Article Series

Series: Yellowstone Science - Volume 26 Issue 1: Archeology in Yellowstone

Little did Philetus Norris know that when he picked up Native American artifacts and sent them off to the Smithsonian Institution in the latter half of the 19th century, that he launched what would eventually be a complex and dynamic field of inquiry into the archeology of the world’s first national park. Learn more about the archeological history of Yellowstone.

  • Yellowstone National Park

    Chapter 1: The Yellowstone Story

    Photo of Tobin Roop smiling in ranger attire.

    Little did Philetus Norris know that when he picked up Native American artifacts and sent them off to the Smithsonian Institution in the latter half of the 19th century, that he launched what would eventually be a complex and dynamic field of inquiry into the archeology of the world’s first national park. For Yellowstone National Park (YNP), archeology provides a compelling counter narrative to the idea that Yellowstone is a wilderness, untouched by humans... Read more

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    Chapter 2: A Brief History of Archeology at Yellowstone National Park

    Carmen Clayton and Elaine Hale in the field.

    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. Read more

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    Chapter 3: Obsidian: The MVP of Yellowstone's "Stones"

    Obsidian Cliff (ca. 1953), a National Historic Landmark.

    Obsidian is a volcanic glass formed when magma is extruded from the earth’s crust and cools very rapidly, with little moisture content or crystalline inclusions. It was generally the most popular tool stone material used by the ancestors of Native Americans in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) and was prized as a tool stone material for practical (and potentially cultural) reasons. Read more

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    Chapter 4: Historical Archeology

    Photograph of the original Tower Falls Soldier Station near Calcite Springs Overlook, 1905.

    Public perceptions of archeological sites in the Northern Rocky Mountains are heavily geared towards prehistoric sites, such as lithic scatters, quarries, tipi rings, and bison jumps. Although these types of archeological sites are important in that they reflect the majority of human occupation in the area, there is much to be learned from the more recent past, also known as the historical period. What exactly is historical archeology and why is it important? Read more

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    Chapter 5: Debunking the Myth, America's Eden

    Bison cross the Lamar Valley in the evening summer sun.

    Excerpt from “Engineering Eden” by Jordan Fisher Smith To early Euro-American visitors, in comparison to New England, Yellowstone certainly looked like a wilderness. But it had been under some kind of human influence for thousands of years before it became a nature-management kindergarten for an otherwise highly advanced civilization that had by then laid a telegraph cable across the bottom of the Atlantic between Ireland and Nova Scotia... Read more

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    Chapter 6: Archeology Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail

    Figure 1. Map showing Nez Perce National Historic Trail.

    When Yellowstone National Park (YNP) was created in 1872, much of the western Great Plains and Rocky Mountains remained uncharted wilderness still dominated by various Native American tribal groups, some of which were fighting for their own survival. Read more

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    Chapter 7: Dendrochronology - The Study of Tree Rings

    This axe-cut stump was cut late in the growing season of 1877.

    The science of dendrochronology can be used to estimate when a tree was felled or naturally died, if the calendar year dates of tree growth rings can be determined. Read more

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    Chapter 8: Archeology Facts

    Yellowstone Archeology Timeline

    The Heritage & Research Center in Gardiner holds 611,196 cultural and natural history objects, as of October 2017. Learn more... Read more

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    Chapter 9: Archeology & Adaptation to Climate Change in Yellowstone

    This artifact may represent one of the first ice patch artifacts recovered in the GYE...

    The effects of climate change may pose the greatest threat to the integrity of natural and cultural resources that Yellowstone National Park (YNP) has ever experienced (NPS 2010). Protection and preservation of these resources requires park managers to understand potential threats using the best available research, and that they act in the long-term public interest. Read more

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    Chapter 10: Debunking the Myth, Seasonal Use of Yellowstone

    A photo of a pink sunset over the Beartooth range in early spring.

    Historically there have been narratives that Yellowstone was either sparsely occupied by Native American groups or never inhabited by them at all. These accounts are at odds with both the wealth of prehistoric archeological sites in the park, and ethnographic accounts and oral traditions of the park’s 26 associated tribes. Read more

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    Chapter 11: Archeological Significance of Yellowstone Lake

    Matt Nelson on Dot Island with bone visible. Photo- ©D. MacDonald.

    Yellowstone Lake is considered by many to be the heart of Yellowstone National Park. As North America’s largest, high-elevation natural lake at nearly 8,000 ft. (2,400 m) above sea level, this 20 mile long by 15 mile (32 x 24 km) wide freshwater body of water has played an important role in the lifeways of Great Plains, Great Basin, and Rocky Mountain Native Americans for 11,000 years. Read more

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    Chapter 12: Debunking the Myth, Fear of Yellowstone

    Geyser erupting in the Upper Geyser Basin.

    One of the persistent myths about Native American attitudes regarding Yellowstone is that they were afraid of this place and avoided it. The stories passed to us by early Anglo explorers and park administrators report that the geysers, fumaroles, and other thermal features frightened the native peoples. Read more

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    Chapter 13: A Volunteer's Impressions

    Superintendent Suzanne Lewis, John Reynolds, and Ann Johnson

    My introduction to the field of archeology was fortuitous for me and came late in my life. The field of archeology was essentially unknown to me when I applied to become a volunteer for the National Park Service (NPS). I had applied to increase my knowledge of NPS operations in order to become an advocate for the park system in my retirement. Read more

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    Chapter 14: Shorts (YS 26-1)

    Robin Park holds a stone artifact.

    Learn more about ongoing research and findings in this reoccurring series of short articles. Read more

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    Chapter 15: A Look Back, Howard Eaton's Yellowstone Tour

    A vintage ad of the Howard Eaton experience.

    Howard Eaton was one of Yellowstone National Park’s (YNP) most famous and beloved concessioners who introduced hundreds of tourists to the wonders of Yellowstone between 1883 and 1921, and whose saddle-horse tours contributed to Yellowstone’s popularity during the park’s formative years. In 1923, one year after Eaton’s death, the National Park Service (NPS) named a newly-completed, 157-mile bridle and hiking trail for him... Read more

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    Chapter 16: A Look Back, Historic Relief  Model Helped the Public Understand the Human Relationship to Yellowstone Geology

    A detail of the Electric Peak area on the Yellowstone National Park and Absaroka Range (1897).

    In the Yellowstone Justice Center in Mammoth, Wyoming, is a historic 1897 geologic relief model of Yellowstone National Park and the Absaroka Range by Edwin E. Howell. At 7 ft. square, it’s a stunning scientific sculpture of a beloved geologic region in the U.S. (figure 1). It was donated to the park in 1921 and was installed in the old Information Center in Mammoth... Read more

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    Chapter 17: A Look Back, Botanical Adventures in Yellowstone, 1899

    Leslie Goodding sits between stacks of blotters, checking specimens.

    On June 24, 1899, a sentry on routine patrol discovered a party of six camped on the Madison River just inside Yellowstone National Park (YNP). Inspection revealed multiple infractions... Read more

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    Chapter 18: Sneak Peek (YS-26-1)

    Illustration of the vital signs concept.

    In medicine, vital signs, such as blood pressure and pulse rate, are simple routine measurements used to assess human health. When tracked over time, vital sign measurements contribute to diagnoses and support decisions concerning the response of patients to medical treatments. Slight abnormalities in vital sign measurements (e.g., elevated body temperature) are usually not critical but may warrant a more careful diagnosis, whereas extremely abnormal vital signs... Read more