BILLINGS - Using a controlled burn this spring, Havre archaeologist Josh Chase hopes to reveal a prehistoric site along the Milk River that contains large rock effigies resembling a turtle and a human figure.
“It’s not something you run into every day,” said Chase, who works for the Bureau of Land Management. “It’s been identified as being unique for a really long time.”
The 800-acre site is protected as an area of critical environmental concern because of its historic value. Chase said within the larger area are the 300 acres where the majority of the artifacts are located — drive lines to herd bison off a cliff, teepee rings, rock cairns and the large figures that are “reminiscent of religiously significant” creations like medicine wheels.
“They are some pretty significant rocks, too — several hundred pounds,” Chase said. “It was a concentrated effort to make the features.”
Known as the Henry Smith site, the area was first documented in the 1960s but has never been intensively recorded to today’s standards, Chase said.
Part of the buffalo jump was excavated. It revealed several Avonlea projectile points, butchering tools, bison bones and a bison pound — or corral — used to trap bison so they could be killed. The Henry Smith site was dated to around A.D. 770 to A.D. 1040.
The artifacts predate the arrival of the modern horse on the Great Plains, which didn’t occur until the 1700s. Chase said it is unknown who created the features.
“There are no diagnostic artifacts to tie it to a specific cultural group,” he said.
The Hi-Line area of northern Montana contains some of the “highest concentrations of prehistoric sites” in the country, Chase said. Just to the south of the historic site, on a pullout along Highway 2, is an incised boulder known as Sleeping Buffalo Rock. But many of the northern Montana artifacts and sites are little understood and underappreciated, Chase added.
“Hopefully, all of the information we gather will give us a better overall idea of the site,” he said.
To the east of the site where the burn will be conducted, Montana State University professor Mike Neeley conducted a dig at a bison kill site over two summers — 2010 and 2012. Neeley said his crew’s excavation of the area, referred to as the Beaucoup site, uncovered at least two episodes of bison hunting, including bone beds, processing sites and stone teepee circles.
He dated the two kills they excavated to 800 and 1,000 years ago, calling them fairly small compared to larger bison kill sites like the 2,000-year-old one at Havre — called the Wahkpa Chu’gn.
“On the Milk River, if you go along its length, bison hunting was pretty common,” Neeley said.
Yet stone effigies, such as the ones along the Milk River, are less well known.
Jessica Bush, of the State Historic Preservation Office, said oil development in North Dakota’s Bakken region has revealed numerous similar effigies in a variety of designs and sizes, often on flat ridge tops. The designs include triangles, turtles, lines and buffalo that average about 5 to 6 feet, she said.
More well-known are the Nazca Lines in Peru, ancient geoglyphs created in the Nazca Desert by removing the reddish rocks to reveal lighter ones underneath. Estimated to have been made between A.D. 400 and A.D. 650, the figures resemble hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys and more. Similar creations are found in southeastern California and across the Southwest.
“So obviously something important was going on to create something that significant, probably something religious or along those lines,” Chase said.
In the Midwest, earth mound effigies, instead of stones, have been identified. It is believed they were created by the Hopewell people, who also built large burial mounds in the Midwest and along the Mississippi River between 100 B.C. and A.D. 400. The mound effigies resemble a variety of creatures including eagles, reptiles and cats.
The Bighorn Mountains just south of the Montana border in Wyoming contain the Medicine Wheel National Historic Site, which has long been used by Crow Indians as a place for fasting, vision quests and prayer. Some of the rocks that bisect the wheel align with the position of the sun during the summer solstice’s sunrise and sunset.
During the prescribed burn, the BLM will be assisted by the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, which will place temperature sensors in the burn area to see how hot the fire gets and use artifacts without provenance to see how they react to the grass fire. In addition, a drone will be flown over the site to create a 3-D model of the entire site following the fire, giving a birds-eye view of the structures on the ground.
“This has a lot of potential for opening a new avenue of research, and it’s also a window into Montana’s history,” Bush said.
“I’ve never heard of someone purposely burning part of a bison jump to look at stone features,” she added.
Patrols will be increased around the area to ensure it isn’t disturbed by vandals or thieves. Disturbing cultural sites on federal lands is illegal.
“When you disturb cultural sites, you’re taking away the history of the United States,” Chase said.
So once the weather conditions align perfectly to allow the group to set the fire, all of those involved will have about 48 hours to rally to the site. If the weather doesn’t comply this spring before the grass gets too green, the burn will be delayed until fall.