New exhibit explores lithic sources of Native American stone artifacts

Nathan Oster

Just in time for Native American Heritage Month, a new exhibit at the Greybull Museum examines the connection between early Native American stone artifacts from the eastern Big Horn Basin and their geologic lithic sources.
The “Early Native Americans: Wyoming’s First Geologists” exhibit was developed by Dan Close, a rock enthusiast who taught school in Greybull for 25 years and spent another 18 years as a geologist for M-I SWACO, a local bentonite company.
“The Native Americans were incredible geologists — they knew where to go, in some cases, within a certain geologic rock formation to find the right kind of stuff,” said Close. “They would pass that information via word of mouth. It was a major expedition of theirs annually to procure those lithics.
“This was a big professional enterprise by the Native Americans. It wasn’t just rocks. It wasn’t just artifacts.  There is a lot of study, knowledge and expertise behind what they did and where they got it.”
Close spent about fourth months putting the exhibit together. He was driven by a desire to give back to the community and the museum, which has experienced a rebirth of sorts in 2023 after it emerged from a months-long closure due to water damage.
“What started this whole thing was when I walked in during the open house,” Close explained. “Prior to that, I’d avoided it. No fault of anyone’s, but it was a trap, just full of stuff.  So when I looked around at the open house, and recognized all the hundreds of hours that volunteers put into cleaning it up, organizing and labeling, I started feeling a little sheepish.  With my background, I should have been involved. I said, I’m going to help.”
Close said he’s excited about the exhibit and urges the community to visit the museum and check it out.
“Large museums tend to not display stone artifacts for public viewing, and smaller museums too often display what I’d call ‘shoebox’ artifact collections,” said Close. “These types of collections seldom provide any cultural or physical context, and thus they have little archaeological or scientific value.”
For Close, this project was the culmination of many years of observations in the Big Horn Basin, from the eyes of both a career geologist and educator. “What a rewarding exercise this was for me to field-truth the geology, collect the raw lithics, and then cross-reference the lithics to many of the artifacts housed at the Greybull Museum.
“The project findings support that our area’s early Native Americans relied heavily on locally-sourced lithics in addition to materials traded or procured from other regions.”
The exhibit not only ties the geology to the lithic sources, but it also offers a tutorial on stone tool types and function. “Anybody who has an interest in rocks, geology and cultural history should find this display quite interesting,” he said.
Eddie Johnson, who serves on the museum’s board of directors, credited Close not only for the new exhibit, but also for the guidance he’s provided to board members, employees and volunteers. The goal is to develop a “professional-level museum” in Greybull.
Cheryl Hunt, who also serves on the board, said the next phase of improvement will target the storage room. It’ll involve removing everything in it, putting down new tile and then documenting and organizing all of the items.
“A lot of the documentation back there can’t go in a storage unit,” said Johnson. “If people wanted to look up a business from, say, the 1920s, we probably have a ledger that was donated to the historical society.”
Added Hunt, “We’d like to put together an archive, sorting through all the ledgers, journals and newspapers, so that it can be used for research.”
In addition, the board has crafted vision and mission statements and is working on policies for accepting exhibits and how to catalog them.   The renovations are already paying off, as an estimated 600 to 700 people visited the museum last summer, according to Shaylah Spragg, who works at the museum.