Budding Archaeologists Get Down and Dirty
BY LARRY LAHREN
On the evening of July 26, something of Livingston's buried past came to the surface. While hydrating with a Canadian Mist and Ginger Ale, I got a call from Lindie Gibson, who asked if I could come into town and look at buried archaeological materials turning up (as we spoke) on South B Street during the excavation for the city's water line replacement system. Knowing the history and background of this historic district, and one of the notorious early residents who lived there, I didn't preclude the possibility that human skeletal remains could be found. In fact, historic grave markers had been found near that area. If that were the case, the county coroner would have to be involved, so I called him and advised that I was going to examine the site, suggesting that he join me (the professional and legal protocol). The coroner basically blew me off though, saying the discovery fell into the same category as the 2006 H Street finds, that it was “bovine,” and probably represented “the location of an outhouse.” (Read below, however, regarding G and H Street finds). He said he would “call me when he came to town the next day,” but the call never came.
When I arrived at the site, I met with two determined “badgers,” as I affectionately call them, Amber Williams and fourth grader Maya Bergdoll, who, when it came to unearthing archaeological artifacts, were literally “digging it.” Outfitted with trowels, shovels, artifact boxes and a metal detector, they were finding historical artifacts in the water line replacement trench in the once infamous South B Street red light district. They were finding firebrick, bottles, metal fragments, saw-cut domestic cow and sheep bones, and domestic cat and other bones.
Other items included shoes, a leather cap, and glassware. Only one piece of burnt bone was found. The rest of the bones had no indication of being in an open fire and represented modern kitchen cooking methods. The metal blade and saw-cut bones suggested a preference for shoulder and leg roasts cut from cow, pig and sheep.
The confusing thing about the finds was they were not distributed throughout the trench. Rather, they were concentrated in one area. Also confusing were the stratigraphic relationships (positions of layers of archaeological remains). This area sits on the flood plain of the original main channel of the Yellowstone and consists of river deposits composed of well-rounded gravels and sand, and indicate an area of high and low turbidity (high water channel changing to river channel backwater in summer).
Maya and Amber were finding artifactual materials in deposits 3 to 4 feet below the current road surface and inter-mixed with the river deposits, a level at which one expects prehistoric Indian materials, perhaps a thousand years old, rather then historic materials.
Other historic artifacts turned up during the replacement of H Street (2006) and the south end of G Street last year. These materials represented deposits of historic artifacts left in the area where Clark City was originally located, on the flood plain of the main (north channel) of the Yellowstone. Hearths with commercial coal, saw-butcher-ed bones, broken glass, and general historic domestic camp debris turned up at that location. So, these finds were different than the materials found on South B Street in terms of form, function and context; that is, they represented camp activities. Also, the G and H Street finds were somewhat continuous, within a foot or less from the surface, and under the gravel road veneer that was placed over the top of this historic cultural level (these streets were gravel when I was a kid on South F Street in the 1950s).
So, the question was—why is the B Street find some 3 to 4 feet below the surface and concentrated in one area? Did someone dig a trash pit and throw things into it? If so, why aren't the artifacts and bones concentrated in one area at the bottom of the pit and then up to the current road surface? A trash pit in the middle of a public street didn't make sense either. Nor did the coroner's theory make sense because the “outhouse” would also have been located in the middle of a public street.
In looking at the stratigraphy along the trench to the north, I noticed that a remnant of the existing water line was 3 to 4 ft. below the surface, at the same level as Maya and Amber's finds. It then became apparent that someone in a house near the original waterline trench simply dumped garbage into the open trench after the original water line was excavated in the early 1900s, before it was backfilled. And so, domestic solid waste became intermixed in the backfill at the depth of the original water line. Cultural context solved the mystery.
When I first arrived at the location, Maya said to me, “when I grow up I am going to be an archaeologist!” (I replied, “me too.”) And this may be her start.
Larry Lahren has a Ph.D in North American Archaeology from the University of Calgary, operates a private cultural resource consulting firm, and is the author of Homeland: An Archaeologist's View of Yellowstone Country's Past.