One of the most ephemeral of archaeological artifacts, the tipi ring, or tent circle, is a rich source of data concerning domestic practices of the Plains Indians, including the Crow peoples, within the boundaries of what is now Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in southern Montana and northern Wyoming.
The tipi, made of animal hide draped over a cone-shaped group of long wooden poles tied at the top and splayed in a circle at the bottom, provided shelter in both summer and winter. The end of the hide that reached the ground would often be weighted down with stones to keep out the weather. When the nomads moved on, the stones would be left behind in the shape of rough circles, or rings, that are still recognizable today.
Photo at right, robust tipi rings containing many stones with signs of fire hearths within the circles suggested that a site might have been a winter encampment.
The location and arrangement of intact tipi rings provide clues to the socioeconomic organization of Plains Indian tribal groups and other anthropological mysteries.
After contact with European Americans, who introduced tools such as axes, the tipi dwellers began to use wooden pegs to keep their tipis anchored to the ground, thus the tipi rings provide evidence of a historical timeline roughly pinpointing the first interactions of the two cultures.
A 1983 study by Loendorf and Weston found as many as 1,795 stone tipi circles within the boundaries of the recreation area along with associated artifacts. As a follow up to this early research, in 2011 scientists Judson B. Finley, Laura L. Scheiber, and Kelly Branam used funds from a Western National Parks Association grant to “develop and implement a research design that efficiently and effectively collects data from stone circle sites.”
Using low-tech surface mapping, high-tech global positioning technology, and other techniques including ground-penetrating radar, the scientists mapped the locations of 20 tipi circles and nearby artifacts at three archaeological sites within the recreation area. Some excavation of artifacts near the tipi circles was also conducted.
The data were combined to create an integrated map of archaeological features and the geological matrix.
The results provided a fascinating glimpse into the life of the Plains Indian, including the seasonality of some encampments. For example, robust tipi rings (containing many stones) with signs of fire hearths within the circles suggested that a site might have been a winter encampment.
Based upon the scientists’ studies, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area developed a new trail with kiosks describing tipi rings and their significance, enhancing the experience of visitors to this culturally important site.
By Susan Swanberg, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona
Loendorf, L. and L. O. Weston, “An Examination of Tipi Rings in the Bighorn Canyon-Pryor Mountain Area,” The Plains Anthropologist, 28:146-155. Part 2: Memoir 19: From Microcosm to Macrocosm: Advances in Tipi Ring Investigation and Interpretation, Leslie B. Davis ed. (1983).