By Daniel Perret
B.A. in Biology, 2013
Read about our summer interns on the OutWest student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.
Yellowstone National Park is an international destination for people who love to fish, from casual stick-and-string dock anglers to hardcore wader-wearing fly-fishers. For thousands of years, people have utilized the bountiful piscine resources of the many creeks, lakes, and rivers that pepper the Yellowstone countryside.
Hang on a second! Until very recently, no evidence of prehistoric (defined as pre-1750) fishing activity has ever been found within the park. Theories abounded as to the reason. Maybe the prehistoric Native American residents of the park held a cultural taboo against fish consumption? Did they simply lack the technology to exploit the resource? Or have our best archaeological efforts simply missed the traces?
In 2006, an excavation at an important new site near the northern park boundary proved the third option correct. The excavation team found two net-sinker weights, one on each side of the Yellowstone River. The net-sinkers are heavy, impressive affairs; large, ovate river cobbles with considerable notches worked into opposite sides. Subsequent excavations of the site reached a depth of four meters, where Paleo-Indian knives were recovered, indicating that the site had been occupied as early as 10,500 years before present (YBP). Although the net-sinkers themselves probably date to the late pre-historic period (3,000 YBP – 300 YBP), they represented the first evidence of fishing ever recovered in Yellowstone.
Fast forward six years. Two park archaeologists and I are back at this important area, performing a site condition assessment. We walk transects, eyes on the ground, on the prowl for lithic artifacts and possible threats to the site. I spot a large rock that looks suspiciously out of place, eroding out of the riverbank. I pick it up, dust it off, and see that this is no ordinary rock. Another net-sinker, and the third ever recovered!
Back at the lab, we fawn over the day’s finds and complain about carrying a 10-pound rock for miles back to the road. The archaeology team occupying the lab is a dynamic cast of characters: Robin, a Canadian (but soon to be American) archaeologist, who has been working with great success in the park for 7 years and infects the program with contagious energy and excitement; Staffan, the newly hired park archaeologist, ever-eager to learn about his new domain, full of ideas, and always optimistic; John, a 14-year veteran archaeology volunteer who is brimming over with valuable archaeological information and insight, riveting stories, and generous good will; and… me.
I am the new archaeology intern for the summer. Yellowstone is an exciting place to do archaeology (we’re fond of saying that the whole park is a site), and I’m trying to absorb as much new information as I can. In only three weeks, I’ve already learned an enormous amount about lithic technology, plains cultural chronologies, museum cataloging techniques, archaeological survey, current debates in archaeological theory, and more. Our time is generally split between the field and the lab. Fieldwork can include anything from detailed site condition assessments to general surveys to educational outings. For example, yesterday we spent 10 hours assessing the condition of a number of sites, some of which were far from the road or difficult to locate in the thickets of deadfall and forest regrowth. Today, however, we spent half the day in the lab and half the day teaching a group of high schoolers about Yellowstone archaeology and survey techniques. Lab work can entail an equally diverse range of tasks as fieldwork. For example, my duties run the gamut from analyzing and cataloguing artifacts to creating site maps using GIS software to resolving problematic records in the archaeological databases.
While cataloging artifacts, I occasionally catch myself day-dreaming about high lakes, endless mountain ridges, and long glissades into alpine basins. One of the beauties about living in Yellowstone is that I can fulfill these daydreams on the weekends; the Tetons, Absaroka, and Beartooth Mountains lurk just outside of park boundaries. However exhilarating and lung-busting the weekend’s adventures are, I always find myself excited on Monday morning to plunge back into the archaeological record. I can’t wait to see what else we uncover, and the season’s only beginning!
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »