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Still Tracking Reno: Archeologist's Gear Sees Under Battlefield's Dirt
By Lorna Thackeray of the Gazette Staff
Wemaster's Note: During the week of May 22, 2005 Doug Scott continued his archeological survey in preparation for the battlefield road construction. This study was strictly geophysical and included only the Reno-Benteen Battlefield. We include here the report that appeared in the Billings Gazette on June 2, 2005.
Nothing on the surface of the 129-year-old Reno-Benteen Battlefield indicates that desperate and overwhelmed 7th Cavalry troopers hastily dug a rifle pit just above the swale where dozens of wounded and dying men were being tended in a makeshift hospital.
But archaeologists armed with high-tech instruments designed to penetrate the grass and soil that conceal all evidence of the siege on June 25-26, 1876, may have discovered a previously unknown defensive position.
National Park Service archaeologist Doug Scott (retired), who pioneered battlefield archaeology techniques at Little Bighorn that are now used worldwide, remained cautious about definitely identifying the find as a rifle pit.
But computer printouts from three geophysical ground-penetrating systems used last week to explore the site showed the same capsule-shaped anomaly.
"It could be something totally different," the scientist said. But it looks like a rifle pit.
"If it turns out to be a rifle pit, it could tell us a lot of things about how the battle was fought,'' Scott said. "Did they deploy properly? You can look at the line of fire and see what they could see.''
What they saw from their exposed position high on a ridge top above the Little Bighorn River were hundreds, maybe thousands, of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fresh from a bloody triumph five miles away at Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Lt. Col. George Custer had divided his command just before the most famous battle of the Indian wars began on a hot Sunday afternoon. Custer rode away with five companies. Capt. Frederick Benteen took three companies and Maj. Marcus Reno led three more. Reno was ordered to cross the river and attack the Indian village.
Reno attacked, but soon was routed and driven back across the river in panicked retreat up the steep bluffs on the opposite side. Those who survived were joined on the bluffs by Benteen and his men. The remnants of the 7th Cavalry hunkered down for a two-day siege that ended when the warriors departed, probably after learning that more soldiers were approaching.
Rifle Pit or Grave?
Looking at the site where the suspected rifle pit was found, Scott notes the vulnerability of the position in the broad expanse of rolling prairie. It would have been reasonable to throw some dirt up as a breastwork against incoming bullets and arrows, he said.
"If someone was here, the warriors would have had a pretty good field of fire,'' he said. "You would want some dirt around you and a hole to jump into.''
Troopers had traveled light on the way to the Little Bighorn and had no shovels or sabers with them. John Doerner, chief historian at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, said the men probably scooped out meager defenses with tin cups, carbine stocks or canteens cut in half.
Since the holes were already dug and there was some urgency in burying the dead in fierce summer heat, the rifle pits may also have served as graves, Doerner said.
Thirteen troopers died during the hilltop fight, he said. Nine of them were unaccounted for when reburial details arrived later to provide proper interments to men buried in shallow graves in the immediate aftermath of the battle.
Photos courtesy James Woodcock Gazette staff
Whether someone was buried in the suspected rifle pit won't be determined by archaeologists this season. Technologies used to survey under the surface cannot identify bone, archaeologist Steven DeVore said. No excavation is planned.
DeVore, who works with Scott at the National Park Service Midwest Archaeological Center in Lincoln, Neb., toiled through a windy, cold and often rainy week, walking scientific equipment in straight lines a meter apart. Battling the elements and a miserable cold, DeVore paused briefly to try to explain complex technology in simple terms.
A beeping orange bar sweeping along lines marked by yellow rope provided information for a "conductivity survey," he said.
"It sends an electromagnetic signal to measure how conductive soils are,'' he told a puzzled reporter. "Soils that have been disturbed may have a different texture and consistency than surrounding soils.''
The conductive survey picked up an anomaly about four feet from the parking lot sidewalk, in the same shape and in the same place a magnetometer survey had recorded an anomaly the day before. To complete the study, DeVore will check the area with ground-penetrating radar to get a profile of the anomaly. The radar will also provide information on how deep it is.
Surveys concluded last week were required as part of a project to rebuild and widen a five-mile stretch of tour road that connects the Custer battlesite with the Reno-Benteen site. The anomaly found near the parking lot will not be in the construction path, so there is no need to excavate it, Scott said.
He said the area that will be affected by the road project didn't produce any significant readings during the survey. If they had turned up a potential archaeological site, a report would be submitted to battlefield administrators with recommendations that the road be redesigned around it or that the site be excavated in advance of construction.
Battlefield Road Construction
Battlefield Superintendent Darrell Cook said the start of road construction will depend on passage of a highway bill in Congress. If a bill gets through this year, he said, contracts could be ready by fall. Doerner said he expects work to begin in the fall of 2006.
Some parts of the tour road are only 17 feet wide, Cook said, a tough squeeze for large RVs that have become increasingly common. To comply with state and federal regulations, the redesigned tour road will meet minimum standards of 24 to 28 feet, he said.
For years, the Park Service has been discussing implementation of a mass transit system to carry tens of thousands of summer visitors between the two battlefields. Widening the road will accommodate future transportation systems, he said.
When the original tour road was built, no archaeological survey was done, even where it crossed areas of the most intense fighting. Doerner and Scott plan to be right behind crews tearing up the road - metal detectors in hand - surveying every inch of the bed. They'll be looking for evidence of how the battle was fought and whether warrior accounts and the physical remains of the battle can be reconciled.
"What's so exciting about the story of the Little Bighorn is that it's still evolving,'' Doerner said.
Photos below provided by the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument shows the use of the ground penetrating radar at Reno Benteen
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
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