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Stone Circles I: A PIT Volunteer’s Viewpoint

Thunder Basin National Grasslands, Wyoming, 1998
by Tom Cree, PIT Volunteer

Thunder Basin National Grassland is appropriately named. In the summer of 1998, I was treated to the most awesome thunderstorm display of my life. And the archaeology was great, too.

The PIT project team included Ian Ritchie, FS archaeologist; Deanna Wood, FS; Alberta “Boots” Wodek, from Illinois; Bob Baggett, from Kentucky; and myself, from Colorado. While the group was small, we worked hard and accomplished a lot.

First, Ian took us to three “special” stone rings. Boy, was he right! These rings were located on a bluff with visibility for miles, including Inyan Kara Mountain, a Native American religious site, 25 miles in the distance. The stone rings were composed of a band of carefully placed stones, much more numerous than in the surrounding area. Inside the rings, more stones had been placed, again more numerous than in the surrounding area but not as numerous as in the “band.” The stones appeared to be spaced evenly (not randomly). These stone rings could not have been used for an ordinary tipi setup—the stones were too small and the number (hundreds) made it obvious that a religious or vision-quest site was at our feet.

Our main objective was a ridge closer to the FS bunkhouse. A few stone rings had been identified in the past and the team was charged with performing a thorough, detailed survey. We did just that, finding over 120 stone rings of the habitation style. Deanna was especially good at finding artifacts—she found numerous stone tools and flakes (more than half of what the team found). We measured each stone ring’s primary axis and mapped the location of the rings along the ridge. I had complained to Ian about how the “meadow muffins” left by grazing cattle could look, initially, like stones in a ring. I joked about how the cows get their heads together in a circle and “deliberately” make a fake stone ring. When we weren’t looking, Ian took some of these fake “stones” and created a ring, then flagged it. We had a good laugh about that.

On Wednesday night, we had a little rain and a small thunderstorm. The weather forecast predicted a much more serious storm for Thursday night, and it was correct. After completing our work on Thursday, we drove back to the bunkhouse. We stood on the bunkhouse porch and watched little tornadoes form at the base of the clouds. This was the “rope phase” of tornado formation—very preliminary and usually does not result in a tornado that reaches the ground. Picture a small rope held between your fingers and twirled. It spins and then bends all around. Thunder Basin gets a lot of lightning and thunder but not many tornadoes. Fine with me.

When it got dark, the thunderstorm got serious about its job. I was in my van (the brown shoebox) where I slept. The storm came over the hills to the northwest of us, and the lightning show was incredible. I have heard people say, “The lightning was so bright and continuous that I could read a book.” I had never seen such a storm, and disbelieved them. Now, I believe.

I took a 24-exposure roll of film of the storm by placing the camera up to the window and clicking the shutter. If you have tried to photograph lightning, you know how difficult it is to get a picture of a bolt. I got lightning in every frame. Fifteen of the frames contained cloud-to-cloud lightning, and nine frames contained cloud-to-ground exposures. A couple of the flashes were so close and bright that they “fogged” the negative.

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