BEULAH, Wyo. — The sounds of delicate scraping, either with bamboo tools or the occasional pencil on paper, are the only things heard in an otherwise quiet process.
Occasionally, a tour group descends into the sinkhole to observe the patient process of uncovering the remains of bison which have lain there for hundreds of years.
This summer, a small group of students from the University of Wyoming and other universities across the nation has been working to further excavate the Vore Buffalo Jump, a national historic site.
“Here you’re definitely going to find something, which is kind of fun,” said Danielle Messing, an anthropology student at Missouri State University who is working at the site this summer for college credit.
For 300 years, at least five Native American tribes used the site — a large natural sinkhole just west of Beulah — to trap buffalo, which they would then harvest for food, clothing and tools. Around 1800, tribes stopped using the sinkhole and the site lay dormant until the early 1970s, when it was discovered during the construction of Interstate 90. Following excavations of the site in the 1970s and mid-1990s, students have been continuously working at the sinkhole during the summers since 2004.
It’s one of the best-preserved and largest bison traps in the world, according to Dr. Charles Reher at the University of Wyoming, who also works with the summer field school.
“There’s really nothing to compare it to in terms of size or preservation or number of cultural levels,” he said.
One of the most important aspects of the site, Reher said, was its social significance to the number of Native Americans who used it — a place where tribes would meet for the harvest.
“People got together there,” he said. “Had religious ceremonies, got married and had dances. There was a seasonal concentration of many social activities.”
For students today, it’s a chance to gain valuable experience while engaging in a little bit of socializing themselves.
“The first couple days it’s a little awkward to basically move in and have ten other roommates like that,” Messing said.
“But after that you spend so much time together with people that we all had a really good time and we all got along surprisingly well for such a large group in the wilderness.”