Talk will cover archaeological finds in Winds
Circling the Square
By Ceci Clover, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
December 24, 2012
Matt Stirn with the Institute of Archaeology in Sheffield, England, will lead off the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum’s Voices of the Valley winter programs with a presentation on high-elevation archaeology in Wyoming’s mountains. Starting with research from 1970 and 1980 in Jackson, Stirn will move to recent discoveries in the Wind River Mountains that have redefined the way we look at how prehistoric people lived in alpine and subalpine areas.
Last summer, Stirn led a group of archaeologists on an expedition to explore and excavate in the Winds. By trip’s end, they had found approximately 25 archaeological sites, including evidence of human life in nine prehistoric villages ranging from 200 to 11,000 years old.
Before the group’s trip, archaeologists believed prehistoric life above 10,000 feet was unlikely. But this came into question 10 years ago, when area outfitter and archaeologist Tory Taylor unearthed a rare soapstone bowl in the Winds.
Based on Taylor’s findings, Richard Adams of the Wyoming State Archaeology Office began working the area. Stirn, whose interest in archeology began in grade school, had worked with Adams in 2007, and their discoveries at that time were surprising.
“Rather than finding nothing up there, we were finding a denser archaeological record than much of the lowlands of Wyoming,” Stirn said.
For this past summer’s work, Adams appointed Stirn expedition leader. The venture received funding from an Abernethy Grant from Stirn’s alma mater, Davidson College, and from the Youth Activity Fund from the Explorer’s Club of New York City. To help his expedition find archeological sites, Stirn developed a geographic information system based on his education at Davidson. The GIS helped identify areas of likely prehistoric human habitation by assigning values to factors like slope, elevation and foliage. Previous trips had shown preferences for southern-facing slopes close to white bark pine trees.
Five villages discovered by Stirn’s team were in GIS-identified hot spots. They found sites well-preserved, kept intact by the high altitude, the dry climate and the small amount of topsoil in the Winds. The team found artifacts of the Shoshone tribe and other early hunter-gatherers, including stone tools like arrowheads and drills, pottery, soapstone bowls and pipes.
Stirn was thrilled to discover evidence of these ancient people.
“People say that the age of exploration is over,” he said. “Through a certain set of eyes that’s true. But if you look at places like the Winds through a different perspective, they’re archeologically virgin. It’s not every day you really get to go somewhere relatively close to home and discover things that haven’t been seen for thousands of years.”
Stirn’s interest in archeology dates back to his grade school playground.
“I was one of those nerdy kids with glasses digging holes in the ground while all the other kids were playing soccer,” Stirn said.
When Stirn was in middle school, a family friend introduced him to a group of archaeologists from the area, and he accompanied them on his first archaeological dig. He met Adams during that outing.
Stirn speaks passionately about his work, about finding dirt platforms that denote the presence of an ancient village undisturbed by humans for thousands of years.
“The experience was just about as ‘Indiana Jones’ as you can get in archaeology without actually being Indiana Jones,” he said.
It’s easy to understand, Stirn said, why prehistoric people would have found the area so appealing.
“I grew up in the mountains and absolutely love them,” he said. “It’s beautiful, and you can’t help but feel happy when you’re up there.
Stirn completed the expedition with indispensable lessons and a strong sense of pride.
“To be able to see my whole project through from start to finish was incredibly valuable. Not only did the trip go without problems, but the GIS computer model worked flawlessly,” he said.
Stirn hopes to apply his research and GIS model to other archaeological investigations around the world. He has been invited to present papers on his Winds project at two archaeological conferences this year. He’s eager to get outside and begin another expedition.
Stirn, a classics major and anthropology minor, has pursued his love of archaeology at Davidson through classes with archaeologist Bill Ringle and Michael Toumazou, chair and associate professor of classics.
Come hear this program at 7 p.m. Jan. 3 in the history museum, 225 N. Cache. Admission is free.
Ceci Clover writes weekly on the doings and doers in and around Jackson Hole. Submissions may be sent to email@example.com or call 733-8348.