Friends Of The Little Bighorn Battlefield

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

Home • Join Friends • Point Click Give • Guestbook

Interview -- Doug Scott

Webmaster's Note: Doug Scott talks with us about his new book Uncovering History: Archaeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn, his passion for battlefield archaeology, archaeology at Custer Battlefield, and more.

April 24, 2013

Bob Reece: It is a pleasure to speak with you today Doug. It's a busy spring for you with your new release, Uncovering History along with a second book just released, but more on that later. You recently retired from the NPS, but it seems you've been busier than ever in the field of archaeology. I know you worked with the team on the Rosebud Battlefield. What other projects were you involved with and are there any in the future?

Doug Scott: Bob, believe it or not I retired from NPS seven years ago last January. I have been involved with a number of archaeological projects including Glorieta battlefield, New Mexico; Boonville, Pilot Knob, and Moore’s Mill, Missouri; Rush Creek and Mud Springs, Nebraska; and Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico. I have also done one significant forensic project in Canada. Busy cannot begin to describe me in retirement, but I am having fun.

B.R. My gosh, time is moving fast. There is no doubt that you are a household name for students of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and battlefield archeology. How and when did you realize you wanted to be an archeologist?

D.S. I was six years old and a voracious reader when I found books about archaeology in my local library. That set me on a course to become a professional from which I have never wavered.

B.R. What was your first archeological project as a student and then professional?

D.S. I volunteered with the Kansas State Historical Society on a field project in 1964 as a high school student and was hired as a seasonal in 1966, my first paying job in archaeology. Both were in my hometown area at the Elk City Reservoir doing salvage archaeology as it was called at time.

B.R. What did you learn from each of those?

D.S. I learned how to dig, take notes, and map sites – pretty much technical skills I still use today. I also learned there is a lot more to archaeology beyond finding things, and that is where the schooling became important.

B.R. Finding stuff is what most think about when they think archaeology. How did you evolve into battlefield archeology?

D.S. Both my master’s thesis and PhD dissertation were done on the archaeology of Fort Larned, Kansas an Indian Wars fort. Later I was a curator (read that as superintendent) of an Oklahoma Historical Society pre-Civil War military property, Fort Towson. It was at those sites and through my graduate work I learned military history and archaeology. That prepared me for the Little Bighorn experience. By the way Custer was at Fort Larned on a couple of occasions in the late 1860s, so I had more than a casual acquaintance with his life story and that of the Seventh.

B.R. It almost seems you were destined to follow Custer from Kansas to the ground at Little Bighorn. What were those circumstances that found you as the lead for the first big dig in 1984 at then Custer Battlefield?

D.S. Coincidence and good positioning both played a role in my becoming involved in the work after the fire of 1983. By chance I moved from another Interior agency to NPS Midwest Archaeological Center in December 1983. At that time MWAC did all of the archaeological work for the old Rocky Mountain Region which included Little Bighorn. Rich Fox’s report was on my desk when I reported on December 5 (Custer’s birthday by happenstance) and the rest is history as they say.

B.R. Countless artifacts have been found at Little Bighorn. Is there something you hoped would be discovered but was not? If so, why do you think it wasn't found.

D.S. Not really. Physical evidence is data. We employed a sampling scheme to give us an idea of what is there to excellent result. We know much more than we did in 1983 when Rich Fox did the post-burn assessment. When we began the work in May, 1984 we knew we would find evidence of the battle, but we were awed by the amount we found and the new interpretations of the fight it offered.

B.R. Methods and technologies used in battlefield archeology have evolved since that first dig in 1984. What do you believe are some of the most important breakthroughs?

D.S. We pioneered the point plotting of finds on a large scale using the latest available electronic mapping technology. That was an important event because it demonstrated that battlefields had patterning, something that many people thought could not exist. The most important outcome of our work is that it was a signal event in archaeological method and theory giving rise to the now world-wide field of conflict archaeology. That is something to be proud of, to paraphrase a popular country western song.

B.R. What technologies and methods do you think archeologists will be using in 2044?

