Paper given at the 2012 Montana Archaeological Conference, April 14, 2012
Paranormal beliefs are prevalent in today’s society, including the folklore of hauntings. Reports of anomalous experiences by archaeologists at archaeological sites are not uncommon, including phenomena associated with hauntings. Some of these experiences by archaeologists or at sites have been noted also here in Montana. Archaeologists generally do not like to discuss such experiences except in private due to ostracism or ridicule, and damage to one’s reputation. Yet experiences continue and can affect crew members and archaeological projects. Hauntings are a universal human experience, found in the folklore of every culture, whatever one prefers as an explanatory framework. Dismissing anomalies perceived as “hauntings” based upon an ideology of dogmatic materialism is as unscientific as uncritical belief. What are some of the approaches that might be taken, should anomalous experiences occur at a site or should a stakeholder assert there have been such experiences? The paper describes some experiences, and discusses different paradigms/worldviews .
Back in the 1990s, I used to work as a seasonal archaeologist for the Helena National Forest. Most of my work was of course for Section 106 compliance on forest projects like timber sales and mining. It was a job I enjoyed a lot: walking around up in the hills, recording the sites and features I’d find in the project area, and soaking in the beauty and peacefulness of working out in nature. I think a lot of folks who do CRM work feel the same way.
Most of the resources I’d come across on the Helena National Forest were associated with historic mining, from isolated cabins and prospect pits, to extensive mining operations with upwards of a dozen buildings or more. Memory is thick in some of these places. It is often moving to see the remains of what James Deetz called, “In Small Things Forgotten,” old boot soles, cans by a table from a meal eaten many decades ago, bottles out back where they were thrown after being emptied, rusted and hard-worn tools, even scraps of old magazines and catalogs. More than just cultural resources from a nameless past, these things often reveal something about the living breathing individuals who worked, sweated, bled, hoped and despaired at these places. And sometimes, there seems to be something more that has been left behind. Something less tangible, but embedded there like one of those rotting sill logs, and sometimes experienced under the right conditions, by at least some individuals.
I have had two such personal experiences at historic mining sites on the Helena National Forest.
The first one happened up on Ontario Creek on the other side of the Divide. I walked up through the Douglas fir and lodgepole pine along a jeep trail on a nice summer morning in June, 1990. The sun was bright and cheerful. I was going to record a mining cabin and associated features at a timber sale unit.
Although unused for many years, the cabin was still in pretty good shape even with the glass gone, and after photographing and measuring the exterior, I went inside. Whoever had built and lived in the cabin had put a lot of extra care into it, with homemade beds and a table from milled lumber and cabinets along the walls. Duff was scattered across the floor. It was too dim and small to take photos with the camera I had so I sketched a lot of the interior and wrote down some of the writing on the furniture, including “Jesus” and “Anderson.”
The air was very still, and wasps hovered in some of the shadowy corners. While sketching, I heard some boots come up the wooden steps at the door of the cabin. I looked around to see who was there. But there was nobody. I shrugged, figuring it was just my own steps that had added pressure that the wood had now released suddenly.
Then the bootsteps began moving around inside the room. Not just creaks. Distinct steps: heel, toe, heel, toe. They kind of circled around the edges of the room. A careful measured pacing began, as the invisible wearer circled around me. I did not feel any menace coming from the walker, just an irritation and concern and questioning, as one might have upon coming home and discovering a stranger in your cabin in the deep woods. I got a very odd feeling and my hair was standing up, but I also had a hard time believing what I was hearing. This couldn’t be happening. I must be tired or something. I began to write faster. It seemed appropriate to say something. “Uh, I’m just here doing my job, drawing your cabin. It’s really nice work. I’ll be leaving real soon, just as soon as I’m done.”
The bootsteps kept circling and got closer as they circled. “I didn’t mean to intrude. Just doing my job, you know how that is. I’ll be gone in a minute or two.” The wasps moved closer, and the steps slowed and grew more steady, the circle growing smaller and smaller, as the footsteps did not stop. The atmosphere grew heavier, the silence broken only by the humming of the insects. The wasps still hung there in the air, like words yet to be spoken. But I didn’t really want to stay and hear what might be said, with those steps carefully circling around and getting all the time closer.
