Battlefield Archaeologist Sheds New Light on Custer’s Last Stand

Speaker separates fact from fiction during address at The College of Wooster

March 21, 2012 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Historical accounts of George Custer’s legendary last stand at Little Big Horn in June of 1876 may have contained as much fiction as fact, but famed battlefield archaeologist Douglas Scott, author of Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of Little Bighorn, is helping to set the record straight.

Scott, who spoke at The College of Wooster earlier this month, discussed the process of recreating the battle using some of the most advanced equipment and techniques to sort out what really happened on that fateful day when more than 200 combatants lost their lives.

“There have been many conflicting stories (about the battle) over the years,” said Scott. “Much of the physical evidence was not utilized.”

The catalyst for Scott’s research was a careless smoker whose discarded cigarette ignited a brush fire in 1983 and cleared the ground where the battle took place a century earlier.

“Our job was to survey the area,” said Scott. “”Battlefields require a new method of study and different applications of traditional archaeological methods.”

Scott and his research team walked the field with metal detectors, and mapped each object with an electronic distance meter. What they found was a treasure trove of artifacts — arrowheads, musket balls, belt buckles, sheet armor, and even the remnants of a human finger with a wedding ring still attached. They also unearthed thousands of bullets and casings and 47 different types of firearms, which indicated that the Indians were heavily armed, but the most significant finds were the forensic items, which helped them to build a battlefield profile.

Among the conclusions were the average age (22) and ancestry of the soldiers (approximately 50 percent American born, with others coming from Germany and Ireland). The group also estimated that Custer and his troops were outnumbered 9-2, and that the Indians used the topography to gain a strategic advantage in the battle. One of the more interesting findings was that the head wounds suffered by Custer’s soldiers were likely not self-inflicted as some accounts have suggested. “There was no physical evidence of mass suicide,” said Scott.

Ultimately, Scott hopes these types of efforts will provide a more accurate representation of what happens in military conflict. “This gives us another way to learn the truth about the past,” he said.