Spanish Diggings: Stone Age Industry in Wyoming

Last updated: April 6, 2020

The Lusk Herald
January 3, 1957

By Mae Urbanek

The following article is reprinted from the October edition of ANNALS OF WYOMING, official publication of the Wyoming State Historical Society and published biannually by the Wyoming State Archives and Historical Department. Both Mr. and Mrs. Urbanek have made numerous trips to the Spanish Diggings area, and together have done much excellent research concerning them.

While expeditions of scientists search the frozen wastes of north Canada and Antarctica for clues to the life and habits of the earliest Stone Age man on the North American continent, vast ancient stone quarries of a prehistoric race lie peaceful and undisturbed in eastern Wyoming. Here the earliest evidence of specialization, mass production, and assembly line techniques. The thousands of tipi rings, the trainloads of scattered rejects, and the hundreds of silent empty pits on the hill tops mutely tell of great activity here over five thousand years ago. Cattle now graze over the roadless expanse and only an occasional jeep invades the prairie solitude enjoyed by jackrabbits, antelopes, and deer.

A pioneer rancher, A.A. Spaugh of Manville, is credited with having discovered the quarries on 1879. The following summer when two cowboys, J.L. Stein and William Lauk, viewed the open pit mines, they thought them the work of Spanish Conquistadores, prospecting for gold. These cowboys called the area “Mexican Mines” or “Spanish Diggings”. But Coronado, the noted Spanish explorer of the fifteenth century, had not traveled this far north, nor would he have wasted his time digging in the quartzite veins where there was no sign of gold. Plains Indians have no theories or traditions concerning the diggings, and admit their ancestors would never have labored so hard. Scientists agree that the quarries were dug by stone age men struggling to secure material from which they could fashion the first crude axes, hoes, and spears to aid them in their battle for survival. These stone tools alone are left to tell the unwritten history of aboriginal man.

In his “History of Wyoming”, I. S. Bartlett states the prehistoric remains in New Mexico and Arizona cannot compare in size, impressiveness, weirdness, and mystery to these remains in Wyoming. The so-called Spanish Diggings may well contain the buried records of the primitive beginnings of mankind, and are one of the richest archaeological fields on the North American continent.

Prehistoric quarries are scattered over an area of approximately four hundred square miles, lying in parts of Niobrara, Goshen, and Platte counties. The area, about ten miles wide and forty miles long, is roughly bounded by Highway 20 on the north: Highway 85 on the east: Highway 26 on the south: and Highway 87 on the west. Although a large sign describing the Spanish Diggings is located on Highway 20, three miles west of Keeline, no road over which modern cars can travel leads to the main diggings from this direction. The main quarries are approximately sixteen miles south of the sign. Owners and lessees of the land surrounding the quarries do not encourage tourist travel. In the past they had had their water tanks plugged with bullets, their cattle get scared, their fences torn down, and their gates left open. It is very difficult for a stranger to find the pits and workshops of Spanish Diggings.

The easiest approach to them is from a graveled road which turns off from Highway 87 one mile north of Glendo, and runs east to Meadowdale, an inland store and postoffice. Five miles east of Glendo, or nine miles west of Meadowdale, the traveler should turn north through an auto gate or cattle guard where a sign lists the names of Roy McCormick, Douglas Lay, and Bill Ziska. An ungraded road leads north and east through fields and farm yards for six miles to where a din trail turns left to the top of a hill where there are three governmental geological stakes. The main quarries are about a mile east of these stakes.

The region is practically a wilderness, weird and picturesque. To the far west rises the imposing blue height of Laramie Peak. In all directions the land slopes away in a series of rounded hills, intersperses with irregular gullies and accented with grotesque rock formations. It is short grass county, supporting only a scant growth of sagebrush. From a usually dry creek rises a series of sandstone and quartzite cliffs. On the top of this high mesa are the quarries, pits, open cuts, and great rock dumps that tell of tremendous mining operations that probably lasted several centuries.

Eight or ten feet of worthless rock had to be removed, carried away and dumped down hillsides before quartzite which could be chipped into tools and weapons was uncovered. All work was done with stone wedges and hammers of granite which were probably brought here from the vicinity of Laramie Peak. There is no native granite in this area.

