Holding the corroded, dirt-filled piece of metal up to a small magnifying glass, Doug Scott confirmed what the volunteers surrounding him had waited almost breathlessly to hear.
“It is what it’s supposed to be,” the historical ballistics expert said. “That’s a .50-70 fired in a Sharps, so definitely Indian.”
Then he gently admonished himself as well as the volunteers, “We need to find more than one a day.”
Scott was standing near the top of a bluff overlooking a small drainage where in 1876 more than 2,000 Indian warriors and U.S. Army soldiers, prospectors and scouts collided in a six-and-a-half hour gun battle waged across these Eastern Montana hills.
“There was a lot of give and take, a lot of serious fighting in here,” Scott said of the battle in which more than 40 combatants were killed.
The conflict erupted only eight days before the same combined forces of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe killed 267 members of the 7th Cavalry in the most famous battle of the Indian Wars — the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Rosebud Battlefield, now a state park, is located about 35 miles north of Sheridan, Wyo., or roughly 60 miles southeast of Hardin.
Scott returned to the 3,000-acre state park this week to lead a group in a field school about battlefield ballistics combined with a survey of a portion of the park that burned in a 2013 lightning-caused fire.
“It really is a wide-ranging partnership,” Scott said. “This was something that needed to be done, but Montana State Parks couldn’t afford it.”
The survey was funded by a grant and staffed through cooperation between federal, state and university partners that included the National Park Service, Montana State Parks and the Colorado Mesa University.
“Putting together a larger narrative about the great Sioux wars is amazing,” said John Seebach, an assistant professor of archaeology at CMU who was taking part in the survey. “Because it wasn’t just one skirmish, it was a long-term program by the U.S. Army.”
CMU student Tobias Peltier said it was his first time visiting a prairie area like Rosebud Creek, and despite the cold wind and a rain delay on Tuesday, he was “having a blast” on Wednesday climbing up and down the grassy hills and draws in search of battlefield artifacts.
“It’s fun having Dr. Scott here, because he literally wrote the book about this,” Peltier said.
Scott, who studied the Little Bighorn Battlefield for the National Park Service and has written several books on battlefield archaeology, was the first to use metal detectors in 1984 to investigate Custer’s Last Stand.
He has also examined artifacts from earlier surveys of the Rosebud Battlefield and identified two rifles, based on cartridge cases found, that were used at both the Rosebud and Little Bighorn by Indian combatants.
The science of battlefield archaeology has improved so much that scientists like Scott can now speculate on how far and from what angle a bullet was fired. With knowledge like that overlaid on a map of the battlefield, scientists get a more complete picture of who was firing from where and how the battle progressed.
The Rosebud Battlefield was witness to a different type of fight in August 2013 when lightning started a fire that was stopped at 20 acres before blowing up overnight and consuming about 150 acres. To stem the spread of the fire, a bulldozer was used to plow a fire line into the dirt along one hillside.
“There were Cat lines through a battlefield site, which wasn’t good,” said Sara Scott, Heritage Resources Program manager for Montana State Parks. “The following year they went through and rehabbed it, and now it looks pretty good.”
Before the dozer line was revegetated, Jim Bosse, a state parks volunteer, surveyed the overturned dirt for artifacts. He collected about 20 bullets and cartridge cases from the era of the battle.
“It was amazing,” Bosse said. “History comes to life right before your eyes.”
As Sara Scott noted, it’s illegal for the public to collect artifacts at the site. But that hasn’t stopped some folks, and prior to the historical surveys the landowner who eventually donated the site to the state picked up many artifacts, as well.
Artifact collection by the public was probably one reason the group was finding so little in two days of sweeping across the burn area with an array of squeaking and squawking metal detectors that sounded like angry or confused robots. All of the folks seemed a little frustrated.
“I’d like to see a little more return,” said Seebach, the Colorado Mesa University professor. “I think what’s happening here is we’re seeing the effects of relic collection.
“We should be finding far more bullets than we actually are,” he added. “It seems to have been hit pretty hard. But it could also be that we’re missing the right area, I don’t think so, but it’s confusing.”
Doug Scott was puzzled, too.
“We do know much of the heavier fighting was farther north,” he said.
The lack of artifacts farther south may mean that as the Army tried to gain the high ground and rebuff the surprise Indian attack, they may have moved through what is now the fire scar without shooting very often.
“We always say that negative evidence is not always bad,” Scott said.
A lack of bullets and casings adds to the larger picture of the historic battle between Brigadier Gen. George Crook’s more than 970 cavalry and infantry soldiers and Chief Crazy Horse’s estimated 1,200 warriors. But it’s much more exciting for the volunteers, and even the professionals, to unearth evidence of the battle that will mark 139 years on June 17.
Just then, a shout came from uphill: “Dr. Scott, we found a shell!