Centuries-Old Pottery Could Reveal When the Crow Arrived in Wyoming

Radiocarbon dating of ceramics found at Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site may offer new insights on the region’s Indigenous history

Rock art at Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site
Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site is home to hundreds of petroglyphs and pictrographs. 25or6to4 via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Archaeologists in Sheridan, Wyoming have uncovered a trove of artifacts that could reveal when the Crow, or Apsáalooke, people arrived in the region.

As Carrie Haderlie reports for the Sheridan Press, researchers made the finds at Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site, a state park known for its Native American petroglyphs and pictographs. The newly discovered artifacts are set to undergo radiocarbon dating in order to pinpoint their age.

“This summer, we found Crow ceramics, as well a range of things, from thousands and thousands of flakes and 10 arrow points (or arrowheads), and preforms to make arrowheads, to animal bone from bison as well as bighorn sheep, as well as obsidian,” Wyoming’s state archaeologistSpencer Pelton, tells the Sheridan Press.

According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Crow oral history suggests that the Crow Nation “intentionally migrated” westward following a schism with the Hidatsa people of the upper Missouri River. Exactly when these formerly unified tribes split is a matter of debate, but the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist notes that the earliest Crow pottery previously found in Wyoming dates to around 1350 C.E.

This summer’s excavation “helps dispel the concept that the Crow, Apsáalooke, people were new transplants to the area,” Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a member of the Montana House of Representatives, tells the Sheridan Press. (New, in this instance, refers to an arrival date of roughly 500 years ago.)

“The findings of these types of excavations and research correlates with our Crow oral history, which dates from time immemorial,” she adds. “… History is important to preserve a homeland for future generations.”

Per the Wyoming State Historical Society, evidence of human habitation at Medicine Lodge stretches back some 10,000 years. The site is known for its rock art, which adorns the face of a 750-foot-long sandstone cliff. Numbering in the hundreds, the drawings depict warriors, bison, bears, beavers, abstract designs and more. Some predate the Crow, while others feature motifs that regularly appear in Crow art.

“The art can be complex,” prehistoric rock art expert Julie Francis told WyoFile’s Brodie Farquhar in 2010. “But we can make a good case that much of the rock art is related to visionary experiences which were central to their [creators’] religion.”

As Wyoming State Parks notes on its website, Medicine Lodge was established as a cattle ranch in 1881. A century later, in 1972, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department created the 12,000-acre Medicine Lodge Wildlife Habitat Management Area; the following year, officials designated a section of the area as a state archaeological site.

Digs carried out at Medicine Lodge in the 1970s testified to the Crow’s lengthy presence in the valley.

“It was thought to be an archaeological site created by the ancestors of the Crow,” Pelton tells the Sheridan Press. “[Early researchers] knew that from portions of a ceramic vessel they found there, the rim of a pot.”

Now, the archaeologist adds, experts hope to use the recently unearthed ceramics to flesh out the site’s Indigenous history even further.

“These things are really distinct, and you can track them across time and space to see how those different finds change through time,” Pelton says. “Our first research priority is getting some radiocarbon dates on some charcoal, and maybe animal bone, with some of those ceramics.”