From BRETT FRENCH, BillingsGazette.com
A fish survey turned into a more shocking experience for a Fish, Wildlife and Parks crew and their two assistants on Monday when they found a human skull along the Musselshell River.
“You don’t stumble across a human skull every day,” said Kendall Van Dyk, a Billings legislator who was assisting with the work to electro-shock and net trout to estimate their population. “It’s a little surreal when you come across something like that.”
The crew turned the skull over to an FWP warden who passed it on to the Wheatland County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Jim Rosenberg took photos of the recovered skull and emailed them to the state crime lab. On Tuesday, medical examiner Willy Kemp identified the skull as an American Indian based on the nose, bones of the face, palate and overall appearance.
Aging the skull as historic, rather than more recent, is based on several elements.
“A lot of it is not what you see in the bone, it’s what you see in the context of it,” Kemp said, along with the fact that no one has been reported missing and there appeared to be no violent cause of death.
Rosenberg and Kemp agreed that the skull likely washed downriver from an upstream burial site after being unearthed during last year’s record-setting floods. Once adrift, it likely tumbled and floated down to where it was found – about 100 yards upstream from the Selkirk fishing access site near Martinsdale. Kemp said he was surprised at how intact the skull was considering its tumultuous trip.
“We have no idea how far it’s come,” said Rosenberg, who visited the river site on Tuesday. “We didn’t find anything else, and where it was doesn’t look like the actual burial site.”
Rosenberg said the skull would be turned over to the State Historic Preservation Office for identification so that it can be returned to the tribe of origin and reburied.
Van Dyk said the skull, with its dark amber patina, was sitting right side up almost completely uncovered along the south shore of the river when it was sighted.
“I thought it was a ball at first,” said Earl Radonski, a FWP fisheries technician who was conducting the survey with Van Dyk, biologist Mike Ruggles andBillings trout advocate Doug Haacke.
“Our intention of grabbing it was to make sure someone else didn’t take off with it,” Van Dyk said.
The group GPSed the site’s location and marked it with balloons they had found along the river. The skull was placed in a plastic bag and given to an FWP warden who turned it over to the sheriff.