Archeology in the Ash Hollow Locality

By Rob Bozell, (former) Nebraska State Archeologist


Ash Hollow State Historical Park is not only one of the most picturesque of Nebraska’s public parks but it and surrounding areas are home to a diverse and important set of archeological resources spanning at least ten thousand years. The Ash Hollow ‘locality’ contains the full spectrum of examples of the North Platte valley’s exciting and important archeological record that help to interpret human adaptation in this rugged yet visually stunning landscape. The archeology of the region is discussed in a recent NET video about Nebraska’s State Historical Parks (Adventures in History: Discovering Nebraska’s State Historical Parks | Nebraska Public Media ).



Ash Hollow PD

Ash Hollow Cave area and the North Platte River valley.



Paleoindian Bison Hunting

Several sites dating to the Paleoindian period have been the focus of excavations near Ash Hollow (Hill et al. 2005, 2011; Myers et al. 1981).  These are some of the oldest sites in Nebraska and date to about ten thousand years ago. Nomadic hunters camped and butchered bison and processed hides at these sites. High-utility carcass portions were carried from nearby kill sites and then butchered including fracturing of the bone for marrow extraction. Numerous stone butchering tools and spearpoints were discovered. Natural springs are near these sites which were attractive to both animals and humans.

 

Butchering Marks

Stone knife butchering marks on ancient bison bone.

 

Spear Points

Ten-thousand-year-old spearpoints from a bison butchering site.



Butte Top Habitations

A unique feature of the North Platte valley landscape are flat-topped rocky buttes sculpted by millennia of wind and water erosion (Forbis 1985; LaBelle and Scoggin 2016). These buttes offer commanding game-watching views of the valley and also potentially served as defensive positions during periods of conflict. Evidence of Indigenous occupation of these buttes extends back at least six thousand years ago. Excavations at butte top camps produce large amounts of animal bones, charred vegetal foods, stone tools, broken ceramic pots, fireplaces, and even small cistern-like features cut or eroded into the rock — a convenient method of catching rainwater.



Ash Hollow Stratigraphy

Interior of Ash Hollow Cave showing ancient fireplaces (white and dark basin-shaped features) spanning two thousand years.



Ash Hollow Cave

One of the most important Indigenous archeological sites on the High Plains is Ash Hollow Cave (Champe 1946). This prominent rockshelter (not a true cave) was excavated by History Nebraska in 1939 and is in the state park. The shelter contains the stratified layers of multiple camps dating from over two thousand years ago to the four hundred years ago. The later occupations were by ancestors of the Pawnee and Apache. The investigation in part laid the groundwork for establishing the sequence of pre-Euroamerican contact Indigenous groups living in western Nebraska.  A building was constructed over the excavations when the park was developed and visitors can walk down into the shelter and see many of the recovered artifacts. 



Barn Butte Notes

Original 1939 fieldnote drawing from a butte top excavation depicting Indigenous roasting pit.



Emigrant Trails, Graves, and Trading Posts

From an archeological perspective, understanding mid-nineteenth century American westward expansion is captured through the study of wagon trails and related graves, stage stations and posts. Ash Hollow possesses important and remarkably well-preserved remnants of this period of the historic American West. Deep wagon trail ruts are visible throughout the park including the spectacular Windlass Hill. This hill features major ruts descending a steep grade into the North Platte valley from an upland segment of the trail. A little-known trading post along the trail has been explored through archeological excavation providing a glimpse into life along the arduous journey westward. Several graves are known along this segment of the trails including Rachel Pattison who died of cholera in her late teens in 1849.



Ruts

Oregon Trail wagon ruts.




 

References Cited

Champe, John L.

1946    Ash Hollow Cave: A Study of Stratigraphic Sequence in the Central Great Plains. University of Nebraska Studies, New Series 1. Lincoln.


Forbis, Richard G.

1985    The McKean Complex as Seen from Signal Butte. In, McKean/Middle Plains Archaic: Current Research, edited by Marcel Kornfeld and Lawrence C. Todd, pp 21-29. Occasional Papers on Wyoming Archeology 4. Office of the Wyoming State Archeologist, Laramie.


Hill, Mathew G., David W. May, and David J. Rapson

2005    Late Paleoindian (Allen/Frederick Complex) Subsistence Activities at the Clary Ranch Site, Ash Hollow, Garden County, Nebraska. Plains Anthropologist 50:249-263.


Hill, Mathew G., and David J. Rapson, Thomas J. Loebel, and David W. May

2011    Site Structure and Activity Organization at a Late Paleoindian Base Camp in Western Nebraska. American Antiquity 76(4):752-772.


LaBelle, Jason M. and William E. Scoggin

2016    “Chili” Scoggin and the Early Exploration of the Barn Butte Site (25GD1), Western Nebraska. Central Plains Archaeology 15:89-108.


Myers, Thomas P., R. George Corner, and Lloyd G. Tanner

1981    Preliminary Report on the 1979 Excavations at the Clary Ranch Site. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences IX:1-7.

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

State Song Sing-Along

State Song Sing-Along

Robert Ball Anderson’s journey “from slavery to affluence”

Robert Ball Anderson’s journey “from slavery to affluence”

Marker Monday: The Savidge Brothers, Aviation Pioneers

Marker Monday: The Savidge Brothers, Aviation Pioneers

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.