POWELL — For perhaps thousands of years, humans have been stashing food and supplies amid the icy stalagmites of a remote Bighorn Mountain cave. That includes people who apparently stored their beer in the ice cave as recently as 50 years ago.
State archaeologists and a team of volunteers spent last week mapping the previously uncharted cavern in the northern Bighorns. The most notable feature inside the cave is a large stone circle, possibly of prehistoric religious or ceremonial significance.
“We found out about [the cave] earlier this year,” said Greg Pierce, state archaeologist for the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist. “It has never been recorded, and as far as we know it’s never been investigated.”
The team — accompanied by citizen scientists — found both prehistoric and modern historic artifacts (that is, those at least a half-century old). The significance of the previous cultural use of the cave, including the stone circle, remains a mystery until the team can study the artifacts found.
“We’re not sure if it’s prehistoric, historic or modern. My guess is it could be all three,” Pierce said.
Evidence of flint knapping — the shaping of flint, chert, obsidian or other stones to manufacture stone tools and weapons — was also found near the mouth of the cave, and a stone point was found in an adjacent one. Obsidian flakes and a core found at the site will undergo testing to source their origins to help understand who was using the cave and when.
“It’s hard to say until we’ve had time to investigate, but it appears the entire canyon has seen lots of use, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people have been using [the canyon and caves] for thousands of years,” Pierce said.
While some may consider beer and food cans found in the cave as litter, the team was thrilled with the discoveries. Russell Richard, an archaeologist from Cheyenne who joined the team, was able to pinpoint the age of the cans, giving the team an idea of the frequency of the cave’s modern historic use.
“Cans are nice because they’re datable,” Pierce said.
The youngest cans found were from the mid-to-late 1960s, Richard said. Both Coors and Rainier ring-pull cans were found as well as Budweiser’s early efforts in tab-pull cans and several Coors churchkey-opened cans from the ’50s. The oldest cans Richard dated came from the turn of the 20th century — as early as 1908. The ice was handy in keeping the beer cold, he said, but it was also used to store meat. Bones can be seen frozen in the ice stalagmites, most likely from processing game in the cool chamber.
As part of the study of the cave, the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist tested a brand new program that includes citizen scientists.
The program filled up shortly after being announced. Many of the 15 volunteers in the program — some traveling from outside the state — took time off work to be on site with the scientists.
“This is my vacation. It’s a fun time,” said Brian Snyder, a jewelry designer from Cheyenne. Snyder has traveled throughout the West and abroad participating in archaeology programs. “The team is understaffed, so why not help out.”
The cave, located north of Bald Mountain on state property, will now go through the process of being listed on the National Registry of Historic Places for protection, said Marcia Peterson, assistant state archaeologist and state coordinator for the avocational program.
The Office of the State Archaeologist is funded through the Legislature. While the state is ripe with important sites, lawmakers could cancel its funding if they saw fit, so it’s important to get the backing of the state’s residents, Peterson said.
“We’ve been trying to find ways to increase our public outreach. It is essential to the survival of our office we keep the public interested and engaged in archaeology,” she said.