The Obsidian Cliff Plateau Prehistoric Lithic Source, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

By Cannon, Kenneth P. | Plains Anthropologist, August 1998 | Go to article overview

The Obsidian Cliff Plateau Prehistoric Lithic Source, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming


Cannon, Kenneth P., Plains Anthropologist


The Obsidian Cliff Plateau Prehistoric Lithic Source, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. By LESLIE B. DAVIS, STEPHEN A. AABERG, and JAMES G. SCHMITT. Selections from the Division of Cultural Resources, Rocky Mountain Region, National Park Service No. 6. Denver, CO. 1995. xii + 164 pp., photographs, figures, tables, appendices. No price given (paper).

Obsidian Cliff is arguably one of North America's most spectacular archaeological sites, steeped deeply in myth and scientific inquiry spanning the period from the earliest Euroamerican ventures into the interior West up to modem times. Obsidian Cliff also had the dubious honor of being perhaps the most "studied" lithic source in the country that was never systematically surveyedthat is, until 1988, when Leslie Davis of Montana State University's (MSU) Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman was contracted by the National Park Service to document Obsidian Cliff in support of its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. The 1988 Wolf Lake Fire engulfed the area, almost completely burning off the dense ground cover and doghair lodgepole pine that previously obscured the archaeological deposits and features. While fieldwork was postponed for a year, the fire increased visibility substantially. In 1989 field survey of Obsidian Cliff began under Davis's direction Stephen Aaberg served as field director.

Davis authored three of the five chapters, with Aaberg describing field methodology and results. James Schmitt discusses the geology and petrology. (Ann Johnson is listed on the cover as a co-author, but this is a typographical error; Johnson initiated and ably facilitated the project as the National Park Service coordinator. A correct list of the authors is presented on the inside cover and title page.)

The first chapter, "Obsidian Cliff Plateau Research Domains and Current Status," provides a historic overview. Bureau of Ethnology archaeologist William Henry Holmes was the first to publish a description of Obsidian Cliff. Holmes's 1879 report is reproduced in its entirety. Other early descriptions were provided by Pheteus Norris, Yellowstone National Park's first superintendent. A humerous account retold by Hiram Chittenden relates how the mountain man Jim Bridger repeatedly shot at, but failed to kill, an elk shot near Obsidian Cliff. According to the legend, Bridger was actually firing at an elk hundreds of yards away that had been "telescoped" by the "mountain of perfectly transparent glass" (p. 4). Davis also provides a history of intellectual speculation on the significance of this obsidian source and its role in trade networks, a brief discussion of the region's cultural chronology and settlementsubsistence systems, and some musings on the role of obsidian in the larger procurement system Unfortunately, Davis does not present a formal model of obsidian procurement within the hunter-gatherer system. Impacts (e.g., road construction) to the integrity of Obsidian Cliff are also discussed. Two early photos by F. Jay Haines (1884) are reproduced in this chapter and attest the changes in toe slope of the escarpment over the past century. A geologic map of Yellowstone National Park and vicinity is presented; however, no legend is provided.

Chapter 2, by MSU geologist James G. Schmitt, considers the geology and petrology of Obsidian Cliff within the context of the geology of the Yellowstone Plateau. This chapter begins with a lengthy quotation from Joseph P. Iddings of the U.S. Geological Survey-the first geologist to extensively study Yellowstone National Park. Obsidian Cliff represents the remnant of one of four post-caldera rhyolitic flows defined as the Roaring Mountain Member of the Plateau Rhyolite. Postcaldera flows are described as those which occurred outside of and postdating the collapse of the Yellowstone Caldera. Schmitt places this event at 600 ka, but more recent K/Ar dating pushes this event further back in time to about 650 ka.

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