The Major East Idaho Archaeological Site You Didn’t Know About

The major East Idaho archaeological site you didn’t know about

Maybe you knew about it. We shouldn’t assume. But for how significant the Wasden site might be, it’s surprising how little attention it gets.

In the desert west of Idaho Falls, between the city and the INL site, is a plot of land formerly owned by brothers-in-law named Leonard Wasden and Ken Huskinson. On it are three collapsed lava tubes, known as Dry Cat Cave, Coyote Cave, and Owl Cave. The first two have not been significantly excavated, but based on what archaeologists have found in Owl Cave,

Wasden grandson Stephen Harris and archaeologists Sue Miller and Suzann Henrikson stand at the mouth of Owl Cave.

they might want to get on it. “When I was a student at ISU, the Wasden site was always talked about in hushed tones,” said archaeologist and Idaho Falls native Dr. Suzann Henrikson. “It was considered Idaho’s oldest and foremost archaeological site – the one that would put us on the map,”

Archaeologists from the Upper Snake River Prehistoric Society and ISU excavated Owl Cave off and on between 1965 and 1977. They found remains from bison, dire wolf, camel (!), and Columbian mammoth at different layers. The deepest and oldest layer – where the mammoth was – dates back about 14,000 years. They also found human objects such as a doll’s head and Folsom points – sharp arrows that a hunter could throw or attach to a spear). The artifacts demonstrate that Native Americans, including some of the first humans ever to live in what is now Eastern Idaho, used the cave for millennia.

A two-foot-long mammoth molar from the Wasden Collection.

The kicker for archaeologists, though, is that some of the Folsom points found in the cave contained protein traces from elephant (or mammoth) blood. But according to accepted dates, mammoths went extinct before Folsom points showed up. There are possible explanations, such as Folsom-era people finding mammoth bones and using them to help fashion their points. But it may be that we have something entirely new here. Either way, more research at the Wasden site – and on the artifacts already removed – could produce some significant results.

Wall art from Owl Cave (click to enlarge)

Meanwhile, we’re extremely excited by another recent development. For decades, every artifact that has or will come out of the caves has remained the property of Wasden’s and Huskinson’s descendants. That is, until just last month, when the family generously donated the entire collection of 80,000+ artifacts to the Museum of Idaho. Now, portions of the collection will be on public display as part of our new Way Out West permanent exhibit, coming in 2020 when our expansion and renovation project is complete. The collection will also be accessible to researchers.

Randy Harris, Wasden’s grandson, said “I am thrilled along with the rest of my family to play a part in bringing this nationally recognized collection back home to Idaho Falls.” According to Dr. Henrikson, “this site’s potential to tell the story of Idaho’s first people hasn’t even been scratched. That’s why I’m incredibly excited about MOI’s plans for the collection.”

MOI Curator Carrie Anderson Athay working to catalog artifacts from the Wasden Collection.

9 thoughts on “The Major East Idaho Archaeological Site You Didn’t Know About

    1. Yes, this site is on fenced-off private land owned by an archaeological conservancy. Unfortunately, that was not always the case in past years. Notice also that we didn’t say exactly where it is…

    2. I am sorry to hear that these sites are not “protected and available” for the education of the public who are paying for their upkeep. There is something greedy and snobbish about not sharing knowledge and information to the public who cherish the history of ancient ancestors and this beautiful place in which we live.

      1. Hi Kathleen. The sites are not available to the public right now simply because they are not properly protected. This is something the museum is working to change right now, but it’s a long process and there are many factors and players involved. You’ll be pleased to know that the public is not paying for anything, though. It is all private land.

  1. I would be happy to supply the recording of rock art I did at both Owl and Coyote cave. Sue Miller was my contact for this and should have the information. We needed a ladder for the high stuff that was at the original ground level. I have extensive photos of the pictographs including enhancements!

  2. It may not be the same everywhere but just yesterday I was out in the birch creek area and came across multiple overhang/caves that had clearly been excavated. But it sickened me how dirty things were left. Uncountable pieces of thick plastic sheeting, rebar, nails, bailing twine, drinking bottles etc.. and to top it all off what upset me the most was the fact that when they were done excavating they pushed all the excess dirt and buried the whole site extensively making it impossible for us to be able to even see what it could have been. And likewise in another area where there was some cave painting there was a section of painting that had been covered up by the re-burying of the cave. I don’t understand why after a site is worked over that there isn’t more care taken to At least make it look the way it did prior to the work. Also! Is there a website somewhere that the general public can have access to see what was found on particular sites? That’s also something that bothers me is that you guys get to experience the finding and the history of it but it doesn’t seem to get documented. If there is a site that has photos and other info I’d love to know what that is.

    1. It’s terrible to hear about sites not being cared for properly. Regarding documentation, that’s precisely why the collection from the Wasden Caves was given to the Museum of Idaho — because we plan to document it properly and make the collection accessible not only to researchers, but to the public. You will learn much about the caves and the findings therefrom when we open our new semi-permanent Idaho exhibit, “The Way Out West,” in mid-2020. There’s a lot to document and straighten out with the collection between now and then.

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