- Uncovering History: Archaeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn by Douglas D. Scott
There are few places on the Great Plains that focus the public’s imagination on history and archaeology more than the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The National Monument remains an iconic symbol of the American western expansion into the Great Plains and the resulting conflicts between the United States and Native peoples. This is true for the victors’ American Indian descendants as well as the general American public. Reconstructions of the battle using artifactual materials and soldiers’ remains began within days of the battle—by relief forces, later visitors, and site stewards. Douglas Scott documents those earliest souvenir and trophy collections as well as the US Army’s attempts to understand the defeat. Scott provides Great Plains environmental context, prehistory, and a historical overview of the 1876 campaign and battle. The heart of the work is documenting the accumulation of archaeological and forensic information from Day One and a Half through 2011. It is a synthesis of almost thirty years’ work and nearly thirty reports. While marshaling the chronology and the changing research questions, techniques, goals, and findings, Scott also highlights developments in the discipline of archaeology.
Uncovering History began in 2010, Scott tells us, as Park Service Technical Report #124 with the same primary title. The technical report was organized for management purposes but its reception spotlighted public interest. With the addition of information from three more recent studies, the book provides a fascinatingly detailed history of the application of the archaeological, historical, and forensic sciences at the National Monument. Bray and Richard Fox used metal detectors in 1958, but Scott and Ricky combined metal detecting, a sampling methodology, and limited controlled test excavations at a number of burial markers in 1984 for the first systematic and multidimensional investigation. Fox later published Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle (1993) as a thesis revision.
Their collaborative work established the productivity and usefulness of systematic metal detection survey, and later, the use of other remote sensing techniques combined with controlled testing. Oral histories were combined with forensic techniques in the study of recovered associated human remains and efforts to make individual identifications. Forensic firearms techniques allow tracking the movement of individual firearms and the patterning of army and Indian munitions across the battlefield.
Both the Fox (1993) and Scott (2010) documents make good use of visual patterning of point-plotted artifacts in the presentation and analysis of artifacts and human remains across the battle landscape. Unfortunately, in our review copy the images reproduced from the technical report, originally keyed in color, are reproduced in black and white, rendering it difficult to see the distribution patterns in several figures. An outstanding reference section is provided. Ongoing interest and current associated research is documented therein by reference of related works such as Shannon Vihlene’s ma thesis, Custer’s Last Drag (2008). Scott’s thirty-year effort will continue to be instrumental in current Great Plains battlefield archaeology.