A Brief History of Archeology at Yellowstone National Park

Two archeologists work on a road project excavation
Carmen Clayton and Elaine Hale conducting field work at Nymph Lake prior to a road construction project.

NPS Photo

A Brief History of Archeology at Yellowstone National Park
by Elaine Skinner Hale, Ann Johnson, and Marie Gore

The fact that Native Americans used the landscape of present-day Yellowstone National Park (YNP) for millennia was evident to the early European-American trappers, prospectors, and explorers, who encountered native peoples during their travels and noted ancient trails and chipped stone artifacts. The development of the park’s archeology program vastly increased our knowledge of how the park’s early inhabitants moved across and used the Yellowstone Plateau, giving us a more nuanced and thorough understanding of human occupation of park lands. Native Americans accessed the Yellowstone Plateau using trails from the north along the Yellowstone River; from the east following the Shoshone River; from the south along the Snake, Bechler, Yellowstone, and Lewis rivers; and from the west along the Madison River. These riverine corridors facilitated Native Americans ability to hunt, camp, and obtain resources the Yellowstone Plateau offered, such as obsidian materials and use of geothermal springs. We know from the archeological sites that Native Americans used the lands of the now Yellowstone National Park for more than 11,000 years.

Development of Yellowstone’s Archeology Program
In 1872, Yellowstone was designated the world’s first National Park in part as an attempt to manage its geologic wonders, with the dual purpose of protecting the unique geology and thermal features while providing opportunities for visitors to enjoy these wonders. The first superintendent appointed to the new park, Nathaniel Langford, only visited the park on a few occasions, and was primarily concerned with providing visitors access to the geologic wonders and curiosities (Langford 1905). The second park superintendent, Philetus W. Norris, had a great interest in Native Americans, even penning a message to workmen in the park requesting any Native American artifact discovered be brought to him. Between 1887 and 1897, Supt. Norris, with the help of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), removed many artifacts from YNP. This included a chipped stone spear, an atlatl, arrow points, stone knives and scrapers, stone drills, and shaft straighteners, as well as fragments of soapstone vessels, pipes, and tubes (Norris 1877, 1879). These items were sent to the Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., where they remain available for study today.
For roughly 30 years after Supt. Norris departed, little was recorded about the park’s archeology. Park development continued with the construction of roads, accommodations, and infrastructure needed to support increased visitation. Eventually, these places, such as lunch stations, permanent tourist camps, stage stops, a dairy, and corrals, were abandoned. These were later documented as part of YNP’s history.

Starting in the 1930s, Lee Coleman, an NPS park ranger, collected artifacts during his backcountry patrols. Each time he returned with artifacts, he drew a map depicting where each was found and usually sketched an outline of one or more of the artifacts. These are of sufficient detail that we often can link his finds to archeological sites now formally documented. These artifacts and his records are now in the park collections. Wayne Replogle, a seasonal employee in the 1950s and 1960s, was also interested in artifacts. An excellent hiker, he traveled throughout the park looking for Indian trails. In addition to turning in the artifacts to YNP’s museum collection, he drew a map showing what he believed to be the location of the Bannock Indian trail across park lands.

Professional archeologists made their initial efforts to document archeological sites in YNP during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Montana State University (now the University of Montana) Department of Anthropology sent students and professors into YNP to document archeological sites and gather information, following leads from park employees, such as Replogle and Park Historian Aubrey Haines. This resulted in the first 170 archeological sites being professionally documented in the park. In the 1960s, scientists determined obsidian from different lava flows could be distinguished from one another by measuring the amount of specific trace elements contained within each flow. This led to the development of obsidian sourcing studies, which investigate the geological source of obsidian raw materials used to manufacture stone tools. This had a large impact on archeological studies in YNP, as obsidian traced to Obsidian Cliff was detected at archeological sites across the North American continent.

In 1966 the National Historic Preservation Act (54 USC §300101 et seq.) was passed; it required, among other things, inventory and evaluation of cultural resources prior to the initiation of projects on federal lands, supported by federal funding, and/or requiring federal permits. This legislation was followed in the 1970s and 1980s with additional laws and implementing regulations, clarifying and elaborating on how cultural resources were to be evaluated and protected. Very few NPS sites had archeologists on staff during this period, so service centers, such as the Midwest Archeological Center in Lincoln, Nebraska (MWAC), were created to house specialists who could assist parks with archeological services and projects, as well as legal and regulatory compliance support.

