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Report: Archeology – Mummy Cave, Wyoming
This report discusses the important archeology project undertaken at the Mummy Cave in Northern Wyoming and is principally based upon “The Archeology of Mummy Cave, Wyoming: An Introduction to Shoshonean Prehistory”, a 2002 National Park Services publication by Husted & Edgar. The project was undertaken between 1963 and 1966, funded by the National Geographic Society and led by talented amateur archaeologist Robert Edgar from nearby Cody. In the final year of excavations the work was directed by the Smithsonian Institute’s Wilfred Husted (Husted, 2007). That original project was followed up in 2008 by a team led by Robert Kelly from the University of Wyoming, who reopened a trench there, to collect additional radiocarbon samples and sediment samples (not covered in this report) (Kelly, 2008 p. 2).
Importance of the project. According to Dr. Thomas A. Foor, who provided the Foreword to the 2002 Mummy Cave Report by Husted & Edgar (p. v), the importance of the Mummy Cave project was summarized by Susan Hughes, who wrote:
The rock shelter provided an unparalleled record of human occupation in the Rocky Mountain region. The 9,000 years projectile point chronology has been used as a standard for point typology throughout northwest Wyoming and western Montana, especially the sequence of early side- and corner-notched points dating between 4500 and 7000 years before the present. (Hughes, 1988 p. 46).
Foor also underlines the importance of the Mummy Cave site due to what he calls “the sheer richness of the artefact assemblages and the high level of preservation of organic materials”, noting that “thousands of items” were recovered (Husted & Edgar p. v). He further praises the site’s value in terms of the anthropological questions raised there, and stresses its importance in terms of understanding past human life, particularly in the prehistoric era (Husted & Edgar pp. vi-vii).
An important feature of the cave to archaeology is that the findings there assisted in confirming the difference in lifestyles between the early inhabitants of the Plains and these people who lived in the foothills and mountain valleys. The Plains people were predominantly hunters, whereas these people – including the Shoshone and others – tended to be hunter gatherers. Because the environment in the cave is so dry, preservation of artifacts – even those made from perishable raw materials – has been very good. Items dating back some 1,200 years discovered preserved in one of the site’s upper levels included “Arrows with fletching, cordage of plant fiber, netting, feathers, and coiled basketry.” And items dating back from circa 2,000 to 4,000 years from further down included “basketry, cordage and netting, wood digging sticks, and bone pipes and beads” (Husted, 2007).
Mummy Cave location and features. The Mummy Cave is situated in the Rocky Mountains close to Yellowstone National Park and overlooking the North Fork of the Shoshone River. Figure 1 indicates its general location in the northwestern corner of Wyoming and provides a photograph of Mummy Cave taken from across other side of the now-existing adjacent highway:
The cave is called the Mummy Cave after the well-preserved remains of a native American found buried there; the state of preservation attributed to the dry conditions within the cave. The cave is noted for the extensive vertical depth of cultural artifacts, situated in a circa 28 feet depth of deposit-bearing layers, comprising 38 individual occupation layers, which were for the most part separated from each other by “sterile” deposits. Those 38 layers represent an occupation timeframe ranging from the Paleoindian period (going back about 10,000 years), to circa 1600 AD (the late Prehistoric age). The majority of the cultural strata there have been radiocarbon dated to verify the dates of origin (Husted, 2007).
Purpose of this Mummy Cave project. This archeological project provided archaeologists and others with unparalleled insights into the lives of the native inhabitants of the region by virtue of the range and extent of the artifacts recovered from the site over the period of the excavations, and the high state of preservation of them due to the unusually dry environment in the cave. Because the date range of the discovered artifacts was so extensive, the site enabled archaeologists to resolve uncertainties regarding issues such as changes in the form of artifacts (such as projectile points or arrow heads) over time (Husted & Edgar, 2002 p. v).
The Shoshone culture. The Shoshone – an ancient native American tribe – have lived in the mountainous forests in northwestern Wyoming for thousands of years. Their occupation of the area has been confirmed by archeological discoveries of over a dozen sites of their villages, dating back more than 2,000 years. Those village sites were located in an area of almost 120 square miles, in Wyoming’s Wind River mountain range, at altitudes higher than 10,000 feet. Many artifacts were located at those sites, including arrow heads (projectile points), pottery and items carved from soapstone. There were also a number of circular platforms carved into the south-facing (and therefore sunnier) slopes of the mountains and lined with stone – evidence of the existence of wooden dwellings built above them. Several of the sites were located close by or within areas where white bark pines grow – a good source of edible nuts. The sites also featured numerous tools associated with the milling of nuts (De Pastino, 2013).
Various elements of the Shoshone had nicknames; in the Greater Yellowstone area they were known as the Mountain Shoshone or Sheep Eaters, a name given because sheep were a major source of their diet. They may have lived in the area for many thousands of years, and tended to escape the influence of the white man more than other tribes, due to their living in those high, remote areas. In the summer they lived in dwellings covered with hides, and hunted using bows shaped from either bighorn sheep horns or elk antlers. The bows were said to be so powerful and effective that they could drive an arrow tipped with obsidian completely through a buffalo. They were a highly spiritual people, and used both plant and mineral substances for medicinal as well as ritualistic purposes. Because of their perceived spirituality, they were highly regarded and respected by other (lowland) Shoshone groups (Lewis, 2014).
