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The Archaeology of Battlefields October 11, 2005

A pioneer in the field discusses a new way to investigate warfare.


Since 1983, Douglas Scott has worked at the Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park System, helping protect and study archaeological resources in the Midwest, Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains. He is best known for his investigations of historic battlefields such as Pea Ridge National Military Park (1862), Wilson's Creek National Battlefield (1861), and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (1876). He has co-authored several books about these projects including They Died With Custer: Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1998) and Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of Little Bighorn (2000). His most recent one is Finding Sand Creek: History, Archaeology, and the 1864 Massacre Site (2004) and tells of the search for the location of a peaceful Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho camp that was overrun by more than 700 U.S. volunteer troops commanded by Colonel John M. Chivington. Scott, who in 2002 received the Department of Interior's Distinguished Service Award for his contributions to battlefield archaeology, recently spoke with ARCHAEOLOGY's Mark Rose.

How did you end up becoming focused on battlefield archaeology?
I have had a long and abiding interest in military history. From an archaeological and anthropological perspective my interest focused on studying the U.S. frontier army and how it adapted, in a social and material culture sense, to being placed in remote areas for the furtherance of U.S. government policy. A natural outgrowth of that interest was how the army and their protagonists, the American Indian, chose to fight or coexist. The catalyst for my focusing on battlefield archaeological studies was a range fire at Little Bighorn Battlefield, a situation that allowed us to form a multidisciplinary team and attack (excuse the pun) the site using a variety of new field and analytical methods. Since 1984, I have been fortunate to work on more than 30 different battlefields ranging in date from fifteenth through the twentieth centuries.

What is the aim of battlefield archaeology? Is it more than just a specialized set of skills and strategies?
Like any archaeological study of the past there are multiple goals in studying battlefields. One is the iconographic or site focused research. Most battlefield work has one of its goals the finding of patterns of battle-related artifacts that are amenable to analysis with the outcome of understanding the details of that battle with greater precision. I find that documentary records and oral traditions of the past are usually accurate but not necessarily precise. Archaeological work recovers, records, and interprets an independent data set that can be used to compare, corroborate, or test the documentary and traditional testimonial views of a past event. In several cases of our work on American Indian war sites, we found the Indian testimony to be much more accurate in telling the battle story than the army accounts. At the same time, the details that can be teased out of the artifact analysis regarding individual behavior on the battlefield add a level of precision to site specific interpretations that is difficult to find in the written sources. This can be especially valuable for use in public interpretation as it can help bring the story to life for a visitor.
   Beyond the value of site specific interpretation of a battle the field of battlefield archaeology is capable of seeking answers to larger questions--patterns of combat, if you will, over time and space. These patterns aid us in understanding how combatants use terrain, develop tactics, extend command and control, as well as the negative side of battle, the loss of command and control, identifying tactical disintegration that may result in defeat, appreciating the effect of the fog of war, and in general help us achieve a broader appreciation of the anthropology of war.

Who came up with the idea of using volunteer teams with metal detectors to survey fields?
It's kind of a low-tech, low-cost remote sensing. Metal detectors are simply low-cost near-surface electrical conductivity meters. They are a geophysical method. When Richard Fox and I began planning the first Little Bighorn investigations we were well aware of work from the 1950s on that site and others where metal detectors were used to find battle artifacts. Those initial efforts had mixed results due to detector technology of that time. By the 1980s detectors were much more sophisticated and sensitive to buried metals, so it was a natural choice of equipment to use on a battle site where firearms predominated We also realized that we did not have the time or funding to conduct a traditional archaeological inventory and testing program, so using volunteer metal detectors seemed to be a reasonable alternative. As they say, the rest is history. Later I did a computer simulation on the Little Bighorn metal-detected artifact find locations by laying a shovel test array over the field, with 5 and 10 meter spacing, to see how many of the 5,000 artifacts we would have found using traditional shovel testing methods--the results were truly surprising, with fewer than 10 falling in any of 50 cm shovel test locales. These findings have been borne out over and over again on other battlefield work throughout this country and in Europe. I, by no means, advocate replacing traditional archaeological investigations with metal detecting, rather I espouse adding the detector and a knowledgeable operator to the archaeologist's toolkit.

Many archaeologists have thought of metal-detectorists as beyond the pale, but you work with them on a regular basis. Do archaeologists lose through not maintaining ties to that community? How do you make certain your volunteers are among the good guys and the types who are occasionally prosecuted for looting Civil War battlefields and the like?
Archaeologists have used volunteers or avocational archaeologists for decades. I see little difference in using a knowledgeable detector operator as a volunteer and using an avocational archaeologist on a project. There are bad eggs, looters, and relic collectors, in every area, but careful vetting of volunteers will usually root out the person who may use a volunteer opportunity to their own ends. Like any good employer I check people's references. I equate metal detector operators to people who own and operate more sophisticate geophysical equipment--do you use them because they have the equipment or do you bring them into a project because they have a good reputation and track record of accomplishments? It is not hard to find good people to work with, and there is a two-way street here. Detectorists are often leery of working with archaeologists as we are seen as know-it-alls and elitists. By working with metal detector hobbyists we are actively breaking down those stereotypes, much as we do in working with other avocational archaeologists.

Archaeological investigations of historical events often have an impact on the present. For example, locating the site of the Sand Creek Massacre (1864) was critical to establishing a National Historic Site there in 2000. Do you think the general public is aware of this immediacy of archaeology and the past?
I do not believe the public is as aware of the value of archaeology as it could be. On the one hand archaeology is very popular with the public, although most of it still seems to be perceived as finding things rather than studying the past through material culture. Archaeology magazine, among others, as well as television and news media help to dispel some of the myth of archaeology and archaeologists, but we all need to do more to impress the public with the value of archaeological information, such as how archaeological investigations have collected and analyzed much new information that aids in our understanding of past climate change.

You've been involved in several studies that have resulted in revisions of accepted history. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876) we have a new appreciation of the weapons and tactics employed by the Cheyenne and Lakota against Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. At Hembrillo (1880), we now understand that the Buffalo Soldiers of the Ninth Cavalry held their own against a determined and skillfully led Apache force. Do these cases make you wonder how much of our history is wrong?
The historical record is a truly astounding data set, but it is just one data set that should be used in studying the past. Oral tradition or historical documents are impressions of those who set them down. While they may be more or less accurate, I will reiterate that the archaeological record is often more precise about past events in space and time, as well as an independent line of evidence that can be compared and contrasted with the other lines of evidence to achieve a fuller picture and understanding of the past.

You've worked with the PAST Foundation, a nonprofit organization that teaches educators and the public about archaeology. How do you and PAST accomplish this?
I have been privileged to serve on the PAST (Partnering Archaeology Science and Technology) Foundation board, since its founding, as well as work with Annalies Corbin, PAST's executive director. I believe most archaeologists have experienced the wonderment that children have with the past, and archeology is exciting to them. PAST uses that interest to stimulate kids to see how scientific methods, theory, and disciplines are critical to solving mysteries of the past. It is literally a science based curriculum that uses archeology to send the message that learning about science and scientific methods can be fun and exciting.

Is your expertise on firearms identification ever called on in modern-day cases? Such as?
My work at the Little Bighorn Battlefield spurred me to learn a new skill that built upon my interests in the history of firearms technology. The Nebraska State Patrol firearm examiners taught me how to do forensic firearm examination, such as matching class and individual characteristics on cartridge cases to determine the gun type and whether cartridge cases were fired in the same gun or not. That skill opened an unexpected avenue of involvement for me in the forensic archaeology field. Since 1993, I have participated in forensic investigations for both medical-legal and humanitarian purposes in quite a few modern post-conflict situations around the globe.

