Leaving No Stone Unturned: An Interview with Yellowstone’s Ice Patch Archaeologist

Craig M. Lee, from the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), is a renowned researcher in the field of glacier archaeology. Recently, Lee and his team from INSTAAR created a video on ice patch archaeology in the Greater Yellowstone region. The video introduces Lee’s glacier archaeological findings and work in the region since 2005 as he has sought to reveal Native American cultures with impending climate change.

“We really want the people of Montana to know that there is a very deep heritage to their state,” Lee says passionately in the video before the camera pans across a beautiful landscape of ice patches. “High in the alpine, above the modern treeline, ice patches – frozen for millenia – are melting,” he adds.

Lee has experience working in federal, state and municipal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He has also directed field projects in Alaska, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming, publishing his research in several major journals, including Antiquity, American Antiquity, Arctic, and The Holocene.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Lee explains more about his work at INSTAAR and his recent video.

GlacierHub: Please give a brief introduction of yourself and your academic interest.

Craig M. Lee: I’m an anthropologist and archaeologist interested in the human use of alpine environments. Beginning in 2000, through impetus of doctors E. James Dixon of the University of New Mexico (formerly of INSTAAR) and William F. Manley (INSTAAR), I was introduced to the then nascent field of “ice patch archaeology” through several years of formative and amazing fieldwork with members of the Ahtna Tribe in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in the Interior of Alaska. The field has grown in geographic range and complexity, and we now recognize it to be global in nature (And yet all of Asia remains terra incognita). Researchers in Europe frequently refer to the field as “glacial archaeology,” in part because of archaeological finds in glaciated passes.

Lee out in the field at Yellowstone National Park
Lee out in the field at Yellowstone National Park (Source: Craig M. Lee).

GH: What drove you to create the video?

CML: The field is a tiny silver-lining to climate change in that the host of paleobiological material and archaeological material being exposed by melting ice patches is providing an unprecedented window into the past. Archaeological resources emerging from retreating ice patches can capture public interest and integrate education about archaeology and Native American cultures with ancient and modern climate change. The United States Forest Service, a consistent, primary partner in the research for more than a decade recognized it was important to share the results of the project with a broad public audience and helped fund the video. The target audience includes all of the citizens of Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Area (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming), but it will resonate with people living elsewhere in the Rocky Mountains and other areas with alpine snow and ice in North America and around the world.

GH: After watching the video, what is the main takeaway message you would like the audience to get?

CML: Ice patches and the alpine have been central elements of the socio-cultural landscape of the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA)–and of many mountainous areas— since time immemorial. The places, now construed as wilderness— ostensibly devoid of Man— were a “peopled-landscape” and contain clear evidence of sustained human interaction and involvement year-over-year, century-over-century, and millennia-over-millennia. It is patently wrong to think of these places as “intact” ecosystems without humans as an apex participant.

Ice Patches in the Greater Yellowstone Region
Ice Patches in the Greater Yellowstone Region with Lee and his team (Source: Craig M. Lee).

GH: Any other information you would like to share with our readers?

CML: In the conterminous United States alone, archaeological material exposed by melting snow and ice has been identified from the Sierra Nevada of California to Olympic National Park in Washington, and from the Colorado Front Range to the Greater Yellowstone. We have no cogent way to respond outside of the sheer force of will brought to bear by a few incredibly hard-working scientists in staff positions in our federal agencies, for example, forest and park ecologists and archaeologists. The ice patch record is finite, and the overt decisions we make to engage (or not) with this opportunity to “know” the past affects all future generations. To quote friend and colleague Francis Auld (Kootenai), “The protection of these resources is essential for sustaining the living cultures.”

GH: The video has received high reception from residents of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem/Greater Yellowstone Area (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming) thus far. If you are living in the Rocky Mountains or other areas with alpine snow and ice in North America and around the world, or are simply intrigued by the work of glacier archaeologists, this video is highly relevant and recommended.