D.S. What will happen next, a good question and most difficult to answer. I suspect new geophysical investigation techniques will be employed that may limit the need for excavation. Certainly new recording and mapping techniques will evolve, as will the analysis of artifacts that will continue to find new and more detailed interpretations of the past.

B.R. If those come to pass, they would be of great benefit to the science and less evasive to the environment. If resources were not an issue, what would be your dream project for LIBI?

D.S. I believe most people would think Deep Ravine would be the issue to resolve. I am not in that group. I would like to see advanced geophysical remote sensing applied to the Reno-Benteen lines in order to locate (and not disturb) additional riflepit locations. The park could use the data to revise the interpretation of the company lines and tell a more complete story of the entrenchments. I would also like to find Mike Madden’s leg.

B.R. Finding Madden's leg would be a breakthrough for sure. Seriously, I would have guessed your answer to be Deep Ravine. As you mentioned at the outset, you've been very busy working since your retirement. Besides the projects you've led at LIBI, what is the most interesting project you've worked on?

D.S. I have had the privilege of working on hundreds of archaeological sites in my career. I am most connected to battlefields and sites of conflict. Perhaps the most interesting and important work I have done is in the field of human rights and applying battlefield archaeological techniques to modern international investigations like those in Croatia, Bosnia, Cyprus, Rwanda, El Salvador, and Canada. It was the work at the Little Bighorn that was used as a model for data recovery on various execution sites that informed the investigations on these forensic sites.

B.R. You've authored an impressive array of books over the years. How does Uncovering History rate for you?

D.S. Uncovering History is a true synthesis of the findings we and others have made at Little Bighorn. For me it was important to pull together and acknowledge the early efforts of Luce, Nye, Blummer, and Cartwright to show they had the right ideas of how to study the past in the 1940s. It was also important to me to give Don Rickey, J. W. Vaughn, Robert Bray, B. William Henry, and Jerome Greene their due. They did the first serious work of finding and plotting artifacts found on the field. It was their efforts that are the basis of our working hypotheses for the 1984 and later investigations. It was also fun to pull together and put in context all the work that has been done since 1985.

B.R. What do you hope the reader of Uncovering History gains from it?

D.S. There are over 30 reports beyond the first books and we covered several thousand acres of areas around the battlefield. Many researchers do not seem to be aware of the extent of the archaeological work and how each project has built on the earlier ones. I hope this synthesis will show others how much has been done, what has been learned from the study of the physical evidence. The Indians won the battle by hard fighting, superior numbers, and superior fire power, and not just because Custer made a series of tactical mistakes on June 25, and that is perhaps one of the important legacies of the archaeological record.

B.R. Your second book released this spring is Custer, Cody, and Grand Duke Alexis: Historical Archaeology of the Royal Buffalo Hunt. What is it about and what is your involvement with the story?

D.S. The book is about finding and interpreting the 1872 buffalo hunt site in Nebraska. It is a holistic study of physical evidence, the historical record (including newspaper accounts, documents in the Russian State Archives), and photographs of the event. From a theoretical approach it is called microhistory – building from the details to the larger picture. In this case we put the camp in context of a convivial time of Grand Duke Alexis enjoying the company of Custer, Bill Cody, Phil Sheridan and several other notables while in the larger context the Grand Duke was learning his royal responsibilities to the Russian Court. Peter Bleed, Stephen Damm, and I had a great time pulling this story together and like every other story it is more complex than one would first suppose.

B.R. If you're free to elaborate, are you working on another book for the near future?

D.S. I am working with Drs. Clarence Geier and Lawrence Babits as co-editor on a volume on the archaeology of the American Civil War. It is in press with the University of Florida Presses. Other plans, well….. let’s say there are other things in the works. One has to stay busy to stay out of trouble.

B.R. I cannot imagine you getting into trouble or slowing down. It has been a pleasure talking with you and I appreciate your time. We'll see you next at the battlefield in June 2013 for the Friends annual fundraiser field trip.

(Back to Top)

Uncovering History Home

More Of Our Interviews With Historians