Friends Of The Little Bighorn Battlefield

The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Dig of 1984

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Photos courtesy Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument     

For the first time the National Park Service would use metal detectors to retrieve artifacts from the ground. This made perfectly good sense since most of the data would be made of metal.

The leadership included Douglas D. Scott (Chief of the Rocky Mountain Research Division, Midwest Archeological Center, National Park Service) and Melissa A. Connor (Archeologist with the Midwest Archeological Center). Richard A. Fox assisted while undergoing studies toward his PhD in archaeology from the University of Calgary.


(L-R) Douglas Scott, Richard Fox, and Melissa Connor


The battlefield, where George Armstrong Custer and his five companies fell, was divided into grids. Volunteers, with metal detectors, marched in skirmish order while sweeping their detectors over the ground toward their front. Whenever one of the detectors got a reading the volunteer would place a pin flag to mark the spot. Following behind was another volunteer who would dig at the location of the pin flag to expose the artifact.

Before the artifact was removed surveyors would mark the exact location of the artifact within that grid on a map. Archeologists would then catalog the artifact, bag it, and number it for later study.

Surveying the location of an artifact

Pin flags can be seen throughout the inside of the fence on Last Stand Hill. Archeologists can be seen removing an artifact


Random marble markers, denoting where a trooper fell, were excavated for human remains. Remains were found under each marker studied. These remains were analyzed by forensic pathologists for many reasons -- age, height, race, and means of death. Once all the analysis was complete, the remains were buried with full honors in the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery.


This marker is in the Keogh sector. The bottom of a cavalryman's boot can be seen as well as human bone.


All types of artifacts were discovered -- spent cartridges, bullets, buttons, a few arrowheads, boots, and much more. Below are examples of items found.


A small number of arrowheads were discovered

Soldier cartridges can be seen here as well as a bullet that was never fired. Did it fall from a soldier's fingers as he tried to load his weapon?

These are bullets that were fired from Indian weapons. How many found their target? Whom did these bullets strike?

Officer and civilian buttons were found in large numbers


The digs continued the following summer with the focus being the Reno-Benteen Defense site. A follow-up dig at Reno-Benteen was conducted in 1989. In 1994 another dig, although small compared to the pervious ones, was performed in areas north of the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery. In September 2004 a road survey was conducted. Read more about it.

We will keep you informed of any digs that may occur in the future.

Update July 2008: Jeff Martin of Colorado posted a question in our guestbook on July 5. He asked, "in 30 years every metal detector hobbyist will want to know what kind/type detectors were used. I think it would make sense to capture that info now before it is lost."

To answer Jeff's question, I contacted Friends member John Husk who participated in the digs during the 1980s. I figured hed be able to enlighten us. Not only did he do just that, but he sent me a photo from the cover of the September 1985 issue of Treasure magazine which covered the May 1985 dig conducted at the Reno-Benteen Battlefield. The photo was reversed (who knows why) and the soldier headstone was added but it shows you an example of the detectors used 23 years ago.


John Husk on the cover of Treasure Magazine -- enlarge for details

Here is what John says regarding what kind of metal detectors were used during the digs in the 1980s:

I can't tell you the model of the metal detectors but can say that the Garrett, White and Fisher were the principal brands on the field. Occasionally someone would show up with another brand. The Fisher rep was one of the people doing the detecting so his were the most up to date. I was using a Garrett ADS, VLF/TR Deepseeker with two different sized heads depending on the conditions and the weight of the head at the end of the day and Ron Nichols was using a White. The battlefield bought either a White or Fisher during or right after the dig in 85. At that time, they were the top of the line metal detectors for the early to mid 80's. Nothing like the computerized metal detectors that are out there now.

In the photo, I am in the front, Ron is in the yellow shirt and the Fisher rep is in the red and white baseball cap wearing a t-shirt with an orange vest over it. This photo is reversed but was on Reno-Benteen. I have a hand-held Garrette on my belt. The granddaddy of the wands they use in airports now. Also I had a 'handle with arm rest' that I am using in the photo which allowed me to take the head and shaft off the metal detector instrument box. That way I could hang the box over my shoulder and just use the handle, shaft and head for reduced weight.

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