Evidence of the life and times of humans who lived in Teton County long ago litter the ground around us, but it takes a specially trained eye to discern the differences between flint-knapped shards and pea gravel.
Matt Stirn and Rebecca Sgouros have such attuned senses, and through a new project with the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum they hope to pass their skills on to the next archaeologists who will discover the secrets of the region’s past.
The Jackson Hole Archaeology Initiative, of which Stirn and Sgouros are co-directors, will be headquartered in the historic Coey Cabin, the log structure on West Mercill Avenue that housed the society’s administrative offices and archives before the Jackson Hole Museum opened on North Cache Street.
The cabin will be filled with interactive and hands-on displays that will introduce visitors to how humans survived in Jackson Hole, from homesteaders and mountain men to Indians who lived off the resources of the region for thousands of years. A kitchen will allow guests to boil their own buffalo-hide glue or prepare Stone Age meals from Stone Age ingredients. At an indoor dig pit, students can practice the best-known methods of archaeology.
The grounds outside the cabin will include a larger dig pit, a paleo-garden where Stirn, Sgouros and students will grow and harvest plants native people would have relied on for a large part of their diet and a fire ring around which to gather for meals and lore. A few traditional shelters will also dot the grounds, including tipis, wikiups and, possibly, the historic cabin from the movie “Shane.”
Further out, Sgouros said, the new center’s staff will lead students on field trips to see the petroglyphs near Dubois, for example, or even to walk the grounds of the Teton Science Schools outside Jackson and “talk about what the landscape would have been used for in Native American times,” she said.
Eventually Stirn and Sgouros want to have a few students trained well enough that they would be able to accompany a research team to do real archaeological field work.
“Teton County is one of the least archaeologically researched counties in state of Wyoming,” said Stirn, who grew up in Jackson and who with Sgouros recently completed his master’s in environmental archaeology in Sheffield, England, studying how people are shaped by their environment and how the environment is shaped by people.
Stirn is one of a handful of archaeologists who has done field research in the region. Building on some earlier discoveries, he has found more than a dozen high-elevation (above 10,000 feet) native American settlements in the Wind River Range. And while he and Sgouros plan to continue the research, they also want to develop a new educational program that digs much deeper than the usual public school archaeological curriculum.
“Archaeology in a lot of schools is in the curriculum,” he said. “Students learn Native American and settler history, but the practice of archaeology is very briefly touched on.
“What we want to do,” Stirn said, “is fill in that gap and offer students in the community and visiting school groups the opportunity to see how archaeology works and how you can pursue archaeology if that’s what you’re interested in.”
This summer he’s planning on spending 24 days doing field research in the Tetons. He wants to use what he found about high-elevation villages in the Winds to search for similar sites in the Tetons.
“In that we’ll be seeking three to five high school volunteers” to go along.
“When I was in middle school I had my first taste of real archaeology in Jackson,” he said. “That’s what made me want to pursue that field. … We want to offer that to other students.”
Teaching archaeology is more than just educating students about the history of the people who came before us, Stirn and Sgouros said. It also involves instructing students on the importance of protecting artifacts and archaeological sites. In other places, Stirn said, they have been able to convert communities in which gathering artifacts — in essence looting — was a common hobby into communities that became stewards of the archaeological record.
“So we can provide opportunities to the community to learn about archaeology and participate in a safe, controlled environment,” Sgouros said, “and [people] become less inclined to go and do it their own.”
Sharon Kahin, executive director of the historical society and museum, said the nonprofit had been pondering an appropriate use for its old administrative building for years, even before it moved to its new offices and exhibit space on North Cache Street.
“We got to thinking about what we could do with the expanding educational programs we have,” she said. “They have just about doubled every year. We’re forming new partnerships on a fairly regular basis with schools here and on the Wind River Indian Reservation,” about three hours east of Jackson between Dubois and Lander.
Since it still houses parts of the society’s extensive archaeological collection — including the state’s largest collection of soapstone vessels as well as other artifacts that help describe every era of human habitation in the area — the log cabin seemed like a ready-made space where students could have close-up and even hands-on experiences with the history of Jackson Hole.
The name of the Mercill Center refers only indirectly to the name of the street it is on. It also honors Mark Mercill, Kahin said, who supported the historical society and its educational programs. It also continues a longtime relationship with the Love Family Foundation.
University of Wyoming professor David Love was best known as a geologist, Kahin said, but he also had a longtime interest in archaeology.
Other funding comes through grants written with other groups in the area and region, including the Teton Literacy Center, the Center of Wonder and the Eastern Shoshone. And there’s an online crowd-funding effort underway at IndieGoGo.com. Started just a couple weeks ago, the campaign has raised about $1,050 of a $10,000 goal.
Stirn and Sgouros expect the Mercill Archaeology Center to open at the end of June or beginning of July. For its first summer season, it will be open mostly to school groups, with a few open house weekend days.
“It’s a unique opportunity we have here,” Stirn said. “We have the opportunity to do new archaeological research and have potential to involve students.”
“This might be one of few [centers] in the U.S. devoted to archaeology,” Sgouros said. “Certainly the only one in Wyoming.”