Craig Lee spends his summers hunting for treasure in the Rocky Mountains and occasionally he strikes gold.
But it’s not literally gold that the University of Colorado adjunct instructor and his research team are finding tucked away in ice patches along the Rockies. It’s centuries-old artifacts that have been frozen in time and are beginning to make their way to the surface as global warming dissolves their icy tombs.
Pieces of animal remains and Native American baskets and clothing are among the typical discoveries brought back from one of Lee’s treks.
But his most significant find so far has been a wooden stick. That’s a 10,000-year-old birch sapling to be exact.
After three years of verification and research, Lee and his team are releasing information about the arrow-like weapon they discovered near Yellowstone National Park in 2007.
“We haven’t been able to disclose the discovery until now due to restrictions from science journals and the lengthy process of actually verifying our find,” Lee said.
The weapon — called an atlatl dart — is rare because of its impeccable condition and age, Lee said.
“To my knowledge it is the oldest, whole weapon of its kind discovered in this region,” he said.
The curved, branch-like weapon contains a sharp, hard point that is thrust into an animal, much like a dart, and contains personal markings near the tip, likely indicating ownership among hunters.
“It’s like using different colored arrows to hunt with your buddies,” Lee said. “We think it was their way of proving who made the kill or had the best shot.”
Lee’s team recently received a National Park Service grant of $651,000 to continue their field searches for ancient artifacts in the Rocky Mountains.
The grant will fund approximately three years of Lee’s research, which pinpoints ice patches that are likely to hold ancient Native American artifacts.
“We study the sophisticated techniques of the Native Americans to decide which spots are optimal for finding artifacts,” Lee said.
Lee cooperates with many national parks, including Rocky Mountain, Glacier and Yellowstone to find optimal search sites. Lee will be training Rocky Mountain National Park rangers how to search for and properly excavate artifacts, park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said in an e-mail.
As ice fields melt, they reveal artifacts that are “both cultural, like arrow shafts, and natural, like tree stumps,” Patterson wrote. “The value to the park lies in understanding past cultures and climates from these artifacts.”
As global warming continues to melt century-old ice in the Rockies, ancient artifacts are more easily visible to archeological searches, Lee said.
“The circumstances have to be just right for a successful search,” Lee said. “Typically, spring snow storms and cool summers cause less melting and make it harder for us to make finds. Melting is the key for us when we go out on a search.”
And as melting is becoming more common in Rocky Mountain National Park and across the world, the trend of archeological ice digs are expected to increase in popularity in the future.
“(Lee’s research) emphasizes that climate change is causing landscape level changes, including the melting of ice fields that have been in place for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” Patterson wrote.
But Lee’s success and global warming seem to go hand in hand when it comes to finding buried treasure.
After a few years of searching for artifacts in Alaska, Lee moved his research to the Rockies in 2006 and has yet to return empty-handed.
“So far we’ve been successful during every search,” Lee said. “I think that really shows the effects that global warming is having on our environment. It’s visible to us and the artifacts are the proof.”