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Archaeologists Find Clues at the Yellowstone Ice Patch

Retreating ice caused by a changing climate reveals glimpses from the past

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Although archaeology has been around for centuries, “ice patch” archaeology really became a new discipline in 1991 when Otzi the Iceman — a 5,000-year-old body nearly perfectly preserved — was found high in the Italian-Austrian Alps by hikers.

Otzi was found because permanent ice patches and glaciers have been melting back and retreating in recent decades. The Iceman, older than Egyptian pyramids, offered a peek at a human from the Copper Age. Interestingly, it appears he ran up into mountains to escape combatants and died with an arrow point stuck in a shoulder.

Archaeologists began looking at other places in the world where retreating ice caused by a changing climate might reveal glimpses from the past. The Post Register reports the Greater Yellowstone Area, with its retreating ice at high elevations, has become a hotbed of exploration.

“The (Greater Yellowstone Area) is without question the most active region in North America in terms of ice patch archaeology with the diversity of projects and the number of different teams working on it,” Craig Lee, an ice patch archaeologist with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and a professor at the University of Colorado. Lee has been working in this region for the past 12 years.

Lee’s first major find took place in the Beartooth Mountains northeast of Yellowstone National Park. It was a highly crafted foreshaft (forward portion of the shaft of an arrow) that had ownership marks on it. The beauty of finding things once frozen in ice is that the organic materials that usually deteriorate rapidly are still preserved.

“It’s more than 10,000 years old,” Lee said. “It was deposited in the ice about 10,300 years ago. Ice that was 10,000 years old had melted away. Finding that foreshaft was a game-changer. In this particular location there were several artifacts that were found which reinforced and reinforced the nature of the resource and the potential for it at this latitude.”

Elizabeth Horton, archaeologist for Yellowstone National Park, speaking in an Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research video said there is an urgency with this type of research because as the ice melts, the resources will also vanish.

“So with the ice patches, we do find that they are retreating,” she said. “Not only throughout Yellowstone National Park, but throughout the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, throughout the Rocky Mountains, throughout North America and it’s across different places around the globe.”

Lee takes a philosophical view on the shrinking ice patches.

“I don’t get riled up about climate warming,” he said. “My concern is in protecting the past, not just because I like to see stuff go into museums, but because I think it is meaningful for the present generation and future generations to have access to this heritage material. My take on this is basically like a library. If the library is on fire you don’t stand around and point fingers and yell at each other about who started the damn fire, you get the books out of the library. Then you can stand around on the lawn and yell to your heart’s content. Right now we need to be interacting with this material when the opportunity arises, when there’s a big melt year.”

Lee said the Greater Yellowstone Area ice patch project got a major boost in 2006 with funding from the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee. With that funding his group aerial photographed all the potential ice patches. Of those, 400 locations were identified as prime spots.

“Of those we’ve visited 70 of the very best most primo locations and I’d say there’s only about 13 that have produced cultural material,” he said.

Ask an ice patch archaeologist where they found their prize discovery and, like asking a pirate where he hid his booty chest, you’ll get an awkward silence, then a vague general description of “there are some wonderful permanent ice fields revealing resources in the Greater Yellowstone Area,” Lee said. Mums the word, to protect resources from being destroyed by the public.

Not all of the finds are ancient. In one case, assistant Wyoming archaeologist Marcia Peterson doing ice patch research in Teton National Park near Table Rock Mountain found a wallet lost by a 14-year-old boy, Gordon Stokes, in 1947 while he was visiting the local Boy Scout camp.

Lee said he hopes that much of his work will be of interest to regional tribes.

“One of the things I think is wonderful about the (Greater Yellowstone Area) is that you have all these folks pursuing this research,” he said. “We have a number of different tribes who call the (area) their home. I’ve been really keen to try to get this research into their hands.”

Shane Doyle, a Native American educator and archaeologist at Montana State University sees this research as an opportunity for tribes.

“I think that the ice patch archaeology gives us an opportunity to connect indigenous peoples all over the planet who have been living in these mountainous regions for the past 10,000 years,” he said in a recent Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research video. “And it gives us an opportunity to connect with one another as contemporary peoples who are facing the same challenges, modernization. It gives us an opportunity to reconcile with our past heritage. And it gives us an opportunity to celebrate all those beautiful traditions and values that we’ve inherited.”

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