Excavation techniques. A grid system of five feet by five feet over the entire floor of the cave was used to maintain horizontal control of the excavations. A number of permanent points of control were set up by marking selected grid intersections on the cave ceiling and by positioning metal rods at grid intersections outside the expected excavation area. The cardinal points provided the references for the major axes of the grid. Furthermore, in 1963 a vertical control datum was set up and marked on the cave wall; however, it was found that due to the nature of the strata and the many occupation levels, vertical control could be maintained by reference to the discovered cultural levels. Any deviations from the five-feet square system were for safety reasons. For example, portions of squares impacting the cave’s rear wall were left in situ to support any loose rock situated lower than the surface. Once a manageable vertical depth had been excavated, adjacent squares were excavated in the sequence of natural and cultural layers. Prior to excavation of a square was begun, scale-drawn profiles of the pit walls were created. This was the consistent procedure for the entire excavations. As the excavation became deeper, (eventually to more than 30 feet), it was necessary to step the walls of the pit to avoid the possibility of collapse. Although vertical walls of 10 feet were considered stable, the heights were kept to between 4 and 6 feet for two reasons: to be safer and to provide easier access to lower levels. The width of the steps or terracing coincided with the designated grid lines and was established at multiples of 5 feet. Digging within cultural zones was done carefully using trowels, and the removed fill was passed through one quarter inch mesh screens. Prior to 1966, the spoil dirt was distributed along the slope both below and to the north of the cave. Subsequently, the spoil was dumped into a bulldozer cut to the front of the cave. Shovels were used to dig away the sterile layers between the various occupation levels, or trowels if the layers were thin. All fill removed from those sterile zones was screened and was closely inspected while others were shovelling it into wheelbarrows for disposal (Husted & Edgar, p. 31).
The evidence. The unusually high number of occupation levels within the cave and the almost perfect stratification provided a wonderful opportunity to study a long archeological sequence in this central area of the Rocky Mountains. The principal interests in the artifacts were their morphology, determination of their age, and information about their geographical distribution. The discovered projectile points were most revealing in these regards, although some other excavated artifacts also provided useful information. Occasionally, more than one type of projectile point was found in the same cultural layer, but for the most part, each cultural level contained one dominant form. The artifacts were first classified into functional categories such as tools of various forms and functions. Then the categories were split into groups of similar objects based on certain features and then assigned a description derived from characteristics or the base material used in the manufacture. From this procedure, the artifacts could be classified further to arrive at a list of types, for example “indented base projectile points” or “trianguloid knives.” Overall, from the many thousands of artifacts recovered, the project provided clear evidence to confirm that projectile points evolved with time and each succeeding cultural layer of the excavation indicated that in general the newer type(s) of projectile points replaced earlier versions entirely (Husted & Edgar, p. 35). Furthermore, the project team were able to interpret from the various artifacts the relative degrees of similarities or differences with other native American cultures in areas outside of this Wyoming part of the Rocky Mountains (Husted & Edgar, pp. 113 132).
Davis, Leslie B., Aaberg, Stephen A., Schmitt, James G., & Johnson, Ann M. (2005). “The Obsidian Cliff Plateau Prehistoric Lithic Source, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.” US Bureau of Land Management. Web. Accessed 5 March 2015. URL: <http://www.blm.gov/style/medialib/blm/wo/Planning_and_Renewable_Resources/coop_agencies/cr_publications.Par.85037.File.pdf>.
De Pastino, Blake. (Nov. 2013). “13 Ancient Villages Discovered in Wyoming Mountains May Redraw Map of Tribal Migrations.” Western Digs. Web. Accessed 5 March 2015. URL: http://westerndigs.org/thirteen-prehistoric-villages-discovered-in-wyoming-mountains-may-redraw-map-of-tribal-migrations/
Hughes, Susan, S. (1988). “Mummy Cave Revisited.” Annals of Wyoming, Fall 1988 pp. 44-54. Web. Accessed 5 March 2015. URL: <http://archive.org/stream/annalsofwyom60121988wyom/annalsofwyom60121988wyom_djvu.txt>.
Husted, Wilfred M. (2007). “2007- Mummy Cave, Wyoming.” Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office. Web. Accessed 5 March 2015. URL: http://wyoshpo.state.wy.us/AAMonth/Poster.aspx?ID=5
Husted, Wilfred, M & Edgar, Robert. (2002). “The Archeology of Mummy Cave, Wyoming: An Introduction to Shoshonean Prehistory.” National Park Service Midwest Archeological Center and Southeast Archeological Center, Special Report No. 4, Technical Reports Series No. 9. Web. Accessed 5 March 2015. URL: <http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1092&context=natlpark&sei-redir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fscholar.google.es%2Fscholar%3Fstart%3D10%26q%3Darcheology%2Bproject%26hl%3Den%26as_sdt%3D0%2C5#search=%22archeology%20project%22>.
Kelly, Robert, L. (Dec. 2008). “Mummy Cave, Paintrock V and other Shelters.” George C. Frison Institute, University of Wyoming, Bulletin #19 December 2008 pp. 1-10. Web. Accessed 5 March 2015. URL: <http://www.uwyo.edu/anthropology/_files/docs/bulletin_19.pdf>.
Lewis, David S. (Feb. 2014). “Yellowstone’s Sheep Eater Indians: Living Among the Powerful Spirits.” The Montana Pioneer. Web. Accessed 5 March 2015. URL: <http://www.mtpioneer.com/archive-July-sheep-eater.htm>.
“Mummy Cave.” (Feb.1981). Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, National Register of Historic Places. Web. Accessed 5 March 2015. URL: <http://wyoshpo.state.wy.us/NationalRegister/Site.aspx?ID=324>.
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