Continental Divides

Digging into Montana’s Unparalleled Past

There’s plenty of material evidence surrounding human history and prehistory waiting to be found, including here in northwest Montana

By John McCaslin

Essential supplies for my final semester of college eons ago weren’t readily available at the campus bookstore: bucket and shovel, measuring tape, stakes and string, soft brush, sieve, and last but not least a trowel, an archaeologist’s most basic tool.

With long-standing permission from landowners in two bordering states, my class of budding prehistorians was in pursuit of artifacts attached to the Clovis people, who hunted giant sloths and mastodons in North America 13,000 years ago.

Whenever it stormed or became too hot to dig we’d spread tarps across our excavation sites and huddle in a large teepee the university provided for shelter. It beat being confined to a classroom and I never felt more fulfilled in all my years of schooling.

Choosing a career in journalism, at the same time, didn’t preclude me from reaping the many personal benefits of avocational archaeology, an unsung hobby I highly recommend to readers. I’m even a member of the Montana Archeological Society, which includes a subscription to the engrossing MAS journal Archaeology of Montana.

Speaking of which, its new editor, Missoula-based archaeologist Dr. Sara Scott, has given the journal a new energy and glossy layout, her goal to reach a broader audience while increasing MAS membership, which unfortunately has declined in recent years. Given the captivating content in the current issue, she’s gotten off to an impressive start.

Where else can you read about “The Enigma of Site 144,” which surrounds a “newly discovered” rock art site in Montana consisting of five paintings on the ceiling of a remote canyon alcove?

“They include two linear body anthropomorphs with short, inverted V-shape legs, out-stretched arms with fingers, and small round heads that appear to wear horned head-dresses,” the article (with plenty of photos) reveals.

All five paintings (the others consist of an arrow-like object, a partial circle enclosing a straight line, and quite rare for Montana a stenciled human hand) are in “good condition,” given the protected setting. The pictographs were likely created with bone grease or a “paint” consisting of chewed material mixed with saliva or water.

Stenciled hands, the journal educates, were likely made by putting the paint mixture in the mouth and then spitting over a hand as it’s held against a wall.

Not surprisingly, no record of this “significant” art find had been listed in any of the state or federal archaeological site databases, because none of Montana’s top archaeologists — from the state government, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — knew they even existed.

Which brings us to the puzzling part: attached to the remote and lofty (reachable by ladder) alcove of pictographs, situated on private land at an elevation of 4,920 feet, archaeologists discovered a metal tag bearing the number 144. Nobody knows who put it there, or when, nor is the tag recognized as one used in this state (at least during the last 40 years). The number 144 also cannot be explained.

If that’s not enough intrigue for one issue, another perplexing story surrounds a partially buried “seal” —12 inches in length, likely carved from whalebone, head held high, with etched flippers, drilled eyes and nostrils — that a Montana rancher stumbled upon in the middle of nowhere.

The isolated land where the pinniped was discovered in 1975 (the rancher ended up placing it above her stove as a decoration) has been owned by the same extended family since 1920, and the current generation says there’s no reason to believe their ancestors knew about the buried artifact.

“How it came to be abandoned in a remote field in Montana is as much a mystery as its origin and travel history,” the article points out.

Thanks to Archaeology of Montana, I’ve also come to know of Dr. Ann Johnson, whose family moved to Kalispell from east of the divide when she was 3. Since 1964, Johnson has been an active member and past president of MAS, not to mention editor for 28 years (until 2022) of the aforementioned journal.

Holding a doctorate in Anthropology, Johnson’s archaeology roots run so deep she’s the last surviving member of the Milk River Archaeological Society, which she joined in her youth. Her numerous academic and field pursuits include but are not limited to almost 30 years with the National Park Service, including as Yellowstone National Park Archaeologist and Chief of Cultural Resources.

In a recent conversation, Johnson explained the process of gathering the slightest of shards and flakes from ancient stone tools, which the lab would then “fingerprint,” revealing in some cases traces of blood that flowed almost 10,000 years ago through “bear and bighorn sheep and rabbit and deer — blood from all of these creatures.

“Just really cool,” she said.

Recently presented with a MAS Lifetime Achievement Award, Johnson told me the most rewarding aspect of her career has been to “document things that would have been lost otherwise.”

“And I have enjoyed friendships and activities that introduced me to wide range of people,” she added, stressing that one needn’t a college degree or postgraduate qualification to both appreciate and participate in archaeology.

“At a typical [archaeological] meeting you will find a policeman, judge, mailman, farmer, there are kids — a diversity of these people all coming together with a common interest — all with something they can contribute through their background and experience.”

Better yet, there’s plenty of material evidence surrounding human history and prehistory waiting to be found, including here in northwest Montana.

“Absolutely in this area, but with no site forms [the basic document of record for archaeological sites] that would describe it in size and age and location,” she explained. “One could have a whole career, or else have a happy day, digging into that stuff.”

“Montana is unique,” she agreed.

So much so that it’s the undisputed boneyard of Jurassic Park. Paleontologists have discovered 75 different species of dinosaurs in Montana, the most of any state, from the plated but peaceful Stegosaurus to the razor-toothed, top-of-the-food-chain Allosaurus, which could run and grasp at food at the same time.

As for the Clovis people I once pursued, there exists only one human skeleton from that culture, among the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas. Wouldn’t you know it was unearthed right here in Montana.

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

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