Scouting a hilltop in time

The two hunters rode bareback, guiding their ponies with little more than subtle pressure from knees and heels. Whooping and barking, they waved blankets in the air to keep their prey moving.

A buffalo herd had wandered into the area. Rather than send their women and packhorses out onto the prairie to butcher and retrieve one of the huge beasts, they did the sensible thing -- cut a young cow out of the herd, and drove her all the way back to their hilltop camp.

Upon reaching the outskirts of the village, one of the men urged his pony right up to the buffalo's side. He leaned out until his arrowhead was nearly touching her heaving flank. Made of shiny new trade metal, the long, narrow, triangular point flashed in the sunlight as it left his bow. It flashed again when it shot out the other side.

"A white man couldn't even draw one of those bows," said Great-Grandpa, "much less string one."

Great-Grandpa homesteaded along the Red Willow Creek in Nebraska Territory. Eventually, they built a frame house on the step-off below the crest of a moderate slope; from there he could see the village that overlooked the valley from a hilltop.

He witnessed the hunters' success that day.

A half-century later, my father grew up there. A wide front porch attracted sheets of box elder bugs in late summer. Twice a day, Grandma hiked down the slope leading to the chicken coop to gather eggs. Twice daily, Grandpa trudged up the slope in his battered hat and bib overalls, a bucket of fresh milk dangling from each hand.

My young cousins and I enjoyed a special treat when we were finally allowed to hike to the site of the Indian village by ourselves.

We're not sure which tribe lived there. Judging from Aunt Mary's written account of their hairstyle and hygiene, they might have been Pawnee.

The village sat on the top of the highest hill in the vicinity. It afforded a panoramic view in all directions, a good precaution against enemy incursions. The Willow ran clear sweet water, and rich soil permitted some small-scale agriculture. It's natural such a site would be occupied for extended periods.

For decades, the site of the old village had been used to grow farm crops. The best time to search it was after a rain, or after a recent tillage. Bits of stone, shell, bone and pottery lay scattered over the surface. Some of these were discards or residues from stone-knapping -- flakes and chunks of flint. Flint scraper blades were fairly common; these had been bound to a handle and used to remove fat, meat and hair from animal hides.

Lots of pottery -- chunks of an unglazed black crockery, sometimes with small patterns incised. Where water run-off had created small channels and gullies at the edge of the field, small pottery sherds were visible, imbedded in the dirt below the surface, or deposited along the bottom of the course.

The most treasured finds were arrowheads, though the occasional pipe bowl or shaft polisher was valued, too. Several styles of points showed up. We knew nothing about identifying the cultures by their artifacts, but it seems likely the different styles implied a series of occupants over a sustained period, different tribes and maybe different cultures.

On one expedition, Dad and I found a badger hole in the field. The excavated dirt formed an apron in front of the entrance, peppered with artifacts.

When we returned the next day, we brought a spade and started to dig. There were lots of artifacts, but almost none were intact. A fragment of skull -- the calvarium, or crown -- led us to wonder if this had been a grave, though we weren't sure the bone was human.

As we continued to dig, though, it became obvious this was a "midden" -- a garbage pit. Here we found large pottery sherds, one with chunks of colored material still adhering to the inside. It looked like red ochre paint, an Indian favorite. There were broken pipe bowls, many kinds of bone, flint flakes and defective points, some which appeared to have fractured just as the knapper was almost finished.

Eventually, we reached layers with no artifacts, decided we'd exhausted our discovery, and filled the hole back in.

Today I regard our activities with mingled nostalgia and dismay.

We meant no disrespect to those long-vanished peoples. We surely felt a certain reverence for the site, a sense that there, the thinnest of veils separates now from then, and past lifetimes become imminent.

But in our pot-hunting zeal and ignorance, we destroyed a unique record. In so doing, we destroyed a bit of our species' common history.

This site could've helped trace the movements of various tribes or cultures through the area over many years. We ruined it.

Today, it's hard to find anything there, not even flint fragments. It's been picked over for decades. The value to science and history has vanished like those hilltop hunters.

* * *

After one excursion, we happy few, we band of cousins, returned to the homestead and checked in with the adults.

"We were up to the Indian torritary!" my cousin Ruthie enthused breathlessly, to the great amusement of our elders. As good a term as any for that eternal camp, and the lingering reverberations of spirit drums.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family

physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net