Before summer wildfires chased them off the upper Rattlesnake last summer, archaeologists discovered a lithic scatter site and a 2,000-year-old projectile point.
A University of Montana archaeology team, in conjunction with the Lolo National Forest, will return to the region this summer to complete the second leg of their two-year study.
Log cabins and dams — historic by today’s standards — have been documented throughout the upper Rattlesnake. Yet little is known about the area’s prehistoric visitors, who frequently traveled old mountain trails connecting western Montana’s sweeping valleys.
“All the historic European American sites have been documented up there — a lot of cabins, a lot of historic dam construction,” said Douglas MacDonald, an associate professor of anthropology at UM. “No one has every looked up there for prehistoric Native American sites.”
Sydney Bacon, archaeologist with the Lolo National Forest, said the agency is mandated by federal law to survey historic resources on public land. But with budgets growing tight, the district directs much of its work to complete reviews for imminent projects, allowing little time for exploration of historic resources.
Bacon said the Lolo National Forest has long been interested in the human history of upper Rattlesnake. Native Americans crossed the mountains during forays between the Flathead and Missoula valleys. If archaeologists ever got around to exploring the area, it only made sense they’d discover something significant.
“In our minds, it’s a high probability area,” said Bacon. “It’s high elevation — part of a connecting ridge system that has permanent water sources. For us, it determines where we’d find archaeological sites.”
Bacon noted the dams placed in the upper Rattlesnake in the early 1900s. In 2003, the Forest Service conducted a flyover with an archaeologist to record the dams and scout for other sites, but they didn’t conduct a pedestrian survey on the ground.
After securing a small pot of funding, the Lolo National Forest partnered with UM to scout the area on foot. The university team launched its survey last summer, working the southern and western flanks of the upper Rattlesnake before being chased out by summer wildfires.
“They found a prehistoric site on a saddle above one of the lakes,” Bacon said. “They found pieces of chip stone. Whoever was working up there used it as a tool manufacturing area.”
Bacon described it as a lithic scatter. Small fragments of chipped stone were recorded over a small area, suggesting someone long ago had sat down to carve a tool.
“Whoever was working up there used it as a tool manufacturing area,” said Bacon. “What we suspect with these kinds of lithic scatters, they were probably using them to make a small point to attach onto an arrow to get smaller game.”
The team also recorded a projectile point dating back 2,000 years. Bacon and MacDonald said any Native American artifacts located during their survey are left on site per an agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
“It’s an important area for the Salish Kootenai,” MacDonald said. “They don’t want us to pick anything up. That’s the agreement.”
Bacon said past surveys have turned up archaeological sites on the Montana-Idaho border, and others near the Lolo Trail. The oldest site found to date on the Lolo National Forest was discovered up Rock Creek near the old Hogback Homestead settled in 1917.
“They were going to build a road to access the cabin up there,” Bacon said. “Before they built the road, they had to conduct some shovel test-pits. We recovered a lot of artifacts from that site, including a Folsom point, the oldest point we’ve ever found on our forest.”
Bacon said the Folsom point dates back roughly 10,000 years. The team will return to the upper Rattlesnake this July to complete its survey.
“It’s great they’re doing that,” Bacon said. “It’s great to have that collaboration with the university.”