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Historic Hell Gap Dig Site Provides Community Tours, Bolsters Local Economy

July 24, 2014
Woman smiling
Mary Lou Larson, professor and head of UW’s Department of Anthropology, displays some of the arrow heads and other Paleoindian artifacts the public can view during an open house of the Hell Gap site this weekend. (UW Photo)

Hell Gap’s primary function may be to serve as a field camp for University of Wyoming students to gain real-world archaeology experience. But that doesn’t mean the public can’t participate.

UW anthropology students and faculty members have led tours of the site since early July; it will host the summer meeting of the Wyoming Archaeological Society this weekend; and community talks are scheduled in the coming weeks, says Mary Lou Larson, professor and head of UW’s Department of Anthropology.

“We had 150 people attend last year, many from Guernsey, Wheatland and Scottsbluff,” Larson says of last year’s summer meeting. “What’s really important is to tell the public about archaeology and why we want to save these things.”

The summer Wyoming Archaeological Society meeting will take place at the Hell Gap site near Guernsey Friday, July 25, through Sunday, July 27. A public open house is scheduled Saturday, July 26, and Sunday, July 27.

Additionally, there are four archaeological talks scheduled for the public. Marcel Kornfeld, a UW professor of anthropology, presented the first, titled “From Clovis to Cowboy: Wyoming Prehistory After 13,000 Years Ago,” which took place July 17 in Guernsey.

The rest of the schedule is as follows:

-- George C.  Frison, a faculty emeritus in UW’s Department of Anthropology and former Wyoming state archaeologist, presents “12,000 Years of Bison Hunting in Wyoming,” Thursday, July 24, 7 p.m., at the First State Bank conference room in Wheatland.

-- Houston Martin, who received his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from UW and is now a doctoral student at the University of California-Davis, presents “Hunter-Gatherers in Changing or Unpredictable Environments: Perspectives on the Middle Holocene in Southeastern Wyoming,” Thursday, July 31, 7 p.m., at the Western Heritage Center in Lingle.

-- Elizabeth Lynch, a UW doctoral student in anthropology, presents “The Social Space and Prehistoric Landscapes of Bedrock Milling Features in Southeastern Colorado,” Thursday, Aug. 7, 7 p.m., at the First State Bank conference room in Guernsey.

Martin made all of the arrangements for the summer presentations, with assistance from Bruce Helmbuck, Guernsey’s community development coordinator, Kornfeld says.

Providing volunteer opportunities

The field camps also give those with no professional background or education in archaeology the opportunity to delve into something new.

Aundrea Thompson, a UW senior majoring in anthropology with a focus on linguistics, says this is her first foray into archaeology. She is volunteering at the field school this summer.

“I never pictured myself doing it. Now that I’m doing it, I love it,” says the Pine Bluffs native as she runs her fingers through muddy dirt being washed in a sifting tray. “I might not stay in linguistics.”

She says being outdoors and the independence of the work is appealing.

“It takes a special person with a fire in their belly for archaeology. I think I have that,” she says.

Tina Starr took a week off work -- without pay -- from her job in Fort Collins, Colo., to experience a lifelong dream. Starr, another field camp volunteer, says that, ever since she was a kid, she’s wanted to be an archaeologist.

“I didn’t know the history of Hell Gap until I got here,” says Starr, a member of the Loveland Archaeological Society in Colorado. “It’s been a great learning experience. I am so grateful and excited to be here.”

Digging for change

The three 10-day periods UW faculty members and students spend at Hell Gap in the summer also boost the local economy.

During their stay at Hell Gap, the Department of Anthropology provides a bump to the local economy. This includes spending dollars on gas, lodging and at local grocery, hardware and lumber stores, as well as equipment maintenance and repair costs. During July and August 2013, the department spent more than $2,000 at the local grocery store in Guernsey.

No wonder. One building at the field camp serves as the kitchen and dining room, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served each day to those working at the dig site. The field camp even shells out for twice-a-day cookie breaks.

“We go into town every two or three days,” says Rachael Shimek, a UW doctoral student in anthropology from Laramie, who serves as the field school director.

UW’s Department of Anthropology works throughout the state on field archaeology research, courses and joint work with the Office of the Wyoming State Archaeologist. Last year, the department worked on archaeological field work, testing and student education in Guernsey. The department spent approximately $3,900 worth of services in those communities.

The department also conducted archaeological field schools in Pine Bluffs and Sundance last year, where it spent more than $12,000 on supplies, groceries and gasoline.

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