This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Spring 2014, Volume 60, Number 3)

UNCOVERING HISTORY - Archaeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn

By Douglas D. Scott.  University of Oklahoma Press.  ISBN 978-0-8061-43507. Available from Amazon for £19.61

Since that fateful day, there have been a number of physical investigations on the site of the Battle that intrigues us all. The grass fire in 1983 was the event that led to a succession of structured professionally organised archaeological “Digs”, all of which have been under to control of Doug Scott.  This book is a synthesis of these years of work, some of which has already been published, but it goes further than this and Doug draws on the earlier work of Edward Luce, Elwood Nye, Ralph Cartwright, Don Rickey and others who spent many hours traversing the battlefield, picking up battle related objects and noting, albeit roughly, their location.

The archaeological work, particularly that since 1984, can be said to have provided  evidence to help solve the puzzle that we all find so fascinating and to which there is no definite answer, but as the only non-American privileged to be involved in four of the five major Digs I would be expected to say that, wouldn’t I?  Doug concedes that the archaeological evidence is “another set of information to be compared, contrasted and correlated with other information sources”.

Techniques have become more sophisticated between my first Dig in 1985 and my last in 2004 with the use of GPS to define the position of finds (it will be even better when the European Galileo system comes on track) and Ground Penetrating Radar. There is now an improved metal detector and this was used recently around one of the ox-bows on the river, which incidentally revealed virtually nothing. Nevertheless, and as I quickly learned, what you don’t find is just as important as what you do find. Over six thousand battle related artefacts have been recovered since 1983 and if you add to that number the items collected unofficially and the items picked up by park personnel then I for one come to the conclusion that it must have been one hell of a fight.

Doug’s book deals with some peripheral matters such as legal compliance, methodology and evaluation, and public relations. As Doug will probably read this review, I am sorry he didn’t mention Kermit Konzen, who was a lovely if somewhat garrulous old boy who performed a more than useful function of keeping the many visitors away from us workers in the field.

A fairly lengthy chapter is devoted to human remains found on the battlefield and missed at the times of the 1877, 1879 and 1881 reburials. These give important clues as to the age, lifestyle, diet and manner of death of those who died and there have been a few fairly certain attempts to identify the remains with a named participant.

The book is a slight variation of an unpublished archaeological assessment prepared as part of the National Park Service’s cultural resources programme.  It would never have been published as a book had it not been for a generous donation from the Friends of Little Bighorn. Doug himself has waived all royalties.

But there is one aspect of the post 1984 work that extends worldwide and well beyond the Little Bighorn. Originally named Battlefield Archaeology, it has become a well established new academic discipline. Glasgow University now has a degree course in the subject, it has been featured in several T V programmes, there are international conferences and publications, and from all of this human knowledge has been extended. The science (if I can call it that) has the new name of Conflict Archaeology and has been extended to include siege sites, military camps and hospitals, prisoner of war camps, etc. And it all began with a grass fire in an isolated part of Montana.

Derek Batten



English Westerners' Society  

Copyright © 2015 English Westerners' Society