Out West student blog

Uncovering Hidden Yellowstone

Archaeological Survey. Jake Frank, National Park Service

By Alessandro Hall
Undeclared, 2020
Archaeology Intern
Yellowstone National Park

Every day, on my way to work, I pass through the historic Roosevelt Arch, the 50-foot-high gateway to Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance. Inscribed in its stone are words that guide, challenge, and complicate my work as an archaeologist – “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” This sentiment, making resources available for the public, is central to the mission of the National Park Service. But it can also interfere with an archaeologist’s impulse to protect the Park’s more than 1,800 archaeological sites (only two percent of the Park has been surveyed). Navigating this complex tension, and finding innovative ways to couple preservation with outreach is one of the joys of working at Yellowstone.

One way I try to reconcile conservation with public enjoyment is through education and outreach. One of my major projects this summer is curating an exhibit on the archaeology of former soldier stations and backcountry patrol cabins in the Park. From 1886 until 1918, the U.S. Army managed Yellowstone to help prevent illegal poaching and vandalism. To better enforce the law, the military constructed a network of cabins, about 12 miles apart, which soldiers used as they traveled through the landscape. From old harmonicas to fishing hooks, the objects in this exhibit will tell the story of how these men remained entertained in extremely isolated conditions, especially during Yellowstone’s brutally cold winters. I rely heavily on the Park’s research library and archival records to bring the objects in my exhibit to life with data, photographs, and stories.

But the archaeology related to the U.S. Army era is not the only work I do at the park. Due to Yellowstone’s multilayered history and many occupations, I encounter a diverse array of artifacts in my daily work. As I survey in the field, navigating bison herds and incessant mosquito bites, I often come across lithic tools and obsidian flakes. Native Americans have inhabited the Yellowstone area for at least 11,000 years. Obsidian Cliff, a National Historic Landmark and site of great significance to many of our associated Native American tribes, was one of the most popular quarry sites in the North America. Using geo-chemical analysis, obsidian artifacts as far east as Ohio, north as Alberta Canada, west as Washington, and south as Colorado have all been sourced to Obsidian Cliff.

When most people think of Yellowstone, they picture the erupting Old Faithful geyser or the powerful grizzly bear. Yellowstone’s natural resources are breathtaking, but my job is to remind visitors that these awe inspiring features and wildlife have drawn people to this area for hundreds of generations. Yellowstone National Park has a human history scattered in its soils. I feel a responsibility to protect the Park’s archaeological resources so all these stories and all these histories can be told.

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