Sen. Affie Ellis Brings Dirt From Sutton Archaeological Site To Wyoming Capitol

House lawmakers continued to advance a bill that would fence a special archaeological site in Wyoming adjacent to the Powers II red ochre mine. The site has large ceremonial circles that could prove significant in understanding the states earliest inhabitants.

RJ
Renée Jean

February 17, 20237 min read

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Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, has had a mysterious jar of dirt sitting on her desk on the Senate floor throughout the 67th session of the Wyoming Legislature.

The jar disappeared on Valentine’s Day, then reappeared in the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee.

Ellis brought it with her as part of her testimony on Senate File 58, a bill that proposes fencing in and protecting the Sutton archaeological site adjacent to Wyoming’s red ochre mine, the Powars II site.

The latter has become a little famous in archaeological circles because it’s the oldest red ochre mine in the northern part of North America.

Drone footage of several Sutton stone circles. Note the old mine-era road on the edge of one of the stone circles. Many circles were destroyed by early mining activity. (Photo Courtesy Sunrise Historic And Prehistoric Preservation Society)

‘Not Human Remains’

The jar is “not human remains,” Ellis assured the committee, shaking the jar a little as she spoke. “And I had permission from the state archaeologist to put this in a bag, so I did not loot, technically.”

The dirt, Ellis said as she opened the jar and rubbed a little of it on the back of her hand, is highly mineralized because of its proximity to the red ochre mine. 

“It looks a little bit like mineral makeup when you put it on your skin,” she said. “And so, when I toured this with my kids, there were a group of archaeologists in this giant hole and they were covered in this dirt. They literally looked like bronze statues working.”

Fossils, arrowheads and other “cool” things that are all covered in the dirt — which has a rich and pearlescent quality — have all been found at the Powers II site, Ellis said.

“So I’ll leave this with you,” she said. “I know. You’re not allowed to use props on the floor. I invited all of my Senate colleagues to open the jar, rub it on their skin if they like, so I’d offer that to you as just a really unique, special place in Wyoming.”

The Powars II site — and by extension the adjacent Sutton site — are special and deserve the state’s attention, Ellis said.

“These are traditional home grounds to a lot of tribes,” she added. “It’s near the Fort Laramie site, which was occupied by, you know, 14-plus maybe different tribes. So I think there’s a lot to learn.”

What Makes Sutton Site Interesting

The Sutton site has extraordinarily large ceremonial circles — much larger than the typical teepee rings that have been found in Wyoming.

While the use of the circles is not yet known for certain — it will take study to determine that — a group that has done some study of the site believes they are likely connected to the adjacent Powars II mining site. 

A previous dig there, done with landowner permission, found signs that the circles were part of processing red ocher from the adjacent mine, archaeologist George Zeimans told Cowboy State Daily. 

State Archaeologist Spencer Pelton, meanwhile, told Cowboy State Daily he had been informed by tribal interests that use of the circles was ceremonial and likely included dancing.

The Sutton site was itself donated to Wyoming by its owner, John P. Sutton, after his death. He wanted to see the circles preserved and studied. 

During testimony on SF 58 in the Senate Travel Committee this week, state officials said Sutton was concerned about potential looting at the site.

The site went through an extensive evaluation process before being accepted by Wyoming. While the potential value of the site is yet to be determined, it seems significant and protecting it ensures that can be determined. If it proves significant enough, the site can be further developed as appropriate.

Test excavation of one of the Sutton stone circles conducted by Sunrise Powers II co-principle investigators George Frison and George Zeimens. (Photo Courtesy Sunrise Historic And Prehistoric Preservation Society)

Controversies Resolved

The Sunrise Historic and Prehistoric Preservation Society, a nonprofit group, has been protecting and preserving the adjacent Powars II site, which is all on private property owned by John Voight, who operates a mine in the region.

Voight, who now supports SF 58, told Cowboy State Daily at the time the Sutton site is nearly encircled by his property and that he put up a gate to prevent public traffic into and out of the area. He was concerned granting the state public access to the property, which he felt might not mix well with the mining traffic essential to his business.

SHAPPS member Zeimans, meanwhile, had worried that a fence might bisect some of the ceremonial circles. That wouldn’t make much sense, he said, and might be damaging to the site’s preservation. 

State officials, during their most recent testimony on the bill, told lawmakers they have had conversations with both the SHAPPS group and with Voight to resolve their concerns with the bill.

Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, also testified that he had talked with Voight about the site, which is in his district.

“We had a great conversation with him,” he said. “He’s very much on board. He believes that this is the best way moving forward. He’s wiling to work with Parks, wants to work with Parks.”

Haroldson said he will be involved going forward, if the bill moves out of committee and makes it to the governor’s desk, to ensure that the transition is “seamless.”

“I just really can’t say enough about how the parks have worked to make sure that the adjacent landowners, their rights, are preserved,” he said. 

Voight confirmed that agreements have been reached regarding the site, alleviating his prior concerns.

“I think we have a shared vision, and we both want the place preserved,” Voight told Cowboy State Daily. “We worked out as best we could our issues with access, all the issues that we have trouble with and I was pleased with the commitments. Now all we have to do is formalize that.”

Exciting Partnerships

Deputy Director of State Parks Nick Neylon testified that he has spoken with local groups in the area, and that new partnerships are being forged.

“In particular, with the group that’s working at the town of Sunrise, we think we could create some excellent partnerships and help preserve that really special area together,” he said.

Ellis, meanwhile, said the state Historic Preservation Office and Tribal Historic Preservation officers are aware of the Sutton site bill and will be kept in the loop on the project as new things are discovered.

Where The Bill Stands

Senate File 58 to protect the Sutton archaeological site passed the Senate Travel Committee with four “yea” votes and cleared the Senate floor 26-5. It passed the House Travel Committee 9-0 vote on Valentine’s Day, sending it to the House floor. The bill has passed its second reading, teeing it up for a third and final vote. The only amendment, from the Senate, was to make the act effective immediately rather than waiting until July 1.

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RJ

Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter