Ancient Town Provides New Clues to Early Life in Wyoming


For years Bryon Schroeder has heard rumors of an ancient abandoned village in central Wyoming, where archaeologists found tens of thousands of artifacts, then moved on before fully excavating the site.

The site, first discovered in 1969 in Shirley Basin, has become almost legendary. When Schroeder started asking where exactly he was and what was there, no one could remember.

When he finally found out about the place and visited it in 2010, he didn’t know what to expect. What he found stunned him, and the results of his research could change our perception of the people who lived in Wyoming thousands of years ago.

“The mountains are very hot right now, but we don’t know what’s going on in the basins at the same time,” he said, referring to the interest and research of archaeologists.

Schroeder believes the Shirley Basin site may be linked to ancient villages recently discovered in the Wind River Mountains. The villagers may have spent the summers in the high mountains and the rest of the year in the basin.

Last summer, Bryon Schroeder and others worked on a Shirley Basin site originally discovered in 1969. (courtesy Bryon Schroeder)

In 2005 and 2006, Schroeder, a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, worked in the Wind River Mountains in recently discovered high mountain villages where it appeared that ancient peoples’ communities spent time during the summer. When he came across a brief mention of the Basin Village in his research, he was intrigued.

After its discovery in 1969, 21 settlement sites were excavated and the site was abandoned. Schroeder said he didn’t know why, but during this time archaeologists were making finds all over Wyoming that were even older and probably considered more important. About 50,000 artifacts have been discovered and recorded, which Schroeder saw at the University of Wyoming.

When Schroeder saw the collection, he noticed something unusual. The way the artifacts were found showed that different structures were used for different activities. What he saw was different from how hunter-gatherer societies operated. The hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian: everyone does a bit of everything and no one is specialized. The recorded artifacts have shown specialization. Some tools were only found in some homes. This intrigued Schroeder even more.

When Schroeder, now a PhD student in archeology at the University of Montana, arrived at the Shirley Basin site, he saw the 21 large rock-walled structures documented during the first excavations.

“It’s pretty mind-blowing,” he said. “And he was there forever.”

But that was just the start. His exploration led him to find the remains of 75 structures, including teepee rings spread over six miles.

“It’s just a continuous occupation for six miles,” he said. “It’s just huge.”

Schroeder determined the age of the projectile tips found at the site, dating the people who used them from 9,000 years ago to less than 1,000 years ago.

Archaeologists have excavated a dwelling structure that is still buried. Carolyn Buff, Treasurer of the Wyoming Archeology Society, sifts through artifacts. (courtesy Bryon Schroeder)

The central structures, made of rock, are more permanent than the houses associated with nomadic peoples. They are also much larger than most temporary structures. It is believed that the people who lived in what is now Wyoming were still on the move, but the Shirley Basin site has a sense of more permanence than a camp, according to Schroeder Maybe the people who lived there got so good. living in the mountains and using the pools, they were able to slow down and settle down, he said.

If that’s the case – and it’s still just a theory, Schroeder pointed out – it would challenge current beliefs about the people who lived in Wyoming thousands of years ago.

But other findings also suggest the basin was more than a short stopover and raise new questions about how ancient people interacted with others in the region.

The artifacts collected by Schroeder corroborate what he saw in college that people had time to focus on specific crafts and skills, which is only possible in more sedentary communities. .

A site first discovered in 1969 in the Shirley Basin and recently re-excavated could change current theories about how people lived in Wyoming thousands of years ago. (courtesy Bryon Schroeder)

Although Schroeder could not find the number of artifacts discovered in dwellings in 1969, he did find several thousand in structures. They included a large number of giant knives, as well as a lot of smooth sandstone used for sharpening arrows.

He also found a handle jug, a style not normally found in Wyoming, as well as several other pieces of pottery that appear to have come from other areas. It may indicate some kind of interaction, whether it be travel or commerce, with areas hundreds of miles away.

There is also obsidian. Obsidian is commonly found at sites throughout Wyoming, and is generally believed to originate from nearby Yellowstone. Obsidian can be obtained. A 2011 study suggested that the obsidian Schroeder found in the Shirley Basin was from New Mexico, a find congruent with a few other sites in Wyoming. It is still unclear how obsidian made its way to Wyoming.

“It’s a pretty cool find that is quite rare,” Schroeder said.

A grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust helped fund Schroeder’s research. His first task was to date the site. Now he can dig deeper into how people used him and what he tells us about some of the early inhabitants of Wyoming.

“There could be a lot of new discoveries coming from here,” he said.

He plans to apply for another grant to help protect the site and study it further.

Pottery found at the site, including a jug with handle, appears to have come from another region,
meaning that the people who lived in the Shirley Basin traded with other people or traveled.
(Courtesy Bryon Schroeder.)

About John A. Provost

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