By: Randy Tucker
The glint of an unnatural blue tint caught my eye as I walked across the sagebrush. I’d just hiked up to the top of the only hill within three miles to look for antelope one afternoon in the Gas Hills, hoping to get a shot on a pronghorn buck with my Remington 788 .308.
That blue tint materialized into dozens of turquoise-colored beads strewn around the opening of a badger hole.
I’d found hundreds of .50 caliber machine gun casings on my hikes through the area, a tribute to its use as a gunner training area during World War II for B-17 and B-24 crews flying out of the Casper Army Air Force base.
One afternoon I picked up a true gem, a faded brass, rimfire shell casing. It was shorter than the .50 cal casings strewn across the desert, with a dent near the neck, but the base was smooth, with no primer. I’ve often wondered who fired it, what they fired at, how long ago the shot was taken, and what type of round it was. There were no markings on the casing.
Shell casings aside, these blue beads were a surprise.
The badger had excavated a grave, how ancient I couldn’t tell. I took a close look at the beads and discovered other beads much more translucent that looked like they’d come from a shell washed up on an ocean beach, or maybe from a freshwater clam.
What they were doing in the middle of hundreds of square miles of open prairie, a thousand miles from the ocean was a mystery.
I conducted a little research, not the modern type where you click on an icon, close an ad, and eventually carefully crafted information pops up, but the real thing: books, graphs, a couple of phone calls to experts. The type of research that is beyond the interest of most people in our modern, self-indulgent mindset. The type that can be fascinating.
I left most of the beads where I found them, taking only a couple of the translucent beads and four of the blue ones.
The blue beads were traded across the west in pre-European days between tribes. The others were a bit rarer; they’d been carried on foot. Horses didn’t arrive on the Great Plains until the late 1600s, from the Pacific Northwest or maybe the Mississippi.
Ancient trade routes between the indigenous people on the coasts, those living in the mountains, and the familiar tribes of the plains existed for millennia. Those translucent beads made their way to this forlorn spot of sagebrush, and the final resting place of someone long ago, probably in a parfleche on someone’s back. A parfleche is part briefcase, part Coleman cooler. It was a mainstay of migratory tribal life, and an item quickly taken up by early European trappers.
It’s easy in our modern view of the world, to think that we are the only ones who ever walked up a hill in the middle of nowhere, are the first ones to witness a storm rolling across the plains, or to spot an angry wild stallion approaching you after encroaching on his territory.
We most certainly are not the first.
My friend, Central Wyoming College anthropology professor Todd Guenther, and one of my own favorite college professors, Dr. George Gill, of the University of Wyoming, explore these types of mysteries, with more skill than my amateur sleuthing could produce.
Ancient America was full of established trade routes long before Columbus brought smallpox, measles, real estate surveys, and litigation to the indigenous people living here.
The same is true across the ocean on the European continent. Arabs, Chinese, Indians, Africans, and Southern Europeans explored the world around them while recording their exploits in the written word. Sometimes they were dry journals, at other times exciting sagas that stretched the limits of credibility.
One group that receives little publicity as an exploring people, but a lot of it as bloodthirsty, ravaging berserkers are the Norsemen, better known as Vikings.
If I asked you to describe a Viking, you’d probably have a mental image of a tall, muscle-bound barbarian, with long blond hair, a heavy beard, carrying a battle axe, broadsword, and riding an open dragon ship across the Atlantic. That description would be an accurate one for most Vikings. They did routinely cross the North Sea to pillage, and burn small English and French villages, but history forgets the part where these barbarians were soundly defeated, with the surviving raiders ritualistically tortured and their severed heads put on the top of pikes outside English and French cities as a deterrent to future raiders.
Much like the westerns that depict the townspeople as helpless victims when an outlaw gang rides into town, Hollywood got it wrong. Tough people were waiting when the Norsemen decided to have a little fun, just as outlaws didn’t last long when nearly every man in a western town was a Union or Confederate veteran.
The boats, weapons, lifestyles, and even the funeral rites of these people remain images in popular culture. Hitler dreamed of Norse mythological fantasies, and a lot of popcorn has been sold as moviegoers watch the latest Marvel adaptation of Thor, the God of Thunder from Norse Mythology battling villains. Long blond hair, muscles, and a war hammer were popular in the ninth century, and those attributes remain so today.
The Vikings were brutal raiders, but they were equally adept as traders. How else do you explain exquisite Chinese silk unearthed in Viking graves from 880 AD? How do you explain the existence of Byzantine coins in those same graves?
It’s a long way from Sweden to Turkey, but the Vikings were fairly regular visitors to Constantinople, they even tried to conquer it a couple of times, both unsuccessfully.
In flexible open boats from 40 to 80 feet long, with sideboards only four feet above the ocean waves these men and women challenged the best the Atlantic Ocean could throw at them.
The secret to a Norse longboat was its flexibility. Vikings never sawed wood, they worked it with axes, following the natural contour of branches and the main trunk.
This method prevented cracking along pressure points, a common problem in modern milled lumber. With keel, ribs, bow, and stern laid in place, they wove long tree roots between the boards, in effect weaving a boat. This process allowed the ship to twist and move with strong ocean currents.
The ocean currents weren’t the only strong thing on a longboat, they had sails, but many boats couldn’t handle the stress of wind, sail, and mast on the hull. Instead, these guys rowed everywhere, reaching speeds of 12 miles per hour while rhythmically rowing into battle.
They traded in bronze over 3,000 years ago with the Egyptians, sold furs, and fish to Alexander’s Greece for silver coins, and fought just about everyone in between.
They reached Baghdad, Iceland, Greenland, and the coast of Maine before they met their demise.
They may have even traded for those same blue or translucent beads I found that afternoon in the Gas Hills since beads from the Pacific have been discovered among relics of the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Huron people of New England.
Earlier this year anthropologists discovered beads made in Milan, Italy in the 1300s in an excavation in the tundra of Northern Alaska. That’s a long walk, over 10,000 miles for those tiny bits of Italian glass to travel.
The ancient world was a complex, fascinating place, far removed from our modern existence.
We now click a mouse, and if the product we buy on a whim doesn’t arrive within 48 hours, we are upset, and send nasty emails to the failed supplier.
The world is much more vast, complex, and worthy of our interest than idly sitting by while endlessly buying things we don’t need. As it’s been said, “It’s hard to keep quiet when you have nothing to say,” the same is true of modern commerce, “It’s hard not to buy when you don’t need anything.”
Hopefully, that grave in the middle of one of the most isolated areas of America remains undisturbed, aside from the work of that badger digging a den.
History surrounds us here in Fremont County, sometimes all it takes is looking down for a few seconds as you busily chase your tail in our modern, rat race of existence.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at email@example.com.