Enough of this, I thought, I’m out of here.
Finally I scribbled the last couple of words, and swallowed as my mouth was real dry. Trying not to show my fear, I walked to the door and opened it, saying, “I am sorry to have bothered you, I am going now.”
I walked quickly up the road a distance, and turned and looked at the cabin, which seemed to be looking back. Whoever, or whatever, walked in that place, was very attached to it, and didn’t like unannounced guests. And then it was a matter of tamping down those chills and telling myself not to think too much about it, and getting on with the rest of the day. Do I believe in ghosts? Sometimes. Sometimes not. Whatever that was, it really happened, I know that much for sure.
I’ll tell you about my other experience on the Helena National Forest at the end of my talk, but for now I want to look at the whole idea of hauntings and ghosts and how they seem to pop up every once in a while in the world of archaeology.
Although I was raised here in Helena since I was a little kid in the 1960s, and graduated with my B.A. in Anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Montana in Missoula, after graduation my first work as a shovel bum commenced way out east, with my first big excavation as part of the crew working at the Addison Plantation (18PR175) dig for John Milner Associates at Oxon Hill, Maryland. This was a tidewater plantation that had been established in the late 1600s and which operated until the late 1800s. There was the Addison family cemetery, a large cellar where a cache of guns was found, and a cobblestone road we exposed that was in perfect shape. It was so long ago the oyster shells they used on the dripline under the mansion’s eaves were almost the size of dinner plates, long before the heavy pressure on shellfish began in the area. Within the first week, we also heard about something that happened a month or two before, right there at the dig. The story was told by Jeff S., who was one of the crew chiefs there.
“In January, in the early 1980s it was bitterly cold, and a contract archaeology crew was conducting winter excavations at the Addison Plantation Site [a.k.a. Oxon Hill Manor 18PR175] in Prince Georges County, Maryland. It was the site of a large plantation that had been owned by John Addison’s family and one other wealthy family from 1680 to 1895. Excavations were being conducted to gather all the data possible from the site prior to the construction of what was to be the site of Port America and is now the National Harbor instead. The archaeologists hired a security force to guard the site at night as it was located close to the town of Oxon Hill, Maryland, just across the Potomac River from Alexandria, Virginia, and uninvited guests were likely to hurt themselves in the dark as there were several deep excavation pits, including the manor house cellar and a well shaft. There was a work trailer with a small kerosene heater in it where tools were stored, site maps were kept, and the security team spent much of their nights when not on rounds. One morning when we arrived, no guard was on site. We quickly learned that two guards on two different shifts had quit abruptly. Each claimed on the form they left behind to have seen ghosts. The first guard claimed he smelled the scent of lilacs and saw a woman in old fashioned dress coming from the direction of the family cemetery located downhill from the front of the manor house itself. Determining this was a ghost, he quit and fled the site. The second guard claimed to have seen a man dressed in outdated military uniform and carrying a sword, also walking near the cemetery. This second guard promptly quit. Both noted the encounter before leaving and were never seen again.”
The more I talked to archaeologists, the more stories I’d hear about over the years. Although there is certainly a risk of ridicule or bumps in one’s career path for some in telling these stories, I was surprised at how many there were, including some from famous archaeologists . Stories of ghosts and hauntings, of nature spirits and places where indefinite forces were felt and odd things occurred at archaeological sites and involving archaeologists. I have heard dozens and dozens, perhaps a hundred or more. Some stories came from personal associates and friends. Some stories came from professional archaeologists here in Montana, such as the stories from places like Garnet, Ghost Cave, and the Little Bighorn. Back east, Ivor Noël Hume encountered spooky stuff at Williamsburg . Archaeologist John Sabol has even made his name as a “ghost excavator.” Sabol has written several books on his career on his work in the abandoned coal mining towns in Pennsylvania and at Gettysburg . Stories have been collected from locations around the world, from Egypt to Peru to England.