It was clear by the 1980s that the roads in the park were no longer adequate to accommodate visitation levels, and the NPS began to plan upgrades and maintenance to park transportation infrastructure in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). As a part of a multi-decade program, FHWA has been funding a significant amount of archeological work in the park to ensure compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and minimize impacts to archeological sites when roads are widened, straightened, or moved to new alignments. The park “Road Team” was formed during this time, growing out of weekly conference calls between Ann Johnson, who was then a staff archeologist in the NPS Rocky Mountain Regional Office, Chief of Maintenance Tim Hudson, Assistant Chief of Maintenance Nancy Ward, and Regional Archeologist Adrienne Anderson. Though roles and faces have changed through time, the Road Team still meets weekly and is responsible for the planning and implementation of highway reconstruction and maintenance projects in YNP, including ensuring compliance with environmental and historic preservation laws and regulations.

The FHWA road reconstructions were planned in 10-to-15 mile sections; and initially all of the archeological work was performed by MWAC staff archeologists, who would come to the park to undertake cultural resource surveys and determine the significance of the archeological sites they found by performing limited test excavations. As time went on, the park also partnered with university archeology programs, such as the State University of New York at Albany, the University of Montana in Missoula, and the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, MT; the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist; and professional archeological contractors. Through this road program work, about +1% of the park’s 2.2 million acres has been examined for archeological resources, forming a significant part of the park’s archeological program.

To improve the park’s in-house capacity to manage archeological resources in the park, Johnson began training YNP law enforcement rangers, trail crew members, fire management personnel, and maintenance staff to recognize archeological sites and record their locations. With this information in hand, archeologists could return to formally document the sites. This approach gave park staff an understanding of what sites looked like, the importance of the sites, and provided them opportunities to assist with archeological surveys and excavations. This was the beginning of a nascent archeological program in YNP, which was solidified in 1994 when Laura Joss was selected to lead the Branch of Cultural Resources in the Yellowstone Center for Resources, newly created the year prior. In 1995, Ann Johnson transferred to YNP to lead the growing archeological program, and that year Elaine Hale was brought on by the Planning Department to manage archeological resources affected by the growing Federal Highways road program. This was the start of a park-wide archeological program managed from within the park itself.

Through the years, the park has benefited from having many of the same cooperators involved with the archeology program, as they were familiar with the wide range of historical and prehistoric archeological sites types in YNP, as well as logistical and safety protocols used to work in areas frequented by the park’s large mammals, such as bison, elk, bears, and wolves. Though most archeological research completed in the park was funded through regulatory compliance prior to construction and maintenance activities, the archeology program successfully competed for funding to complete an archeological inventory of the Yellowstone River corridor, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, and the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake. Park funds also supported the archeology program to complete an inventory of utility corridors, trail segments, developed areas such as Old Faithful and Canyon Village, and the Snake River Headwaters Wild and Scenic River area, which includes the Lewis River in the park.

As the YNP archeology program matured, summers were filled with inventory and condition assessments of documented sites, while the off-season involved cataloging artifacts and preparing project reports. Volunteers played a critical role in supporting the archeology program, engaging in surveys to identify new sites and revisiting known sites to assess their conditions, and providing support with data management. In 1990, there were approximately 300 recorded archeological sites in YNP, but by the time Ann Johnson retired in December 2008 there were over 1,600 sites documented and over 1,750 sites when Elaine Skinner Hale retired in 2014. Through a university partnership, Robin Park conducted archeological surveys, monitoring and evaluations, and performed the park’s archeology data management and artifact cataloging from 2009 to 2012, and now works with YNP’s Museum Collections. Staffan Peterson served as Park Archeologist from 2012 to 2016 before moving on to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. NPS Archeologists at YNP coordinate with law enforcement staff, assisting them in their investigations as subject matter experts when artifacts are illegally collected. The increased education and improved coordination between the archeological staff and other employees strengthens the protection of these nonrenewable archeological resources. Park staff have been, and continue to be, essential for supporting the archeological team’s fieldwork, but most importantly, are invaluable for their contributed efforts from site identification and protection.