The mining was a slow, laborious process; requiring hundreds of workers to accomplish what one man with explosives, steel tools, and engines could do today. The pits were dug in series or rows and average twenty five to thirty feet in diameter. They probably were about thirty feet deep. James L. Stein in 1882 cleaned out one pit to a depth of twenty-two feet but never reached the bottom. When the vein of quartzite in one pit had been mined, the pit apparently was abandoned and used as a refuse dump for the next pit beside it, so that today the deepest pits are only ten to twelve feet deep, and contain great quantities of worked and discarded stone.

Many scientists visited the quarries in the thirty years following their discovery, and practically all artifacts of any value were removed for study and display in various institutions. The Holmes Quarried, named for W.H. Holmes of the Smithsonian Institute, are about a half mile north-east of the geological stakes previously mentioned. The Barbour Quarries are on another hill about a miles east of the stakes and are so called in honor of Dr. Edwin H. Barbour of the University of Nebraska. The Dorsey Quarries about a mile to the south -east of the Holmes Quarries were named for Dr. George A. Dorsey, curator of the Field Museum of Chicago. Other archaeologists who visited and wrote about the area were Dr. Harlem I. Smith of the Canadian Geological Survey, and C.H. Robinson from Illinois State Museum.

Hans Gautschi of Lusk acted as guide for C.H. Robinson when he explored not only the Spanish Diggings but the whole area of prehistoric activity which extends north to within six miles of Manville, and south of the Whalen and Saw Mill Canyons east of Sunrise. Mr. Gautschi has a large collection of artifacts from the Spanish diggings proper, which include only the main pits in the Spanish Hills and do not extend more than a mile or two in any direction from the geological stakes. He also has numerous artifacts gathered from the whole area explored by him and C.H. Robinson, as well as many polished stones. Part of these is in his home and part of them in the Lusk Museum which is located near the Standard Filling station the Mr. Gautschi operates in Lusk.

It is believed that the Holmes pits are older than the Barbour quarries where the rejected stone is still clean and free from lichens. In the Holmes pits the growth of lichens on the walls and worked rock give scientists a clue to the great age of the mines. In this vast arid country, it takes centuries for the first lichen to form on the disturbed rocks. After it has established itself, a second type of lichen can grow, profiting by the moisture accumulated by the first species. Again, growth is very, very slow but eventually the third variety, a leafy type of lichen, appears. Since all three kinds of lichen exist in the Holmes pits, E.B. Renaud of the University of Denver reasoned that the first pits were dug centuries ago in prehistoric time by stone age or Neanderthal men.
There is some additional evidence that helps to give substance to this theory according to J.R. Wilson of Glendo, a well-known artist and collector of fossils and artifacts. Mr. Wilson said that twenty-five years ago Harrison Peyton, a rancher, uncovered a fossilized human skull while digging an irrigation ditch. The skull was sent to the Colorado Museum of Natural History where it was studied by authorities who pronounced it of “Mongoloid-Negroid” type of a close approach to the Neanderthal type skulls found in Africa, Europe, and China. Crude stone implements comparable in type to those at Spanish Diggings were found in connection with the fossils of these stone age men.
Mr. Wilson says, “These men who worked the Spanish Diggings were a different race from the American Indians, and probably belonged to the race of old Neanderthal men who migrated across Europe and China, and then across the Bering Strait to become the original human settlers of America. Centuries later another and more advanced race of savages, maybe the ancestors of the American Indians, again crossed the Bering Strait and with their improved weapons and knowledge wiped out the original stone age man on this continent.”

The bones of the skull found neat Glendo were ticker than those of any existing race, the forehead low and retreating, the bony ridge above the eye sockets exceedingly prominent. From the crudely chipped artifacts found in the region, mostly scrapers, hoes, skinning knives, lance heads, and hammers, it is apparent that the people were a peaceful agricultural race not nearly as far advance intellectually or as warlike as the Plains Indians. The tools are large as if used by a powerful people.

