by Lawrence Loendorf, Archaeologist
Caves were the resource that first attracted archaeologists to the Pryors. After the WPA sponsored research into the rich cultural remains at Pictograph and Ghost Caves near Billings, the archaeological community started searching for other similar sites. Through the urging of Oscar Lewis, the field supervisor for the Pictograph Cave excavations, in 1941 New York’s American Museum of Natural History mounted an expedition to excavate caves in the Pryor Mountains.
The expedition was led by Nels C. Nelson, a highly respected archaeologist who pioneered the use of stratigraphy in North America (Nelson 1943). They spent the most time working in Teton Jackson Cave, a large two-room cavern in the north wall of Sage Canyon near the junction of Elk Creek and Sage Creek. They also dug in Lufkin’s Cave (the Sage Canyon cave with the four- wheel drive tracks running up to it) and put test excavations into two dozen other caves and rockshelters.
Nelson was very disappointed with the results. After excavating 170 square meters of Teton Jackson cave, his crew found only four small fireplaces, and four possible spear points with 63 flakes of chipped stone. They also found one bone awl and bone pendant, but this is a very meager return for the amount of cave fill that they excavated.
Nelson’s excavations into the deposits of other Sage Canyon caves produced mixed results. One cave, near the mouth of Sage Canyon, at ground level, contained moderate amounts of artifacts but still nothing like the rich remains in Pictograph Cave at Billings. Nelson actually extended his permit to work in other regional sites. At the Arrow Rock cairn in Pryor Gap he recovered offerings and a fairly significant number of ceramic sherds. Interestingly the lower levels in the cairn contained Intermontane wares, often associated with the Shoshone Indians, and the upper levels contained Transplains wares that are more likely made by Crow Indians. This suggests the Crow took over a Shoshone site, and further because the offerings at Arrow Rock are for the “little people”, it suggests the Crow learned about the “little people” from the Shoshone.
Nelson did learn one important fact that has been reiterated many times over the years – Crow Indians did not live in caves. They consider caves to be the abode of spirits and places that should be treated with considerable care. The Shoshone, on the other hand, were more likely to use caves as dwelling places. This is reflected in the few artifacts that Nelson did recover including a well-made Shoshone knife in the inventory.
Pryor Mountain caves, especially those in the limestone, do not contain much evidence of former use by humans. For example, the large numbers of caves that are visible in Crooked Creek Canyon do not contain much evidence for human occupation, nor is there evidence for human’s using any of major ice caves –Big Ice Cave, Little Ice Cave and Red Pryor Ice Cave.
Robson Bonnichsen, Russell Graham and other archaeologists worked in a number of limestone caves. The most significant information that they recovered was found in two caves—False Cougar Cave and Shield Trap Cave, near the top of East Pryor Mountain (Bonnichsen et al 1996; Frison and Bonnichsen 1996). The two caves are within a few dozen meters of one another, but they differ in that False Cougar Cave has a side entrance to the horizontal cave system and Shield Trap is a sinkhole cave where the entrance is through the top. Neither cave produced human artifacts, but the archaeologists did find a large number of animal bones that range from mammoths and other Ice age critters to historic cow remains. Of course these kinds of controlled and dated excavations are very useful to zoologists and others interested in the distribution of various species or to paleo-climatologists who are working with reconstructing past environments.
Much of Robson Bonnichsen’s research was directed at finding evidence to support very ancient North American cultures or those that pre-date the well-recognized Clovis Culture that dates about 11,000 to 12,000 years before the present. According to his report, he did find a human hair from False Cougar Cave in a layer that he thought could as much as 14, 500 year old (Bonnichsen 1996:267). As might be expected, both the evidence of only a human hair and the age are controversial.
None the less, there continues to be research in Pryor Mountain caves that is directed toward ancient human occupation at a site on the Warren, Montana side of Big Pryor Mountain, near the limestone quarry. This site, known as Last Canyon Cave, was initially recorded by crews working on archaeological survey projects in the 1970’s (Loendorf 1974). Like many of the lower rockshelter and cave sites along the sides of the Pryors, sometime before its discovery by archaeologists, the cave had been badly looted by pothunters. In recent years Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Glade Hadden, visited the site and noted the potential for finding buried cultural remains in the undisturbed portions of the deposits. Hadden got Wyoming archaeologist, Marcel Kornfeld, to investigate the site. Kornfeld found the cave was mostly destroyed by pothunters, but he was able to discover some deeply buried undisturbed deposits.
In a second season, working with Ukrainian archaeologist, Olena Fedorchenko and Judson Finley, an American geo-archaeologist, they were able to find a hearth that radiocarbon dates to about 11,000 years ago (Fedorochenko et al 2009). Unfortunately, no stone tools were definitely associated with the hearth. They did find, however, that even deeper layers in the cave contained the remains of Pleistocene age bighorn sheep with an area of sheep dung that dated to 39, 500 radiocarbon years before present. Another significant date on a horse bone was 13, 860 years before present. This date with the sheep dung demonstrate that the cave was occupied by mammals in the Pleistocene while the 11,000 year old hearth suggests humans stopped in as well.
Last Canyon Cave is comparable to False Cougar Cave and Shield Trap Cave. They contain Ice age animals but no human artifacts in association with those animals.
Last Canyon Cave is also like many other caves across the southern end of the Pryors—they have been looted. I recall that we found an undisturbed cave in 1968, in Tensleep sandstone along the southern end of the Pryors. In 1969, when we went back to consider the site for excavation, we learned that someone had completely mucked it out in the intervening year.
So I end this essay with a reminder that archaeological sites on federal lands are protected by a three or four different laws and unlike the weak protection in the 1960’s, today’s laws have severe penalties and law enforcement officers for the Crow Indian Tribe, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Forest Service are trained in catching pothunters. Many sites are protected by hidden cameras that begin filming when people arrive, so be aware and report suspicious activity to the appropriate land managing agency.
Bonnichsen, Robson, Russell W. Graham, Timothy Geppert, James S. Oliver, Sheryl G. Oliver, Douglas Schnurrenberger, Robert Stuckenrath, Alice Tratebas, and David E. Young 1996 False Cougar and Shield Trap Caves, Pryor Mountains, Montana. National Geographic research 2(3):276-290
Fedorchenko, Olena, Marcel Kornfeld, Judson Finely and Mary Lou Larsen 2009 Last Canyon Cave: Late Pleistocene Fauna and People. Current Research in the Pleistocene 26:58-59.
Frison, George C., and Robson Bonnichsen 1996 The Pleistocene-Holocene Transition on the Plains and Rocky Mountains of North America. In Humans at the End of the Ice Age: The Archaeology of the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition. Edited by Lawrence Guy Straus, Berit Valentin Eriksen, Jon M. Erlanson and David R. Yesner, pp. 303-318. Plenum, New York and London
Linderman, Frank B. 2002 Plenty Coups: Chief of the Crows, New Edition. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
Loendorf, Lawrence 1970 The Results of the Archaeological Survey in the Pryor Mountain, Bighorn Area 1970 Field Season. Report prepared for the United States Department of Interior, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service and the University of Missouri, Columbia.
Nelson, Nels, C. 1943 Contributions to Montana Archaeology. American Antiquity 9(2):162-169.