MALTA – One season of research atop bluffs that skirt the Milk River north of here has revealed a collection of 800- to 1,000-year-old historical features and artifacts left by ancient people that are stunning in their breadth and depth.
"There's literally no site like this on the Northern Plains," said Josh Chase, a Bureau of Land Management archaeologist based in this northeastern Montana community who has led the work.
This year, Chase is prepared to record even more features as another 600 acres is explored, twice as much as last summer.
"We're drastically changing topography this year, going into draws and lowlands as well as another bench that I'm sure will have the same density of features," he said while touring the scorched area last week. The pungent smell of fire still hung in the air as a jet-like wind roared across the Hi-Line.
Chase will discuss his work at the next meeting of the Montana Archaeological Society in Great Falls on April 15-17 at the Hampton Inn.
Surpassing what has already been revealed seems impossible: human and animal effigies outlined in stone, tepee rings, large cairns, vision quest sites and rows of rock extending for hundreds of yards – known as drive lines – along which bison were herded to kill sites or buffalo jumps.
Littering the ground around the tepee rings are hundreds of crude but efficient stone tools that were used to butcher the dead bison, along with numerous rocks scarred by campfires. Buried just below the surface in coulees and at the base of cliffs are bison ribs, teeth, knuckles and other bones that Chase estimated were stacked in some areas up to 20 feet deep under the topsoil.
"Having all of that together in one location is exceedingly rare," Chase said.
It was previously known there were two buffalo jumps on the BLM land that have been protected from looters by surrounding private lands. As a result of last year's work Chase now estimates there are probably closer to six jumps based on the drive lines along which the bison were herded.
"Obviously Henry Smith is very unique, at least compared to sites we've recorded in that area," said Gary Smith, a BLM archaeologist based at the Billings Curation Center.
Although consultations with Indian tribes and other agencies started in 2010, last year was the beginning of new work at the site, named after the onetime landowner. The historical significance of the place was first noticed by locals in the 1930s as a buffalo jump for its bison bones and Avonlea-style arrowheads, carefully side-notched points.
Archaeological excavation took place below the bluffs in the 1980s. From the site about 300 to 350 points were collected and are now archived at the Billings Curation Center. The oldest dates to A.D. 770, about 200 years after it's believed native people switched from atlatls to bows and arrows.
"They look like they were stamped out with a cookie cutter," Smith said of the arrowheads. "All were made with the same precision from different material types."
Examination of some of the bison teeth collected from the site estimated it was mainly used for small drives of bison in the late winter and summer.
"The hypothesis of winter emphasis at the Henry Smith site, with repeated small-scale drives, is unprecedented for a site of this scale in northern Montana," wrote Michael Wilson, of the University of Lethbridge, in his 1988 report.
Given the distant age of the site, no evidence has been found tying it to any of the modern Plains Indian tribes, although geographically the property is located where many of them hunted, including the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine.
"There's nothing diagnostically we can pull from this site and attribute to one of those tribes," Chase said.
Instead of digging like traditional archaeology, Chase has taken a different approach and the results have been startling. Last year he organized a controlled burn of 300 acres on the prairie uplands. Artifact samples were placed around the location to determine if they would be harmed by the fire. After the burn the area was flown with a drone that could collect standard photographic images as well as LIDAR, surveying technology that uses laser light.
By reviewing the photographs and other images 2,400 points of data were marked across the 300 acres – roughly one site every 3 feet. Before homesteading on the surrounding lands altered the landscape, Chase estimated similar sites could have stretched across the landscape.
The bird's-eye view is key to the large project.
"To record this site traditionally would be overwhelming," Chase said. "It would be time-consuming and tedious to pick out what is a cultural feature and what is glacial till.
"And you're not getting that overall view," he added. "It's much easier to get that overall perspective from the air."
This year, another 600 acres was burned on Easter Sunday and was flown with a specially equipped U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plane on the following Monday and Tuesday to record new data points. From what he's seen walking around this year's burn, Chase expects to document a lot more.
One of the stone features exposed after this spring's burn was a large vision quest site that also had a line of rocks leading up to it, a peculiarity Chase hadn't seen before. The rock circle was situated in a saddle between two benches. The coulee to the west provided a view down to the Milk River.
"It's amazing how it stands out now," said Scott Meneelly, the BLM fire operations officer who oversaw the burns. "We drove by this a number of times and never knew it was here."
Chase has been excited by the fact that "even the most novice 18-year-old firefighters" could pick out features like the drive lines.
Although the aerial view has aided the work immensely, Chase said every rock or feature that is flagged from photos as possibly significant has to be verified and catalogued from the ground.
"All of the drones and aircraft in the world will never substitute for boots on the ground," he said.
In a year or more Chase will write a report to share all of what he has learned with the cooperating agencies, tribes and the public. He'd also like to see an interpretive site created some time in the future, although the property is landlocked by surrounding private parcels – probably what protected it from more looting. Chase credited cooperating landowners Sterling Carroll, Gary Anderson and Jason Lamb for helping out.
"When you look out across this (landscape) it tells a story of people in North America throughout time," Chase said. "So we drove by a homestead on the way here, that's one part of the Hi-Line's history. We're now into this part of the site which is one part of the Hi-Line's prehistory.
"That's one thing about public lands as a whole, that these kinds of places are preserved," Chase said. "We're very fortunate in this country to have that.
"There are a lot of things going on here, that's what makes it so unique and special."
"Historically, the fire and cultural programs were at loggerheads," said Chase. "This is an example of them working together."
Chase was standing amid this spring's burn of 600 acres of BLM land north of Malta. Three hundred acres was burned last year for the same project spread across the Henry Smith archaeological site.
"A lot of times you do more damage on the suppression side" at archaeological sites, said Meneelly. "If we were to come in and get real aggressive with our actions, we could do more damage than the fire."
In prairie grasslands, temperatures during a fire will hit about 1,300 degrees but usually remain that hot only 5 to 15 seconds, except where sagebrush or other heavier fuel is located. Even bone buried 3 centimeters beneath the soil won't be damaged by such a fast-moving fire, Chase said.
This spring's fire-blackened landscape looked like a dead zone - ash circles surrounded browned stalks of yucca, denuded branches of sagebrush poked skyward and grass was reduced to a low, dark, crunchy blanket. At the site of last year's burn, though, it's hard to tell fire torched the resilient countryside. The grass stands a foot tall.
"It's been a really interesting project from a lot of facets," Meneelly said.