From a biography of fossilized bones and rocks, the stone age man might be described as being built for existence on cold, barren tundras left by the last retreating glaciers. He was a shambling figure on slow, flat feet, with a thigh curved and a knee never quite straight.
He probably had a powerful chest and shoulders with huge hands and awkward thumbs. His jaw was large with a forward thrust; his nose prominent, and over his eyes the heavy ridges of his low skull met.

But he knew the use of fire, and had learned to clothe himself in animal skins. He prepared those skins with crude knives of stone, after he had killed their original owners with the rough hand-tossed spears or rocks, or by driving them over steep cliffs. Probably the bison was his chief source of food and clothing while he may have captured rats and rabbits in snares or killed them with rocks. Meat, the marrow from crushed bones, prairie mushrooms and turnips, and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus served as food. He had not discovered the wheel and had not domesticated animals with the possible exception of the half-wild wolf or coyote.

This stone age man had time few sentiments, and may not have had even bothered to bury his dead. No burial grounds have ever been found at or near the Spanish diggings. But apparently he had learned the value of cooperation with fellow men, and of better stone tools made possible by specialization. While one groups of men mined the rocks, another group processed them into tools and a third group spent their time hunting and trapping animals for food. Such extensive excavations into hills of solid rock would not have been possible if each man had taken time to hunt food for himself and family. This stone age man must have developed o property sense in the possession of stone tools secured with such labor and passed down from generation to generation.

On the hillside sloping away were thousands of villages, their sites now marked by the half-sunken circle of rocks which once rested on the edges of hide tents. The sizes of the villages vary, but about twenty tipi rings usually form a group. Then several rods of space intervene before another group of circling stones mark another village. In one secluded, sunny place in the valley, several tipi rings larger than the others are set off by themselves. Could the ruler or medicine man have lived here in solitude and primitive splendor?

The tipi rings are about eight to ten feet in diameter indicating smaller tents than those used by the Plains Indians, who had horses to help in transportation and so could afford more spacious living quarters. Heat chipped stones are usually outside of the rings indicating that this was only a summer workshop and that the laborers migrated to a warmer climate in winter. It is possible that many tribes inhabiting the great drainage bed of the Mississippi River came here on expeditions to secure the quartzite for making their tools.

A cache of quartzite implements that are exact duplication of those found in Spanish Diggings were first discovered by a man digging a ditch near Belleville, Illinois about 1867. At that time no stone of this kind had been found in America. These artifacts were so strange and unusual that they were sent to the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. Similar crude tools have been found in Ohio, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and other states. Since the only known source of that particular quartzite is in Wyoming, the findings of these widely scattered artifacts would indicate these stone age men either bartered their prized tools or came on their own mining expeditions.

This rare purplish, golden brown and grey quartzite is very hard and dense and chips with a conchoidal fracture that that allows the rocks to be easily worked into different shapes with sharp edges. It was formed by siliceous water seeping over sandstone. While five to ten feet of rock on top are too brittle to chip well, the lower stratas are more dense and tougher, thus making the tremendous extra work it took to dig them. At intervals nodes of jasper, chalcedony, and agatized quartz are found and these were excellent for finer chipping and smaller points. There are few signs of chipping at or near the quarries. Apparently once the good rock was mined, it was rough-blocked and carried away, sometimes as far as fifty miles to finishing shops located in pleasant valleys and near springs. Even here it many have been only roughly shaped into the primary leaf patterns which could have been transported hundreds of miles away before being finished into knives and scrapers. For the vast quantity of rock mined, the amount of chips and spalls are few at Spanish Diggings. The village sites are strewn with thousands of tons of rejects or partially shaped rocks which would not chip down to the necessary thinness. While there are imperfect and broken spear heads, knives, and scrapers in the area, about the only place it is now possible to find perfect specimens is in gullies and ravines where water is uncovering the artifacts that it and the wind buried centuries ago.