In 1924, R.C.C. Clay was conducting archaeological excavations at Bottlebrush Down, near Dorset, England. “… Clay was driving home just before twilight one evening. He had reached a spot where the modern road crosses one from the Roman period when he spotted, off to one side, a horseman riding hell for leather out of a pine thicket and across an adjacent field, as if to cross in front of him. Instead of crossing the road, though, the horseman turned his horse’s head and rode parallel to Clay, keeping pace with the vehicle at a distance of about forty yards.
Clay described the horseman: ‘I could see that he was no ordinary horseman, for he had bare legs, and wore a long loose cloak. His horse had a long mane and tail, but I could see neither bridle nor stirrup. His face was turned towards me, but I could not see his features. He seemed to be threatening me with some implement, which he waved in his right hand above his head.’ The horseman continued riding parallel to Clay for some three hundred feet. Clay was able to identify him, by his clothing and the weapon he brandished, as being from the late Bronze Age. He did not stop to investigate when the horseman vanished, as darkness was falling, but he returned the next day to the same place and found, at the point of disappearance, a low, round barrow, presumably a burial place for man and horse.
Clay was a bit of a skeptic, and he tried many times over the following months to ascertain if the horseman could have been a trick the fading light played on his tired eyes, but eventually gave this idea up when inquiries proved that he was not the only one to have seen the horseman. One old shepherd, when asked if he had seen any ghosts on the downs, replied, “Do you mean the man on the horse that comes out of the opening in the pinewood?” He, at least, had no doubt that he had seen the horseman, and more than once.
Clay was told, a couple of years after his experience, that a couple of girls biking from Sixpenny Handley to a dance at Cranborne had recently complained to the local police of a man on horseback who followed them for some distance over the downs, frightening them quite badly. The description they gave matched Clay’s observations of the Bronze Age horseman.” 
Another experience was at Skellig Michael, an island off the coast of Ireland. On a fine sunny day in June 1929, T.C. Lethbridge an archaeologist from Cambridge was examining the 1000 year old monastery on Skelling Michael, with its 6 beehive-shaped cells and ruined chapel. He began to scramble down a slope into an area where growth of vegetation looked as though it may have served as a dump. As he continued down, a vague unease grew stronger, until he had a strong feeling that something wanted to push him off a cliff. Unable to shake the increasing feeling he retreated back up the slope to gather his thoughts: “With no real solution in my head, I walked down the short distance to Christ’s Saddle, and stood looking out over the sea to the north-west. The grass was nibbled short by animals and the ground was nearly flat. Something made me think of turning round and I was about to do so, when without a sound and with no apparent feeling, I was suddenly flung flat on my face in the grass. There was no gust of wind, no person, no animal, nothing. I was not in the least hurt, but it was an unpleasant surprise.” 
There is a relationship between archaeology and the weird in the popular mind. Archaeologists populate the eerie stories of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft. Archaeologists are sort of detectives of the past, and the detective is a stock character in the weird. Indiana Jones is described as "Professor of Archeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it... obtainer of rare antiquities." Archaeology is a continuing interest of the Weekly World News along with Sasquatch and Bat Boy, and there is an Onion News headline that reads "Archaeologist Tired of Unearthing Unspeakable Ancient Evils." 
Old sites are often thought of as spooky or strange or prehuman or haunted just by the fact of their age. Death and mystery fascinate people who live otherwise average lives. It is an ancient part of our psyche that sees burial mounds as the homes of fairies or megaliths as being constructed by giants, or aliens. Archaeologists continue to fight against these perceptions and fringe pseudoarchaeologies, hoping they will go away if they are ignored, or ridiculed, or reasoned away. But the reality is, if we try to get away from the weird aspect of archaeology in the popular mind, we are swimming upstream as archaeologists. But the risks are real for an archaeologist’s career should one decide to walk that ideological tightrope.
Thomas Charles Lethbridge (1901-1971), the Cambridge archaeologist who experienced the unpleasantness on Skellig Michael, saw apparitions twice in his life and proposed they were mental projections; visual projections he termed “ghosts” and feelings of dread “ghouls.” Lethbridge stated it is not scientific to dismiss things out of hand, without even examining them.
