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