Wildfire archaeology exposes treasures of the dead

Wyoming fires revealed long hidden historical artifacts.

 

This article originally appeared at Wyofile.com.

Dan Eakin waited out the Boulder Ridge Fire hoping that the wooden sheep traps would survive. They didn’t. But when the senior archaeologist with the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologists arrived on the Shoshone National Forest in 2003, shortly after the 11,000-acre blaze subsided, he found that an entirely different historical treasure had made it through.

“In the timber we found these Pompeii-like sites,” he said. “It looked like people had just packed up and left.”

The sites, previously hidden from scientists by layers of combustible vegetation, dated back thousands of years and included prehistoric artifacts and more recent items from trading with Europeans. “Sites like that are almost non-existent,” Eakin said.

Yet as wildfires burn hotter, larger and more frequently more of these sites are appearing in Wyoming.

Fire archaeologists race to the sites of recent wildfires to catalog newly exposed artifacts before looters or Mother Nature destroy archaeological evidence.
Courtesy of Larry Todd

“We’re living in a time where we’re seeing these changes that can occur almost daily, right before our eyes,” he said. “We’re dealing with whole new ecosystems.”

Archaeologist Larry Todd started excavating sites and documenting artifacts on the Shoshone National Forest in 2002. In 2006 the Little Venus fire burned through his research sites and provided Todd and his colleagues with a natural experiment in how fire impacts the archaeological record. Existing artifact inventories set the stage perfectly for an objective before-and-after contrast with post-fire conditions.  

When Todd returned after the fire, the number of artifacts he found at the sites increased by about 2,000 percent. “It’s like peeling back a page and exposing an entire occupation site,” Todd said.

It wasn’t just the number of items he found that was so valuable, but also the information the newly discovered artifacts yielded.

He discovered ceramics and glass beads, which showed the people who lived in the mountains had contact with European traders, something archaeologists hadn’t previously known. Todd found fetal mountain sheep bones, meaning the people who once lived at the site were at high elevations in the spring, hunting pregnant ewes.

Archaeological teams haul high-tech equipment, often deep into the backcountry, to record precise artifact locations and other critical data.

“The richness of the record is allowing us to paint a much more detailed, precise picture of what the lives of those people were like,” Todd said.

Todd hadn’t seen any of these types of artifacts the five years before the fire. “My first impression after the fire was ‘Oh my God, look at all this,’ ” he said. “‘How in the world can we protect it?’”

Since 2003, wildfires have uncovered more than 600 previously undocumented sites and more than 160,000 artifacts in Wyoming.

Kyle Wright, archaeologist for the Shoshone National Forest arrived on the forest in 2011, the same year the Norton Point Fire burned almost 24,000 acres. After the fire, Wright found artifacts ranging from 13,000 years ago to the 19th century. Those artifacts showed that people lived in these remote, high-elevation areas year round.

“It’s really cutting-edge in the sense that if we look back 25 years ago, we thought people were not in the mountains that much, that it was more of a seasonal thing,” he said. “The more we look, the more information we get.”

Getting that information is the hard part.

As soon as a fire starts Wright begins assessing the potential for artifacts. He looks for clues people might have once lived in the area, like flat land near water. “If it’s a good camping site now, it probably was a good site 5,000 years ago,” he said.

When he identifies potential sites, he starts plotting how and when he can get there — ideally before looters remove items and the valuable information archaeologists could glean from documenting them.

Flags mark artifacts unearthed after a wildfire. Fires can uncover hundreds of items.
Courtesy of Larry Todd

“It wakes me up at night when a fire is burning,” he said.

But Wright is the 2.5 million-acre forest’s only staff archaeologist. Diminishing budgets are allocated instead for keeping campgrounds open and trails accessible.

It’s why partnerships with researchers like Todd are so important, he said.

In 2009 Todd retired from teaching at Colorado State University, in part to focus on fire archaeology for which he needed a flexible schedule since fires are so unpredictable.

“There’s more archaeology up there than teams of us could record,” Todd said. “It’s a feeling of ‘Oh my God, look at how much we are going to lose and how much we’ll never see.’ ”

Newly exposed artifacts are fragile. Animals can trample exposed items. Erosion can wash them away. Speed is of the essence. “Often we get to the site while it’s still smoking,” Todd said.

Unlike normal excavations, the fire performs the normally tedious job of exposing the artifacts, leaving archaeologists to document the items and their locations in the soot and ash.

The sites are often deep in the backcountry and hard to access. Burned trees can easily topple. It’s a different experience than any other type of site work. Plus, during fire season, another site can need attention at any moment.

“We weren’t even done documenting post-fire in one site, when another fire starts up,” Todd said. “Every time I hear about another fire, I cringe.”

Luckily, the northern portion of the Shoshone National Forest near where Todd lives and works hasn’t had a big fire in the last two summers. He’s used the reprieve to help colleagues race to preserve artifacts exposed by melting ice patches.  Archaeologists, it turns out, are feeling the pressure of a warming Earth in both ice and fire.

If you discover an artifact: Taking artifacts from public land is illegal. If you find items while in the backcountry, the best thing to do is leave them untouched, snap a picture, note the location on a map or with GPS, and contact local land-management authorities. Archaeologists can learn more about artifacts if they know where they are found.

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Follow Kelsey on Twitter at @Kelsey_Dayton.

WyoFile is a nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.