Readdressing the Myth of Ghost Towns Through Contemporary Archeology

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries towns in the American West were rapidly created and subsequently abandoned. These towns have largely been ignored by historians and are just beginning to be studied by contemporary archeologists. By studying ghost towns, archeologists can tells us how and why this phenomenon occurred and provide valuable insight into what causes a settlement to fail. This is just one of many examples of how archeology is still relevant today.

The town of Frisco, Utah was studied by archeologists in 2008. At the site they find many artifacts including tobacco pipes and remains of a collapsed mine. Using these artifacts they were able to determine the Frisco was a moderately impoverished mining town that consisted mostly of men with few women and children.

In a recent archaeological study of ghost towns across Utah, Arizona and Nevada, researches excavated 104 sites. These archeologists were then able to compare and contrast the process of abandonment as well as aspects of the lifestyle in each of these towns through their respective assemblages, specifically, Newhouse and Frisco, two ghost towns in Utah. (Peyton 2012) At the Newhouse site, archeologists primarily found food storage containers and other domestic items including children’s toys and hairbrushes, indicating the presence of women. They also found remnants of a school building. In contrast at the Frisco site there were many tobacco pipes and alcohol containers and very few artifacts that indicated the presence of women. An overall site reconnaissance survey at Frisco showed evidence of mining and that the town was likely abandoned due to a collapsed mine while at the Newhouse site a complex irrigation system and dried wells allowed archaeologists to come to the conclusion that the town had been abandoned due to water shortage.

In contrast when archeologists excavated Newhouse Utah they found many domestic items including women hairbrushes and children’s toys indicating that there were many more families moving to this town. This helps us to rethink the stereotypical image of a frontier town.

Like many contemporary archeologies, the archeology of western ghost towns can be used to dispute common misconceptions about these abandoned places. For example, not all ghost towns were mining towns as another team of archaeologist found that only approximately 45% of the towns they identified as ghost towns centered around meaning as their primary economic function. (Hardesty 2010)  Others were religious settlements, railroad towns, military outposts and in the Pacific Northwest these towns are primarily associated with fishing and logging.

Another common misconception is that all ghost towns were abandoned because whatever they were mining ran out. (Ling 2013) Archeology has shown that the abandonment of the majority of ghost towns was a multicausal combination of social factors coupled with the overuse of natural resources, most notably water scarcity. (Peyton 2012) This collapse due to the exploitation of natural resources serves as a warning for us today and prevents us from blaming the failures of these towns on purely economic factors.

The archeology of ghost towns allows us to challenge many ideas we have about the west during this period of time such as the glorification of these mining towns as well as the idea that they simply popped up one day and then crashed the next. (Buckholtz 2015) Archeology has revealed that the decline of these towns is much more complex and took place over years. By studying this archeology of abandonment, archaeologist gain valuable insight to what challenges may turn our modern cities into the ghost towns of tomorrow.


Buckholtz, Sarah

   2015 Authentic Wild West Ghost Town: Bodie, CA. Two Lanes Blog. August 11

Hardesty, Donald L.

    2010 Mining Archeology in the American West. Digital Commons. University of Nebraska

    Press- Sample Books and Chapters, Spring.

Ling, Peter

   Ghost Towns of America. Geotab Blog

Peyton, Paige Margaret

    2012 The Archaeology of Abandonment: Ghost Towns of the American West. Leicester

    Research Archive: Home. School of Archaeology and Ancient History, November 1.

Image citations:

Bezzant, Bob

Newhouse, Beaver UT. Ghost Towns of America

Gabler, Michael

2018 Frisco: A Utah Ghost Town. Urban Ghosts. September 18

Additional Reading:

They Bought a Ghost Town for $1.4 Million. Now They Want to Revive It.


A Soviet Ghost Town in the Arctic Circle, Pyramiden Stands Alone


The Archaeology of Settlement Abandonment in Middle America


Tracing Galena Artifacts at Poverty Point Back to their Source

The Poverty Point archaeological site in northeastern Louisiana is most widely known for its massive earthen mounds measuring up to 72 feet tall and forming six concentric semicircles. At its height from 1200 BCE to 700 BCE, the Poverty Point Native American site had an estimated population of around 5,000 and its advanced architecture and tools indicate a thriving society.  Not only is Poverty Point an architectural wonder, it also serves as an indicator of a widespread trading network throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Stones and artifacts from as far as 1000 miles have been found by archeologists at Poverty Point.

When archeologists first began observing large amounts of stone artifacts at Poverty Point, they were able to identify the key element in many of the artifacts as galena, a shiny silver form of lead (II) sulfide. By 1970, over 700 artifacts containing galena had been identified at Poverty Point and four smaller surrounding settlements. The most common galena artifacts are bird effigy pendants, oval pendants, beads, and polished rectangles.

Galena has been found in a wide range of artifacts at Poverty Point including pendants, beads, polished rectangles and stones. Archeologists believe that these artifacts were often used for ceremonial and decorative purposes at Poverty Point as well as other Native American sites throughout the Southeast.

Archeologists used trace element analysis, the process of identifying elements present in small amounts, in order to trace a material back to its source of origin. Trace element analysis of galena artifacts at Poverty Point indicated that the majority of the rocks originated from the Potosi deposit in Missouri while others were from the upper Mississippi valley. Archeologists also conducted trace element analysis of galena artifacts at seven other Native American sites and found that 55% of the artifacts could be traced to the Potosi deposit and 34% to the upper Mississippi valley while the other 11% was inconclusive. Because of this evidence, archeologists were able to identify a trading pattern that used the Mississippi River, the Ohio River and the Arkansas River as well as the Ouachita stream and stopped at sites including Yazoo Basin and a Native American settlement at Calion.

Galena was by no means the only material traded at Poverty Point. This map shows the source areas for other minerals found at Poverty Point in addition to the two main galena source points which are marked as A and C on this map.

Archeologists have also noted a highly similar style of bird pendants made from galena in four different locations along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers indicate that galena was traded both as a raw material and as a finished product. This exhibits the shared cultural importance of galena while also indicating variations in cultural traditions.

Additionally, this trade is especially interesting to archeologists as it does not follow the theory of fall off analysis which states that the quantity of a material will decrease with the distance from the source of that material. There are many more galena artifacts at the Poverty Point site in Louisiana than there are at sites closer to the Potosi deposit. This indicates that the trade was not simply a reciprocal exchange, but rather a more complicated directional trading pattern. The Poverty Point trading network is one of the first instances of large scale long distance trade in the Americas that can be fully shown by archeologists. It represents an extremely important development in society as well as social organization.

Additional Readings:

Feasting at Poverty Point

Trace Element Analysis on Pottery from Oaxaca


Hays, Christopher T, Richard A Weinstein, and James B Stoltman

2016 Poverty Point Objects Reconsidered. Southeastern Archeology

Hill, Mark A, Diana M Greenlee, and Hector Neff
2016 Assessing the provenance of Poverty Point copper. Journal of Archaeological Science 6: 351–360

Louisiana Division of Archaeology

2014 Discover Archaeology. Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism

Walthall, John A, Clarence H Webb, Stephen H Stow, and Sharon I Goad

1982 Galena Analysis and Poverty Point Trade. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 7: 133–148


Image Citations:

Material Source Map. Louisiana Archaeology Project


Galena Artifacts. Louisiana Division of Archaeology