Mistakes happen, and sometimes they can be a stroke of luck. When a belly-scraper—or earth-mover—hauled away several inches of topsoil from the Fort Missoula Historic Dump in November, it was making a mistake that would lead to a fortuitous discovery: obsidian flakes left over from American Indian tool-making near the fort.
“This is the first time that we’ve seen evidence of Native American use of the area that we refer to as Fort Missoula,” says Daniel Hall, president of Western Cultural, a historic preservation company hired to assess the site.
Last fall, the University of Montana hired JTL Group, a local construction company, to grade UM’s land, roughly 24 acres, adjacent to Fort Missoula. Neither UM nor JTL checked the state Antiquities Act, which might have precluded work on the historic dump. Instead, JTL’s belly-scraper ploughed up the dirt unrestricted.
As it happened, just enough topsoil was scraped away to reveal shiny millimeter- and centimeter-sized flakes that indicate American Indians crafted stone tools on the site years ago.
When JTL learned of its error, it hired Western Cultural’s Hall to assess the impact of the scraping. Hall spent the better part of December on UM’s land. In the past, archaeologists, students and probably illegal pot-hunters unearthed artifacts dating as far back as the 1880s—boots, buttons, belt buckles, broken pots and jars—from the dump. Hall found the black obsidian shards nearby and also determined that the dump’s boundaries extend farther than was previously known. Overall impact to the site ranges from mild to hard-to-tell, he says.
The Confederat-ed Salish & Kootenai Tribes have been notified of the discovery of the artifacts. UM will determine how to proceed after the tribe visits and comments, says Kevin Krebsbach, UM associate director of planning and construction.
This isn’t the first time that Fort Missoula area property owners have failed to check the state Antiquities Act before embarking on construction work, Hall says, who has grown tired of receiving calls after the damage has been done. “We decided as a community that Fort Missoula is important and it deserves preservation,” Hall says. Apparently, not everyone got the memo.