Notable Research Findings
Archeological sites in Yellowstone can also tell us what the prehistoric landscape and vegetation community was like, which informs interdisciplinary study of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Geomorphology suggests the Gardiner Basin was once filled with a large lake created by damming of the Yellowstone River in Yankee Jim Canyon about 10,000 years ago (Good 1982; Pierce 1979, 2004, Gardiner Basin Restoration Workshop 2005, pers. comm. in Jaworowski 2005). Good (1982) estimated the maximum elevation of this lake at 5,225 ft. Fed by glacial runoff, this lake stretched south to two miles upstream from Gardiner, Montana, and lasted several thousand years. Archeologists working at the Malin Creek site excavated through multiple occupations, finding lacustrine sediments from the now-vanished lake at the base of the site (Jaworowski and Heasler 2005, Vivian et al. 2008). The deepest archeological materials, located at 5.5 ft. below the modern ground surface, were radiocarbon dated to 10,280+/-50 years before present (BP). This indicates prehistoric people camped roughly 9,400-9,800 years ago on the shore of a lake that no longer exists, supporting the geomorphologic studies from Gardiner Basin. Lucustrine sediments were also recognized in deep excavations near the Stephen’s Creek corrals at 5,300 ft. above mean sea level (AMSL), similar in elevation to those at the Malin Creek site (Pierce 1979, Pierce et al. 2003, Jaworowski and Heasler 2005). Thus, archeological and geomorphological investigations resulted in clarifying the age of this YNP valley, the now-vanished lake and its elevation, and importantly, when people began using the Gardiner Basin.

Naturally-occurring wildfires in the park led to a unique opportunity to document the Obsidian Cliff archeological site. The unique geochemical signature of obsidian artifacts, mentioned above, posed an interesting research question once artifacts were found to be traded across the North American continent. Quite a few were sourced to Obsidian Cliff, including some used by the Hopewell Culture people in the Ohio River Valley, which date between AD 50 and 200 (Davis et al. 1995; Hughes 2007). In 1988, the NPS Rocky Mountain Regional Office provided funding to the Museum of the Rockies to inventory and evaluate the significance of this site. The day before fieldwork was to begin, one of the famous 1988 wildfires, the largest ever for YNP, burned over much of Obsidian Cliff, fortuitously removing pine needle duff and vegetation. Archeologists were able to record the extensive obsidian quarry pits and associated processing stations with onsite stone tool manufacturing. Obsidian Cliff site is an outstanding example of a quarry, used by native peoples throughout regional prehistory, from the Clovis complex until the park was established (Davis et al. 1995). The scope and scale of the distribution of Obsidian Cliff materials makes this stone tool source one of the most significant archeological sites on the continent, and why the site was designated the Obsidian Cliff National Historic Landmark (NHL). To-date, it is the only NHL designation for an archeology site in YNP.

In the springs of 1996 and 1997, there was dramatically high water in all of the park’s rivers and streams due to melting snow pack. The rushing meltwater washed out many prehistoric and historical sites located on river and stream banks, with the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River particularly affected. Given the scope of erosional damage from the runoff events, and the rise and shift of the water level in Yellowstone Lake, the park successfully obtained NPS funding to assess known sites and document erosion damage and newly exposed areas. In addition, multi-year funding supported the inventory and evaluation of archeological resources around Yellowstone Lake. Hundreds of sites were identified which has significantly increased our knowledge of prehistoric use of the lake and the Yellowstone Plateau for the last 9,000 years (Johnson 2002, Sanders 2002, 2013, MacDonald, this issue).

The Nymph Lake site is another good example of how archeological research informs us about past human occupations. Located near Obsidian Cliff, this site dates to about 2,200 years ago based on radiocarbon dating and diagnostic projectile point analysis (Sanders et al. 2011). At this site, a small group camping on thermal soils processed food and manufactured obsidian tools and large flakes that could be carried for future use. Archeologists identified three distinct work areas: a roasting pit dug into the ground; an area where fire cracked rocks were strewn across the ground, possibly from “cleaning-out” the roasting pit; and a lithic reduction area. Analysis of blood and protein residue on selected tools at the Nymph Lake site showed scraping tools came in contact with bear, deer, bison, rat, sheep, rabbit, fowl, and pine. Projectile points tested positive for bison, rat, herbacious flowering plants (Chenopodiaceae), and pine. A very large quartzite chopper brought to the site retained guinea pig (beaver, porcupine, or squirrel) protein residue. Residue analysis indicates the people at the Nymph Lake site subsisted on a wide range of animals (Sanders et al. 2011).

Thousands of flakes and discarded tools were recovered in one area associated with stone tool manufacturing. In one area, large usable flakes were knocked off of an obsidian core. These flakes are then reduced through flaking into a stone tool, such as a biface or projectile point. On the other side of the flake debris area, poorly formed flakes removed from much smaller cobbles were observed. There were also large flakes with notches on the side, suggesting that the expert knapper may have been trying to show the novice knapper how to make notches needed to attach projectile points to hafts (Sanders et al. 2011). Although the majority of obsidian was obtained from Obsidian Cliff, people also aquired obsidian from other quarries, such as Cougar Creek (east of West Yellowstone), Park Point (east shore of Yellowstone Lake), Conant Creek and Teton Pass (south of YNP), Bear Gulch (west of YNP), and from the Malad site south of Pocatello, Idaho (Sanders et al. 2011). The wide distribution of obsidian procurement sites indicates people traveled long distances using multiple routes to access and move across the Yellowstone Plateau; this demonstrates there were multiple ways to enter and exit what is now the park.

