A historical archaeologist is using the Surfer software package to bring the physical and cultural details of a Montana ghost town back to life. Mapping the locations of 30,000 artifacts has revealed the previously unknown layout of the 19th century town and even provided unexpected insights into a community that appears well integrated for its time.
In its heyday of the late 1800s, Highland City was a thriving gold mining town located near Butte, Montana, with a permanent population of 2,000 residents. They lived in 300 wooden houses and frequented 10 saloons, a hardware store, blacksmith shop and other businesses. Remarkably, there are no surviving maps of the town, just three structures sitting in a large mountaintop valley protected by the U.S. Forest Service.
“There’s really not anything that showed what the city looked like,” said Dr. Megan Rhodes Victor. “It’s astounding a place so large was lost to history.”
Victor was working on her PhD in Anthropology at William & Mary in Virginia when she decided to unravel the story of Highland City.
“How these miners went about their daily lives, negotiated their positions, established leadership, and spent their money can often be determined by figuring out how the town was structured,” said Victor.
Over three summers as part of the U.S. Forest Service Passport in Time Project (PiT), Victor and teams of students and volunteers dug 300 test pits, about 16 inches deep, on a grid where she suspected the town existed based on the positions of the three surviving buildings. Artifacts such as pieces of nails, wine bottles, jars, and horseshoes found in each hole were carefully documented. Data specifying the type and location of each object was later entered into Surfer to generate distribution maps and predictive models.