Ancient cave draws MSU archaeologists to southeast Montana

October 23, 2008
Stone flakes, probably left over from ancient tool-making sessions, were among the many items found in Horseshoe Cave. The stones were porcellanite. (Photo by Clint Garrett).

( -- Eryka Thorley had already excavated ancient fire hearths and stone flakes, but a severe thunderstorm on the final day of field work added a new dimension to the archaeology dig in southeast Montana.

As rain careened through gullies and lightning sliced the sky, the recent Montana State University graduate from Michigan and three MSU undergraduates took refuge in the rock shelter they had been excavating the past two weeks. Thorley imagined prehistoric Native Americans experiencing the same kind of weather thousands of years ago. MSU archaeologist Jack Fisher worried that they'd be unable to drive out the next day.

"I was sweating," he said. "It was a tremendous storm right on top of us."

The MSU team, which made it out after all, started excavating Horseshoe Cave in July after federal archaeologists and local ranchers asked Fisher to continue a project that University of Montana archaeologists had conducted in 1976, Fisher said. On the last day of the 1976 dig, the UM team had found a spear point believed to be more than 7,500 years old.

The August and Mary Sobotka Trust Fund, administered by the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, allowed MSU to pick up the project, Fisher said. Others on the MSU team were Seth Alt of Bozeman, Clint Garrett of Texas, and Dallas Timms of New Mexico. Halcyon La Point and Michael Bergstrom, archaeologists with the U.S. Forest Service in Billings, provided supplemental funds and logistical support.

The group reached Horseshoe Cave by driving about 25 miles south of Ashland, then following a "non-existent dirt road" through brush flats and gullies in the Custer National Forest a few miles from the Tongue River. After setting up tents, they systematically started excavating the cave that got its name from a horseshoe embedded in the wall.

"It was priceless," Thorley said. "As an undergraduate, it's just a great experience to work one-on-one with Dr. Fisher."

Garrett said the undergraduates got to do everything graduate students would've done if MSU's Department of Sociology and Anthropology had a graduate program. They strung a string excavation grid around the two areas they would excavate. They used trowels and bamboo probes to dig down about 10 centimeters at a time until they were almost three feet below the cave floor. They shook the dirt through screens to see what it held. They recorded anything they found and placed it in plastic bags for later study.

Fisher, La Point and Bergstrom presented their findings in early October at the Plains Anthropological Conference in Laramie, Wyo. Fisher, back in his lab, said the team found three fire hearths, nearly 100 stone artifacts and hundreds of animal bones. He pulled out one bag that held red and grey flakes made out of porcellanite, a stone native to southeast Montana and widely used by ancient people. The flakes were apparently left over after making tools, Fisher said. Another bag held a perforating tool that looked like it could've been used for sewing. One bag held a bison bone. Others held tiny rodent bones.

"The big question is what sort of group of ancient people were using Horseshoe Cave," Fisher said.

He wants future research to gather more information about the environment when the cave was used, Fisher continued. He wants to answer a variety of questions, such as the number of times the cave was occupied, how it was used, how the rock shelter was formed and more.

"We know from elsewhere that the climate did change somewhat over the past 9,000 years, so we will sample the soil to look for pollen from different time periods," Fisher said.

Bergstrom, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said caves are well-known for sealing evidence of multiple occupations, and he was excited about the possibilities of Horseshoe Cave.

"It's a very significant site in terms of the paleo-potential there," he said. "We don't have that many sites in that area of Montana that have produced or potentially could produce real old evidence of human occupation."

Thorley, who is taking time off to apply for graduate school, said her experience in Horseshoe Cave was invaluable even though she is more interested in socio-cultural anthropology than archaeology.

"It was very neat, because you know people were in there doing things," she said. "It was very cool to hang out in this cave."

Provided by Montana State University

Explore further: How plants avoid feeling the burn

Related Stories

How plants avoid feeling the burn

June 23, 2006

Too much sun – for plants as well as people – can be harmful to long-term health. But to avoid the botanical equivalent of "lobster tans," plants have developed an intricate internal defense mechanism, called photoprotection, ...

FDA debates tougher cancer warning on tanning beds

January 18, 2010

(AP) -- Just as millions head to tanning beds to prepare for spring break, the Food and Drug Administration will be debating how to toughen warnings that those sunlamps pose a cancer risk. Yes, sunburns are particularly ...

Gone fishing? We have for 42,000 years

November 25, 2011

( -- An archaeologist from The Australian National University has uncovered the world’s oldest evidence of deep sea fishing for big fish, showing that 42,000 years ago our regional ancestors had mastered ...

Recommended for you

80-million-year-old dinosaur collagen confirmed

January 23, 2017

Utilizing the most rigorous testing methods to date, researchers from North Carolina State University have isolated additional collagen peptides from an 80-million-year-old Brachylophosaurus. The work lends further support ...

Archaeologists uncover new clues to Maya collapse

January 23, 2017

Using the largest set of radiocarbon dates ever obtained from a single Maya site, archaeologists have developed a high-precision chronology that sheds new light on patterns leading up to the two major collapses of the ancient ...

New ancient otter species among largest ever found

January 23, 2017

Dr. Denise Su, curator and head of paleobotany and paleoecology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History was co-author on new research that described a species of otter new to science and that is among the largest otter ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.