ABSAROKEE — A small, blue glass bottle. A shard of decorated pottery. The cylinder of a cap-and-ball revolver. A tiny ceramic doll’s arm.
All are clues to the Crow way of life, lived out in the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains three miles south of Absarokee. This second Crow Agency existed on a spot now divided by Highway 78, a grassy field on one side and a ranch on the other.
For nine years, from 1875 to 1884, the tribe set down roots even as it grappled with a new way of life and a shrinking homeland. Shifting from a nomadic existence to a sedentary, agricultural one, tribal members battled disease and wrestled with the loss of their main food source, the buffalo.
Now, thanks to an archaeological dig, a picture is emerging of what life looked like in the decade the Crow lived in the Stillwater Valley.
The field work is being done in conjunction with a road project on Highway 78, said Stefan Streeter, Billings district administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation.
The three-mile road rehabilitation will start at Olie’s Corner and go south toward Roscoe, Streeter said. The project, with an anticipated 2012 start date, will widen the road’s shoulders and provide safer alignment.
MDT has hired Aaberg Cultural Resources Consulting of Billings to do an archaeological survey of the area, required with such projects.
The Crow Tribe’s first reservation, established in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, stretched across more than 35 million acres from Gardiner to Hysham. In 1869, Fort Parker, the reservation’s headquarters, was built northeast of Livingston along Mission Creek.
As miners and settlers encroached, the reservation was drastically reduced to 8 million acres and in 1875, the agency moved to a spot just south of Absarokee, along the Rosebud River. That’s where the Absaroka Agency Fort was built.
But miners again moved in, and by 1884 the tribe was moved to its present location at Crow Agency, nearly 60 miles southeast of Billings. What remained of the second agency was stripped of its resources and then burned.
Eventually a highway was built through the area. In 1983, with roadwork anticipated, the first archaeological survey of the second Crow Agency took place, Aaberg said, before his firm became involved.
“I think, ultimately, they thought there wasn’t much of significance left, but because the road project was delayed, nothing more was done for a number of years,” he said, standing in a pasture at the work site.
Around 2000, MDT was again looking at the road project and brought Aaberg’s firm in to survey the land along the road. His crew did small-scale testing using shovel probes, which revealed enough artifacts to warrant further testing.
In the summer of 2006, in cooperation with MDT, Aaberg did a magnetometer survey, which measures the magnetic signature of objects in the soil.
“A magnetometer gives us the ability, basically, to see beneath the ground,” he said.
Workers walked systematically through an area 400 meters by 200 meters east of the highway, where the hand-held device recorded magnetic signals at 1-meter intervals. Software then translated the results into a map.
Aaberg saw on that map what he called “a scatter of anomalies” — underground remnants — that formed a rectangle, although he didn’t know exactly what the anomalies were. He discovered when he created an overlay of an 1878 map that the rectangle matched almost perfectly the size of the main compound.
That summer, additional shovel probes yielded more artifacts, including beads and animal bones, on both sides of the road. On the east side of the highway, the testing included the dump site for the agency — “a gold mine to an archaeologist,” Aaberg said — situated next to Doby Town, a series of 14 cabins built with adobe bricks.
Out of that came a decision to do a full-fledged archaeological excavation, which is rare, Aaberg said.
“I would say one out of 1,000 sites ever reaches this stage,” he said. “That might even be high.”
So for nine weeks starting June 13, a crew of 14 people, most of them seasonal workers, began working to uncover history. Men and women used shovels or trowels to carefully remove earth from meticulously measured squares.
Others sifted the dirt through mesh screens to separate artifacts or animal bones. All the findings are recorded in detail for a final report.
The first discovery was the northwest corner of the main compound’s intact foundation.
“To say we were excited is an understatement,” Aaberg said. “With the 1878 map we can look at each area of the agency compound and it’s been dead-on.”
Continued digging revealed more of the foundation. Charcoal and ash confirm that the building was eventually burned down.
Workers excavated segments of each 24-by-24-foot room, including the agent’s office, the clerk’s office and the doctor’s office. They discovered one mystery feature — a shallow rectangular area lined with clay in the physician’s area — “but we have no idea what it is,” Aaberg said.
Although the remains of most of the cabins lie under the road, Aaberg’s crew was able to uncover the foundation of one Crow residence. They found decorative beads and animal bones.
“One of the more interesting artifacts we found was actually a hide scraper that was made out of bottle glass,” he said, a traditional technology meshed with a modern material.
All of the bones and artifacts collected in the dig are washed and categorized at a makeshift lab a few miles down the road. Jack Fisher, associate professor of anthropology at Montana State University, is in charge, analyzing the bones, artifacts and soil and putting the results in a computer database.
He pulls out a few items of interest, including a small bottle that may have been used for medicine, decorated stoneware, a spoon, beads, a pendant, the arm and shoe of a doll.
On another desk are fragments of bones from deer and domestic cattle or bison.
He enjoys the chance to be part of field work.
“Actually, seeing the excavation makes it much more meaningful than just getting boxes of bones and not seeing where they came from,” Fisher said.
All of the artifacts will go to the Crow Tribe and will be housed in a curation facility on the Little Big Horn College campus in Crow Agency. Tim McCleary, archaeologist for the Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Office, welcomes the additions from Aaberg’s dig.
“It’s incredible what he’s finding, the amount of material he’s finding, the types of materials he’s finding,” McCleary said.
Equally important, he said, is the time period when the second Crow Agency existed.
“It is the Agency during the transition of the Crow from a nomadic free lifestyle to one totally under the control of the U.S. government,” he said.
Negotiations that began in 1879 and concluded in 1884 “really established the reservation policy as we know it today,” he said.
The Crow people were under the stewardship of the United States and they could not leave the reservation. The Crow called that “living within a line drawn on the ground,” McCleary said.
It was a difficult time for the Crow in another way, he said. The tribe was hit hard by disease, including epidemics of measles and scarlet fever.
It was also the end of the buffalo. The government had to issue beef to the people or they would have starved, McCleary said.
“So it’s a period of time that, in some ways, were very dark but in other ways formed the basis of relationship between the Crow and the government,” he said.
A group of Crow tribal elders will visit the site this week, Aaberg said. He looks forward to hearing the memories that the visit will evoke.
What will happen to the historic site itself is still up in the air. Aaberg has been in touch with the Archaeological Conservancy, a national nonprofit that buys and preserves historic and archaeological sites that are threatened.
The organization is in talks with the landowner, Aaberg said. The land in question would go from East Rosebud Creek to Butcher Creek, encompassing the main compound and Doby Town.
“That would be great because then there would be no development unless the government got interested in an interpretative facility,” he said. “No more building or plowing.”
A stone marker lets passersby know about the old Crow Agency. It is unlawful for people to take artifacts and the land it sits on is private, Aaberg added.
He appreciates the successful collaboration he has had with the tribe, with MDT, MSU and other organizations. It has opened another window into Crow history.
“I would guess in Crow history, this is an important, if tragic, location for them,” he said.