldwide, and each summer more researchers venture high into the mountains seeking answers.

 

A Path to Freedom

At a Union Army camp in Kentucky, enslaved men, women, and children struggled for their lives and fought to be free

Friday, May 08, 2020

Camp Nelson Opener ComboThe only complete original building still standing at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, Kentucky, is a sizeable house built around 1850 for the just-married Oliver Perry and his bride, the former Fannie Scott, whose family owned the land on which the house sits. It is now called simply the White House. But between 1863 and 1865, at the height of the Civil War, it was just one of more than 300 structures in the center of the camp’s 4,000 acres that housed all the required resources for an army at war. These included a supply depot, hospital, commissary, prison, ordnance storage facility, stables and corrals, a 50,000-gallon reservoir, woodworking shop, blacksmith shop, horseshoeing shop, harness shop, and a bakery that produced 10,000 rations of bread a day. There was also a hotel and tavern called the Owens House, a post office, and a few small eating establishments. Camp Nelson had been built to support the Union Army’s advance into Tennessee, and over its years of wartime service, tens of thousands of soldiers, both white and black, enlisted and were trained there. Camp Nelson was the largest of the eight U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) recruiting centers in Kentucky, and the third largest in the nation. All that remains aboveground, apart from the White House, though, are the remains of eight earthen and two stone forts, the earthen remains of a powder magazine, remnants of a few icehouses, and the stone foundations of two ovens.

 

Camp Nelson Kentucky MapDuring recent excavations in an area known from nineteenth-century maps to have been the camp’s only licensed sutler’s establishment, a type of general store, Camp Nelson National Monument archaeologist Stephen McBride and a team from Transylvania University began to uncover picture frames, glass plates, mats, and glass bottles that originally contained chemicals used to develop photographs. They also found bottles embossed with the brand names “Bears Oil,” which had once held hair oil, and “Dr D Jayne,” which had once held hair dye. Soldiers used the dye to darken their hair for portraits, since light hair could appear white in the finished images, prematurely aging the subjects. In addition to these artifacts, the team also uncovered the remains of a small building—the first specialized photography studio ever found at a Civil War site. “The studio wasn’t documented on any extant maps of the camp, and Civil War photos were often taken in tents,” McBride says, “so finding something set up as a permanent photo studio was a real surprise.” The team recovered 10 metal stencils the photographer had used to sign his images and was therefore able to identify him as a man named C.J. Young. (See “The Age of Pictures.”)

 

But Camp Nelson’s population consisted of more than photographers, merchants, carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, and soldiers. Many black volunteers arrived with their families, creating a huge influx of refugee women and children. “Camp Nelson is one of the best preserved archaeological sites associated with USCT recruitment,” McBride says. “And it’s also one of the best places to explore the refugee experiences of African American slaves seeking freedom during the Civil War.” Through his work, McBride hopes to resurrect the too-often-lost stories of these women and children uprooted by the war that would determine their destiny.

Sidebar:
Camp Nelson Sidebar C J Young Photo preview
The Age of Pictures

Weapons of the Ancient World

How people of the past developed arms to master the challenges of their time

Friday, April 10, 2020

Weapons Pompeii Alexander Mosaic

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