“It is not the observers who are at fault, it is the attitude of mind of the people who think they know better. Above all there is the mental refusal, equivalent to religious bigotry, to accept anything which they have not seen themselves and which contradicts what they have been taught. This attitude is entirely contrary to anything scientific. …He is relying on a belief he has formed from published works by one lot of people, without testing for himself the contrary opinion of another lot equally worthy of belief. If he will not test the matter himself, and yet sticks to his opinion that there can be no such phenomenon, he is no scientist, but a dogmatic pedant.” 
“…The supernatural will conform to natural laws, even if we do not know the laws as yet. I am not saying that visitations do not come from other levels of existence; but where phenomena can be explained in terms of this world, then such an explanation is to be preferred to one which calls in manifestations from another. If such other-level manifestations are shown to occur, then these also will follow the natural laws, which control the whole universe.” 
He paid the price for his independent thinking. Lethbridge began his career as a solid, orthodox academic archaeologist at Cambridge, but, because of his eccentric interests, he drifted away from respectability, and was gradually expelled from academe for the risks he took in his explorations of the fringes of consciousness and meaning.  He was well aware of the hazards of telling colleagues of his experiences, but that didn’t scare him off from the topic, saying, “I was warned by friends in the world of science that it might be very damaging to my reputation, but, having no interest in my reputation, I took no notice. A sailor who fears to chance his arm is not much use at sea” 
So what’s the point of this other than some entertaining stories and risking one’s reputation? It depends on your worldview and the tightrope you wish to walk. These things happen from time to time, and most archaeologists either choose to ignore them, or they just swap stories with trusted friends and family. Whatever it is, or is not, it is in the realm of universal human experience, and that is the business of anthropology, and thus archaeology, after all. Most of these stories do not come from enthusiasts or detractors. They are simply anecdotes of odd experiences of the Other at archaeological sites. There are serious and sound-minded people who have such experiences. There are also silly-minded people who have such experiences. Sometimes it is hard to know the difference.
Then there is the Thomas theorem. William Isaac Thomas (1863-1947) was an American sociologist. He is noted for his formulation of what became known as the Thomas theorem, a fundamental principle of sociology: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”  The correctness of the interpretation does not matter. If the situation is defined as real, the consequences are real. Whatever those security guards saw, whether it was a ghost or a misinterpretation, they really quit, and a story of a haunted archaeological site really began, and really added to the long tradition of weird archaeology.
Certainly however, there are pragmatic materialists who look askance at this entire area. Science (along with Penn and Teller) dismisses the subject of ghosts and hauntings.
If you disbelieve all this as silly, self-delusional, etc., remember:
-You are not just archaeologists: if you are American archaeologists, you are anthropologists.
-Beliefs and folklore, however illogical one might think them to be, are part of human culture, past and present, and therefore they are part of archaeology
-Archaeology looks at the transformation processes at a site. Such beliefs are part of the cultural transformation process. How is it that a site acquires such stories? And not another site of the same type and age?
-It is another route the public engages with you and the site…so it is also a way to engage with the public?
If you have had such experiences, or someone you know and trust, or at least you are open to the possibility:
-All of the above still applies, plus…
-What do such experiences imply, about your life, about archaeology?
-About whatwe believe to be reality? Is it all in your head? And if so, is one’s head actually bigger than one thinks? 
-What does one do when one encounters such things?
To paraphrase the great Crow Chief Plenty Coups, when you encounter strange things in this life, you just acknowledge their right to be here, the same as us, and go on your way. 
I’ll finish up with my second story of an experience on the Helena National Forest.
The Charter Oak (24PW476) a historic lode mine about 25 miles west of here on the Little Blackfoot, is now a star site on the Helena National Forest. But when I first recorded it back in the 1990s it was slated for destruction and reclamation, after a fish kill was observed due to a plume of runoff from the mine. I was amazed at how complete it was, and how the original machinery was still in place. Although the wheels of reclamation were turning, I suggested that it be interpreted as a historic site, and people began to get behind the idea, including SHPO, the Montana Mining Association, and Trout Unlimited.