I read that you want battlefields to "speak for themselves," as lines of evidence independent of other sources. With that in mind, have the techniques of battlefield archaeology been used in forensic settings, such as investigations of conflicts in countries such as Rwanda, Sudan, and so forth, where official records and statements by participants may be less than objective?
The power of the method and theory of archaeology should never be underestimated in the role it can play in the recovery of physical evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, although the ideas do not translate freely from one field to the other without a full understanding of what forensic work is all about. Today many forensic investigators routinely use archaeologists as part of the investigation team, and those archaeologists bring a set of methods and theory to forensic work that allows for more complete documentation of the context and recovery of evidence associated with some of the most heinous crimes of the modern era. I am proud to have had a small part to play in that work, but much more needs to be done. Thanks to the advocacy of people like Clyde Snow, Melissa Connor, and Richard Gould, I am sure archaeologists will continue to develop the skills necessary to work effectively in the forensic field.
   Archaeologists, trained in forensic methods, are active today in many places around the world. It is only occasionally that forensic investigators can bring a perpetrator to the bar of justice. It is a far more common result that forensic scientists working on crimes against humanity are recording for posterity the tragic event. Often that is enough, to record the evidence of horrific crimes so that history cannot be rewritten without ignoring the physical evidence, and it is something we have to accept that just bringing the evidence to the court of public opinion is as far as we can go at times.

Few archaeologists have spent as much time as you have investigating the warfare. Do you think your archaeological colleagues sometimes downplay or ignore evidence of conflict in their explanations of the past?
Twenty years ago I would have said most archaeologists were downplaying the possibility that conflict evidence was present in sites. Today that has truly changed and many colleagues around the world are working to find physical evidence of warfare and conflict. I believe one of the areas where the value of historical archaeology relative to prehistoric studies in not fully utilized or appreciated is in conflict archaeology studies. The physical evidence that historic battlefield archaeologists have collected as well as some of the methods used to find battle sites are not being applied by prehistorians interested in identifying early conflicts. While the methods we often use cannot be transferred directly to prehistoric sites, our theoretical concepts along with modified methodology could provide a fertile testing ground as models on prehistoric conflict sites, in my opinion.

What are some of the projects you are currently working on? Are any completely unrelated to battlefields, such as the excavation of a prehistoric village site once inhabited by vegetarian pacificists?
As a career public servant working for the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, I have rarely had the luxury of focusing solely on battlefield work. I, like all public archaeologists, have to wear many hats. In the last year, I have assisted parks in the Midwest Region on compliance issues, aided in site looting investigations, conducted site assessments at Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota, assisted Pecos National Park in New Mexico with a study of Glorieta Battlefield, conducted mitigation excavations at Fort Larned National Historic Site in Kansas, assisted on a park-wide inventory project at Sitka National Park in Alaska, and reviewed many management plans and documents. As they say, it's all in a day's work.

Has your work given you insights about human behavior, the larger picture, that is, not just what happened at a particular place and time?
Archaeology is predicated on the principle that human behavior leaves behind physical evidence that is patterned, recoverable, and interpretable. While warfare and conflict seem like they are chaotic affairs, they are behaviors that leave behind patterned evidence. We archaeologists need to be clever enough to apply the right methods backed by good theoretical constructs that will allow us to collect that evidence so we can better understand conflicts of the past. Working in the area of historic conflicts and modern conflicts demonstrates to me that we have a long history of violent human behavior. We can and should study the physical evidence of our past conflicts to better understand the evolution of war and conflict. Today we are only on the threshold of developing a true understanding of the anthropology of war. We have some good theoretical models to work with now, and we have the technology to recover physical evidence of conflict, it is only a matter of colleagues working towards gaining a greater understanding of our conflicted past.

Finding Sand Creek Douglas Scott's latest book, co-authored with Jerome Greene, is Finding Sand Creek: History, Archaeology, and the 1864 Massacre Site.

For more on Sand Creek see our news item and feature on the massacre .

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America