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A little-known archeological site of potential importance could get protection

Red ochre was used to make some of the world's earliest paints. A mine was recently discovered in eastern Wyoming.
Google Cultural Institute
Red ochre was used to make some of the world's earliest paints. A mine was recently discovered in eastern Wyoming.

Wyoming legislators may soon protect a little-known archeological site in eastern Wyoming. The state doesn’t know a lot about it yet, but officials say it’s worthwhile to preserve now for future study. Wyoming Public Radio’s Will Walkey spoke with the Cowboy State Daily’s Renée Jean, who reported on the site.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Will Walkey: Could you start by introducing the Sutton archaeological site? What is it? Why is it important?

Renée Jean: The Sutton archaeology site is adjacent to the Powars II red ochre mine, which has kind of become instantly famous. It's one of the world's oldest such mines. It's probably the oldest on the North American continent that's sort of north of the mines in Mexico. And maybe it's one of only five such mines in the Americas.

[At the Sutton site], there are these huge, extraordinarily large ceremonial circles. They're much bigger than your typical teepee rings. Teepee rings are these – they take these boulders and make a circle. And they would use that to hold the teepee down. The state archaeologist Spencer Pelton told me he doesn't think that those larger circles were meant to hold something down. They were probably dancing circles. And they were probably part of some sort of a ritual structure. And in fact, one of the circles has been entirely painted red with red ochre from the nearby mine. That is just pretty unique. He [Pelton] doesn't know of another site like that in North America.

WW: So lawmakers are proposing a bill to protect this site. Why? What is their goal and what's wrong with the current situation such that this Sutton site needs to be protected?

RJ: So I don't know that there's necessarily anything quote, ‘wrong.’ But given the specialness of the site, you know, based on further study, it could be worthy of becoming a World Heritage Site someday. They may want to do a more full blown tourist type attraction there…kind of an interpretive site.

But if they don't protect it – right now in Wyoming, if it's private property, it's legal to take artifacts from private property as long as you have the owner's permission. So, is that really appropriate for a site like this that might one day be a World Heritage Site? And it's difficult for archaeologists to study something when, you know, the site's been disturbed and things have been taken. So I don't know that it's necessarily, “wrong,” so much is just trying to preserve what's there for future study.

WW: Can you talk a little bit about the senate file itself? What would the bill actually do?

RJ : Okay, so the bill is pretty simple, I think. It installs a fence – provides funding to install a fence. Remote monitoring to keep people out of it. All that funding would amount to about $200,000 and is already within budget.

WW: What's the status of the bill? Does it seem like it's going to pass?

RJ: The bill has passed the senate. I think it was 26 to five. So now it goes to the house to be considered. As far as its chances, I think that's always dangerous. I don't have a crystal ball. But so far, I haven't heard any strong opposition. But you never know.

WW: Kind of stepping back and looking at this site, and then the site of the red ochre mine together, can you just talk a little bit more about the significance of the red ochre mine? It was recently discovered, and what makes that so special?

RJ : Well, I think one thing that's probably important to make clear here is that the ceremonial site is probably not connected to the adjacent site. The ceremonial site is considerably younger. Its age can be measured in hundreds of years, whereas the red ochre mine is measured in thousands of years. So they're really disparate in time.

So the red ochre mine, it's pretty interesting I think. Ochre is probably the world's earliest paint. Those primitive images that we see on cave walls, for example, a lot of them have been painted with various colors of ochre. Ochre is not always red. It can be other colors depending on the oxidation state of the minerals. It's also pretty simple to take red ochre and make a paint out of it. You just grind it up [and] make a fine powder. You can mix it with fat. You could mix it with water, you could mix that around and use it. And so the colors remain vibrant because they're derived from the mineral itself. So they don't decay.

So all these early society cultures – whatever you want to call them – I hesitate to call them primitive because I think that we're looking at things that we don't understand, right? Missionaries long ago saw these, ‘primitive’ people with their skin painted red, and they made all kinds of assumptions about that. But ochre has a property that allows it to protect you from the sun. So it was actually pretty smart for these cultures to adopt. And they used it as a sunblock. They used it to make jewelry. It's found in burial sites. It was used to tan hides. There's evidence that they even knew how to change the color. That they understood if they use fire, that they could change one color to another.

The other thing I think is, because they recognize the value of this, it brought people to a single location. So you know, it was a nexus for trade, for exchange of ideas, [and] for exchange of culture.

WW: So you cover business and tourism for the Cowboy State Daily. We are smack in the middle of the legislative session in Cheyenne. Always an exciting time. Can you just talk a little bit about some of the other bills that you're following right now?

RJ: Oh, yeah, there's a lot of bills. So anything business or tourism I'm probably looking at, if not writing about.

Today, I sat in on a discussion of a blockchain bill that creates a process to try and register Wyoming digital assets. I also wrote recently [about] a trust fund to provide money for the office of outdoor education, both for its operation and for grants. You know, outdoor tourism has become a multi-million dollar industry in Wyoming already. It's just the tip of the iceberg as far as potential.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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