The artisans who did the chipping had their favorite work spots now marked by piles of tiny spalls and chips. Some seemed to prefer to work with the purple rock, while other specialized in the brown or grey. On one rock a smooth hollow was apparently worn by the worker’s feet, while he sat on another rock higher up and fashioned his tools. The view is magnificent from this place, the prairie broken by hills and shadows stretching away fifty miles to the south and east, with the outstanding form of Flattop peak dominating the scene. The rocks spaced further apart in the tipi rings show the doorways opened to the south and east. Often to one side of the doorway is a pile of chips.

Present day Indians claim that they do not know how to chip rocks into artifacts; that the skills have been lost. In the “Handbook of Aboriginal Antiquities” W.H. Holmes of the Smithsonian Institute, Bureau of American Ethnology discussed at length the art of rock fracture. He believes that after the quartzite, flint, and jasper was rough blocked into the approximate size of the desired weapon or tool, it was grasped firmly in the left hand, which was protected by a piece of tanned hide. The rock was then struck lightly, near the edge, with a downward blow by a hammer rock held in the right hand. The chip would break from the underside, its size being determined by the distance the hammer blow was from the edge.

The artisan turned the rock in his hand, spacing the blows, and so sharpening the desired tool. After one revolution of the rock, it would be reversed and chipped from the other side. If the center portion of the rock did not work down to the desired thinness, it was discarded. The finishing work was probably done with a bone splinter tooth, or sharpened end of a deer horn held in the right hand, and pressed firmly against the edge of the rock, thus breaking off a much smaller spall than could be done with a rock hammer stone. The hand acted as a cushion, so that the rock would not be broken by the hammer blows. Two artisans might work together, one holding the rock together, one holding the rock and a bone punch, and the other hitting the punch with a rock hammer.
Sometimes the worker might rest his artifact on another anvil rock, holding it there with his left h and, and hitting it with a rock hammer held in his right hand. Many of these hard hammer stones with abrasions showing they have been used in this way have been found in the area. The quartzite found at Spanish diggings works up readily by either method of chipping, and even an amateur can fashion a crude tool in a half hour.

Below the Barbour quarries on a hillside sloping to the northeast and toward the summer sunrise, is a strange mosaic figure formed by rocks that are now deeply sunken into the dry earth. The figure is outlined by two parallel rows of evenly spaced stones which are about five feet apart and extend for about a hundred feet down the hillside. Groups of rocks placed at right angles neat the top of the figure may represent either the outstretched arms of a man or a cross. Similar groupings of rocks at the base of the figure may form the legs of a man or the base of a cross. Many of the stones have been disturbed by visitors, and no one agrees as to what the strange figure may represent. Stone mounds run northeast from the figure into the valley for nearly a half mile. Excavations have disclosed no buried bones or tools.

The shop sites about twenty-five miles south of Spanish Diggings in Whalen and Saw Mill Canyons near the Platte River are especially extensive. Piles of chips and spalls mark many workshops in protected valleys. One artisan seems to have specialized in making hoes, another knives, or spears. In nearly all work sites a center block or stone anvil has been found, indicating that the workman resting the tools he was chipping on another rock.

Natural caves in Limestone cliff at the head of Whalen Canyon have preserved both animal and human bones, as well as charcoal from fires long dead. A few logs found here show the marks of the stone axe. Although these caves may have served as shelters for the earliest stone age men, both the bones and logs probably belonged to a more recent race.

Unless the visitor comes to the Spanish Diggings with an interest in the historic beginnings of the human race, and an imagination great enough to picture the barren hillsides swarming with hordes of skin-clad men and women lugging their burdens of stone and raw flesh, he will be disappointed. All he will see will be the disorganized piles and pits of rock; great gullies partially filled with discarded rocks and tipi rings. Nothing but silent rocks guarded by great bald eagles.

But if this visitor comes in an inquiring, imaginative mood, he will view a great amphitheater of early human drama with the mysterious blue background curtain of Laramie range hanging in the west. To him the broken rocks on the high mesa will speak in mute testimony of the struggles and ambitions and cooperation of a race that lived some fifty centuries ago. The chords of wind music sometimes weird, and sometimes strangely peaceful, he will be the only sounds in this vast, abandoned cathedral which once echoed with sharp blows of rock on rock and the shouts and cries of laboring stone age men.




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