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Archaeology students dig into buffalo jump

Field school takes advantage of kill site for intense excavation

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Posted: Monday, July 18, 2011 9:52 am

BEULAH, Wyo. — Nearly a dozen students got their hands dirty at the Vore Buffalo Jump during a University of Wyoming Archaeology Field School.

The students, along side professional archaeologists, participated in the dig near Beulah, Wyo.

“This is a real active excavation involving professionals and students,” said Charles Reher, a professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Wyoming.

The six-week school sends students to several archeological sites including Pine Bluffs, Wyo., where students worked at the enormous site that extended for miles including teepee rings, shelter sites and early ranches.

The school culminates with the buffalo jump.

“This is one of the most intense things (they've done),” Reher said.

During the 10-day period at the jump, the students had to prepare the site, even before they began to excavate the bones at the bottom of the sinkhole.

The students used trowels to move dirt from around the bones, and then as they got nearer to them, the students used bamboo stakes and brushes to remove the debris so as to not damage the fragile bones.

“Some bones, you could pass them around if you wanted to, but others, you start to dig and they just fall apart,” said Greg Pierce, an anthropology graduate student who serves as the crew chief on the dig. “It has a lot to do with what has taken water and what has not.”

He said when the bones get wet and then dry out, they become brittle and can fall apart in your hands.

The Vore family homesteaded in the area of the buffalo jump, and Reher said they always knew about the sinkhole, but the treasures that lie underneath the ground were uncovered in 1970 as engineers were plotting the path for Interstate 90. Crews found the sinkhole and drilled into the bottom to check for stability. The drillers found bones from the holes and called archaeologists from the University of Wyoming.

Reher, then a graduate student, led the team in initial excavations. The interstate was rerouted around the site.

Over two years of excavations, Reher and the team dug down 25 feet before finally reaching the final layer of bones from buffalo estimated to have been killed around 1500.

“Its just level after level. There are 22 levels here,” he said.

About five American Indian tribes used the jump to kill thousands of buffalo from around 1500 to the 1800s.

“In those 300 years, they killed 10,000 to 20,000 bison. They are stacked up like a giant layer cake,” Reher said.

The site was expanded and then backfilled in the 1970s as the archaeologists determined that there was a wealth of information to be gleaned from the site and it needed to be preserved. In the mid 1990s, work began once again at the buffalo jump.

The buffalo jump is a large sinkhole, about 75 yards wide and 50 feet deep. American Indians would gently haze large herds of buffalo near the jump and then stampede them.

Buffalo are incredibly agile, Reher said. The front ones might try to stop, but the ones in back don't see that and push them over the edge.

“Now, imagine being down here in the bottom of the sink hole, which you would not be, and have 200-300 buffalo come over the edge,” he added. “You'd have 200 bison tumbling, crashing, bellowing, breaking legs and necks. Then the survivors (the tribes) would have to come in and finish them off. Now, you have three or four days to put up hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat. They had an assembly line and worked in cooperation that we will never truly understand.”

The drives usually took place in October, a fact that the archaeologists could determine from the eruption of the mandible teeth in the animals.

After the tribes used the sinkhole, the slopes gently washed down on top of the bones, covering them and sealing them in time.

Reher said he would be hard-pressed to find a favorite moment or find.

“Everything is significant,” he said. “It's the accumulation of information.”

In the bottom of the sinkhole, they are finding the remnants of the hunts.

“Sixty to 80 percent of the long-limb bones are not there. They were taken from the site, broken and had the marrow extracted,” he said. “What's left down here are primarily backbones, ribs, lower feet, skulls, things that don't have a lot of meat on them. Scattered among them are butchering tools. Some were worn out, there are chips from them sharpening them and some were lost. There are a few arrow points.”

Reher said the initial processing was at the jump but the vast majority was transported to a large village that was probably along Sand Creek, where the real butchering began. “You would have a huge butchering area, hundreds of drying racks covering acres, hundreds of hearths and smoking fires,” he said.

Tess Wianecki, a sophomore anthropology student, said she is enjoying her experience.

“We are really learning how to get in there and excavate - how to use our tools and pedestal the bones and identify the bones,” Wianecki said. “If we find any projectile points, we identify what tribe they came from.”

She, like Pierce, became interested in anthropology after her family visited historic and even prehistoric sites.

“It is exciting to find something. Then when you do find something, you take on the persona, 'this is my bone, I found it.' … Even though it is not yours, you want to learn as much as possible about it,” she added.

Reher said the scientists will continue their study and hope to make the site more accessible to the public.  Already, there is a building covering the dig site in which visitors watch the excavation in process.

“The research potential here is incredible,” he said. “There is a dramatic story here waiting to be told.  There is a real story here about the people, the families, their hopes and dreams.”

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