A new chapter is being written in the history of Ghost Cave at Pictograph Cave State Park.
Earlier this week, Jim Busse of Montana State University Billings said he believes he photographed a charcoal inscription on the cave’s wall dated 1812 – only six years after William Clark passed by on his way back from the Pacific Ocean.
“I’m very excited about it,” Busse said as he stood at the base of the cave wall looking up at the site.
Busse’s work is part of a cooperative project that is taking a more comprehensive and detailed look at the state park.
“We have a multi-pronged goal,” said Kelly Dixon, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Montana. “One is to help Montana State Parks better document the landscape, as well as help them document elements of the (Works Progress Administration) work here – an archaeology of the archaeologists.”
While the WPA workers excavated Ghost and Pictograph caves over four years, starting in 1937, they camped out in Ghost Cave, living there year-round. While camped in the cave, some of the 20 workers wrote on the cave walls – inscriptions that are now considered of historical value.
Busse was one of several people climbing up into Ghost Cave to photograph the inscriptions. He estimated he took about 1,000 shots while scrambling up the rock face. The reason Busse had to climb to photograph the writing is that the WPA workers removed about 40 feet of dirt from the cave during their excavation. The inscriptions Busse was photographing were 8 to 10 feet above what was once the floor of the cave.
“The one thing that’s really baffled me is that they didn’t document the pictographs here,” said Jarret Kostrba, park manager.
Instead, all of the documentation of cave drawings was done at the larger Pictograph Cave. That site, too, is getting a fresh look.
In the 1930s, WPA artists sketched the 102 rock art pictographs on butcher paper and assigned a number to each. Some of those pictographs have since faded and no one knew where on the cave wall they were located. But as MSUB professor Tim Urbaniak delved into the WPA’s historical documents, he found several sheets of graph paper that contained numbers and showed locations of the rock art.
Unfortunately, the numbers don’t correspond to the ones on the butcher paper drawings. So Gary Worthington and Megan McCrea were working to cross-reference the numbers and place them on the graph paper. When finished, Urbaniak will be able to place all of the artwork on a 3-D digital photographic scan he made of the cave showing their placement.
“We jokingly say they’re doing paper dolls,” Dixon said, as Worthington and McCrea placed tiny photocopies of each of the drawings on a photocopy of the original numbered graph paper.
“But Gary and Meagan are literally recreating Pictograph Cave as we cannot see it now,” Dixon said. “They are doing something integral to the longer-term interpretation of the site.”
Meanwhile, Urbaniak is using his 3-D digital camera to scan the entire Dry Gulch area where the caves are located, putting everything into a much larger perspective for future archaeologists.
“Over time things change, but we’re in the position to digitally reconstruct what we are doing here,” Urbaniak said.
“Should something happen here to harm the integrity of the site, this
3-D map will exist in perpetuity,” Dixon said.
She sees such work as the future of archaeology.
Compare that to the excavation that took place starting in the 1930s at what is now a state park. The excavation was the largest of its kind ever undertaken in Montana. The work resulted in the removal of about 30,000 artifacts, some of them quite unusual, like fragments of baskets similar to those made by the Fremont people in Utah and tools made from caribou antlers. Some of the artifacts dated back roughly 3,000 years.
“It was really a crossroads,” Kostrba said. “It shows how it was used by a number of different groups.”
Sara Scott, cultural resources coordinator for Montana State Parks, said that in Ghost Cave alone, 600 artifacts were removed in the first 7 feet of soil.
“The assemblage that came out of this cave was amazing,” she said, noting it was occupied later in time.
Even without recovering ancient spear points or basket fragments, Busse was still excited by what he and his fellow researchers had recorded.
“When you’re allowed to climb up there, it’s literally amazing,” he said. “The study of rock art and petroglyphs is so fascinating to me.”