For years Bryon Schroeder heard rumors of an abandoned ancient 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 the Shirley Basin, became almost mythical. When Schroeder started asking about where exactly it was located and what was found there, no one could remember.
When he finally discovered the location and visited in 2010, he didn’t know what to expect. What he found astounded him, and the results of his research could change how we think about the people who lived in Wyoming thousands of years ago.
“The mountains are really hot right now, but we don’t know what’s going on down in the basins at the same time,” he said, referring to interest and research among archaeologists.
Schroeder believes the Shirley Basin site could be connected to ancient villages recently discovered in the Wind River Mountains. The villagers may have spent the summers in the high alpine and the rest of the year in the basin.
In 2005 and 2006 Schroeder, a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, worked in the Wind River Mountains on recently discovered high alpine villages where it looked like communities of ancient people spent time during the summer. When he came across a brief mention of the village in the basin in his research, he was intrigued.
After its discovery in 1969, 21 dwelling sites were excavated, and the site was abandoned. Schroeder said he doesn’t know why, but during that period archaeologists were making discoveries all over Wyoming that were even older, and likely thought to be more important. Approximately 50,000 artifacts were discovered and logged, which Schroeder viewed at the University of Wyoming.
When Schroeder saw the collection he noticed something unusual. The way the artifacts were found showed different structures were used for different activities. What he saw differed from how hunter-gatherer societies worked. Hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian — everyone does a little bit of everything and no one is specialized. The logged artifacts showed specialization. Certain tools were only found in certain dwellings. It further intrigued Schroeder.
When Schroeder, now a doctorate student in archaeology at the University of Montana, arrived at the Shirley Basin site, he saw the 21 large rock-walled structures documented from the early excavation.
“It’s pretty jaw dropping,” he said. “And it was there forever.”
But that was just the start. His exploration led him to find remnants of 75 structures including tepee rings spread out across six miles.
“It’s just continuous occupation for six miles,” he said. “It’s just huge.”
Schroeder determined the age of projectile points found at the site, dating the people who used them from living 9,000 years ago to within a 1,000 years ago.
The core structures, made of rock, are more permanent than homes associated with nomadic people. They are also much larger than most temporary structures. It’s believed people who lived in what is now Wyoming were always moving, but the Shirley Basin site has a feeling of more permanence than a camp, according to Schroeder Perhaps the people who lived there got so good at living in the mountains and using the basins, they were able to slow down and settle, he said.
If that is the case — and it is still only a theory, Schroeder emphasized — 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 stop-over spot, and raise new questions about how ancient people interacted with others across the region.
The artifacts Schroeder gathered supported what he saw at the university, that people had time to focus on crafts and specific skills, something only possible in more settled communities.
While Schroeder didn’t find the shear number of artifacts that were discovered in the dwellings in 1969, he did find several thousand in the structures. They included a large number of giant knives, as well as a lot of smoothed sandstone used to sharpen arrows.
He also found a handled jug, a style not normally found in Wyoming, along with several other pottery pieces that look to be from other regions. That may point to some sort of interaction, either travel or trade, with areas hundreds of miles away.
There is also obsidian. Obsidian is commonly found at sites throughout Wyoming, usually believed to come from nearby Yellowstone. Obsidian can be sourced. A 2011 study suggested the obsidian that Schroeder found in the Shirley Basin came from New Mexico, a finding congruent with a couple of other Wyoming sites. It’s still unknown how the obsidian made its way to Wyoming.
“It’s a pretty cool finding that’s pretty 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 look deeper at how people used it and what it tells us about some of Wyoming’s earliest people.
“There could be a lot of new findings coming out of here,” he said.
He plans to apply for another grant to help protect the site and further study it.