After I did the initial site report for the Charter Oak Mine in 1995 when it became Forest property, I re-visited the site with Mary H. who worked as a mining historian for the U.S. Forest Service. We walked around the site and then up near the lower adit. Suddenly we heard a rhythmic tap-tap-tapping coming from deep inside the adit. We looked at each other. Could it be dripping water? The shifting of rock? No, the metallic-sounding tap-tapping was very regular, then paused, then began again. It sounded like a hammer or pick sampling rock, not water. She saw the look on my face, and Mary said it first. “A tommyknocker.” We sat there for a while, listening to what sounded like someone hard at work, taking samples, breaking rock. And shortly, the sounds ceased.
Some people say the tommyknockers are a kind of gnome or kobold. Others say they are the ghosts of miners. Probably every person who has worked around mining has heard a story or two about them. They tend to warn miners about cave-ins or unsafe conditions. In return the miners leave them part of their lunches, especially a pasty.
The site was cleaned up and safety measures installed in 1996-1998. It can be visited today if you make arrangements through the Helena National Forest. Sometimes they have tours there too.  If you ever come across an old shaft or adit, you might hear the tap-tap-tapping coming from far, far inside. Depending on your worldview, you might hear it as the drip of water or the shifting of ancient rock, or you just might be hearing a tommyknocker. If so, you might want to leave a bit of your lunch, just to be on the safe side.
1. Brooks, J.S. (Jeff Snyder). “Put Story Back in Ghost Stories, Part 2.” May 20, 2009. http://jsbrookspresents.blogspot.com/2009/05/put-story-back-in-ghost-stories-part-2.html. Retrieved April 8, 2012.
2. Hume, Ivor Noël. “Doctor Goodwin’s Ghosts: A Tale of Midnight and Wythe House Mysteries.” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Spring 2001. http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/spring01/wythe_ghosts.cfm. Retrieved April 5, 2012.
3. C.A.S.P.E.R. Research Center. http://mysite.verizon.net/vzeoqapc/ghostexcavator/. Retrieved April 5, 2012.
4. Lewis, Fairweather. “The Phantom Horseman of Bottlebrush Down.” Original source Fifty Great Ghost Stories, by John Canning (1971). http://fairweatherlewis.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/the-phantom-horseman-of-bottlebrush-down/. Retrieved March 29, 2012.
5. Lethbridge, T. C. Ghost and Ghoul. (1962) Ghost and Ghoul. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., p. 31.
6. Card, Jeb. “Ghosts in the Museum? Archaeology’s Continuing Image Entanglement with the Paranormal.” October 21, 2011. http://spookyparadigm.blogspot.com/2011/10/ghosts-in-museum-archaeologys.html. Retrieved April 2, 2012.
7. Lethbridge, T.C. ibid., p. 16.
8. Lethbridge, T.C. ibid., p. 47.
9. Dorian Cope Presents on This Deity. “30th September 1971: The Death of T. C. Lethbridge.” September 30, 2010. http://www.onthisdeity.com/30th-september-1971-–-the-death-of-t-c-lethbridge/. Retrieved April 2, 2012.
10. Lethbridge, T.C. ibid., p. 65.
11. Wikipedia. “Thomas theorem.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_theorem. The quote in Wikipedia is from The Thomas Theorem and The Matthew Effect. Robert K. Merton. Social Forces, December 1995, 74(2):379-424. Retrieved April 7, 2012.
12. Duquette, Lon Milo. Low Magick: It’s All in Your Head…You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is. (2010) Woodbury, MN: Llewelyn Publications.
13. Linderman, Frank Bird. Plenty-Coups, Chief of the Crows. (1935) University of Nebraska Press.
14. Davis, Carl. Charter Oak Mine and Mill (24PW476) Historic Preservation Plan, Elliston Mining District, Helena National Forest, Montana. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region, Helena National Forest, Montana. (2003)
I have previously shared the Charter Oak Mine story on the Tommyknocker on my Paranormal Montana blog dated March 12, 2009, at http://paranormalmontana.blogspot.com/2009/03/tommyknocker-at-charter-oak-mine.html.
There are also versions of my Charter Oak and the Mining Cabin stories, along with a ghost investigation at Helena’s Windbag Saloon as told in More Haunted Montana, by Karen Stevens. Helena: Riverbend Publishing, 2010.