Despite all we have accomplished, there is more to do. With less than 3% of the park inventoried there are thousands of sites in Yellowstone that remain undocumented and unknown. We believe the archeology program we developed will build upon its strengths and continue to find, protect, and research archeological resources within the world’s first national park.

Literature Cited

Davis, L.B., S.A. Aaberg, and J.G. Schmidt. 1996. The Obsidian Cliff Plateau prehistoric lithic source, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Selections from the Division of Cultural Resources No. 6. Rocky Mountain Region, National Park Service, Denver, Colorado, USA.

Gardiner Basin Restoration Workshop. 2005. Gardiner Basin Restoration Workshop, Preliminary information for workshop participants from Mary M. Hektner, Chair, Steering Committee. Gardiner, Montana, USA.

Good, J. 1982.“The Yankee Jim Canyon Landslide Park County Montana.” Wyoming Geological Association Guidebook, Geology of Yellowstone Park Area, 33rd Annual Field Conference. Pages 53-54. Wyoming Geological Association, Casper, Wyoming, USA.

Hughes, R.E. and A.C. Fortier. 2007. Trace element analysis of obsidian artifacts from six archaeological sites in Illinois. Illinois Archaeology 19:144-157.

Jaworowski, C., and H. Heasler. 2005. A geological assessment of the Malin Creek site. Yellowstone National Park, WY: National Park Service, Yellowstone Center for Resources, YNP Geology. Final Report Submitted to Ann Johnson, Park Archeologist, Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth, Wyoming, USA.

Johnson, A. 2002. Archaeology around Yellowstone Lake. Pages 80-88 in R.J. Anderson and D. Harmon. Yellowstone Lake: hotbed of chaos or reservoir of resilience? Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth, Wyoming, and The George Wright Society, Hancock, Michigan, USA.

Langford, N.P. 1905. Diary of the Washburn Expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers in the Year 1870. Self published, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

Norris, P. W. 1877. Superintendent’s annual report of Yellowstone National Park. U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., USA.

Pierce, K. L. 1979. History and dynamics of glaciation in the northern Yellowstone National Park area. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 729 F, U.S. Geological Survey, Washington, D.C., USA.

Pierce, K.L., D.G. Despain, C. Whitlock, K.P. Cannon, G. Meyer, L. Morgan, and J.M. Licciardi. 2003. in D.J. Easterbrook. Quaternary geology of the United States INQUA 2003 field guide volume. Desert Research Institute. Reno, Nevada, USA.

Sanders, P.H. 2002. Prehistoric land-use patterns within the Yellowstone Lake Basin and Hayden Valley Region, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Pages 213-231 in Proceedings of the 6th biennial scientific conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth, Wyoming, and The George Wright Society, Hancock, Michigan, USA.

Sanders, P.H. 2013. A reassessment of prehistoric land-use patterns within the Yellowstone Lake Basin and Hayden Valley region, Yellowstone National Park. 2013. Pages 22-41 in D.H. MacDonald and E.S. Hale. Yellowstone archaeology: Southern Yellowstone. University of Montana Department of Anthropology Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. 13(2). University of Montana Office of Printing and Graphics, Missoula, Montana, USA.

Sanders, P.H., C.J. Clayton, and E.S. Hale. 2011. Archaeological data recovery, phrases 1 and 2 at the Nymph Lake site (48YE114): a 2200 year old obsidian workshop near Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Prepared for National Park Service Intermountain Region, Denver, Colorado. Prepared by Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist, Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, Laramie, Wyoming, USA. OWAS Project Number WY-16-2004, National Park Service Cooperative Agreement Number CA 1200-99-007, University of Wyoming Task Agreement Number UWY-24.

Superintendent’s Annual Report of Yellowstone National Park. 1879. U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington D.C., USA.

Vivian, B.C., B.O.K. Reeves, and A. Johnson. 2008. Historical resources mitigative excavations at site 24YE353, final report. Report submitted by Lifeways of Canada to Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth, Wyoming, USA.

Part of a series of articles titled Yellowstone Science - Volume 26 Issue 1: Archeology in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: June 21, 2021