Draft awaiting set of site survey forms from SHPO to finish

How to Document a Tipi Ring
Using the "Tipi Quick" Process

by Michael L Umphrey

Archaeologist Damon Murdo guides Harlowton students through "Tipi Quick" process. Though one person can document a tipi ring, a three-person team is fast and efficient. One person moves the tape measure to each rock while another person uses the compass to determine the angle. The third person records and angle and distance on the site map.

Overview of Tipi Rings

Plains Indians used rocks to hold down the edges of their tipis. When they moved camp, the stones were left, marking the location and diameter of the tipi. Some tipi rings have a double row of rocks, one for an outer cover and one for an inner liner. Liners were most often used in winter.

Around 1540, while exploring areas of the Southwest, the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado reported that a particular tribe of nomadic Indians was using a tent-like structure made from hide and poles. This was the first written account of what is now known as the tipi or lodge. The Indians Coronado observed were probably Apaches (Laubin 1957). They stayed with the pueblo groups during the winter and ventured out on hunting missions during the summer using small tipis as their shelter.
    . . .Traditionally associated with the Plains Indians, tipis exhibited some interesting refinements as a portable structure over time. Some research suggests that the tipi was not as ubiquitous with Native Americans until the introduction of the horse, which provided a stronger means of transportation and human contact (Wilson 1978). From measurements made of tipi rings (the rocks used to hold down the bottom edge of the tent) left on the ground in gathering places, and by observations reported in early accounts, tipis were much smaller in size prior the arrival of the horse. Dogs were used extensively by the Indians to move the tipis, but the horse provided the power to move much larger poles and a larger, heavier cover over a much greater distance (Bolton 1990). It is well known that the Plateau Nez Perce tribe received the tipi from the Plains Crow (Bolton 1990, 14), though its use diffused to many of the other tribes well after the period of the travois and by the time the wheel cart was in general use.
    . . .When the time came to move on the intent was not to destroy the tipi but rather retain its material integrity as long as possible. Thus, the tipi represents a more site specific temporality. Repair and construction of tipis usually took place during the spring and summer when raw materials were readily available. A major adjustment came to tipi-making technology with the depletion of raw materials. A smoke-cured, buffalo-hide tipi cover would last just a few years under moderate use (Laubin 1957, 118). Where holes formed, patches of skin were added and when the tipi wore out it was cut up and recycled for other uses, such as moccasins and clothing. After buffalo herd populations fell to endangered levels in the middle 1800s (Flores 1991), the major material for tipi covers became canvas. Pictures of canvas covers appeared in the Northern Plains as early as 1860, and although not as flexible as buffalo-hide, it was ultimately accepted and used extensively by all the tribes. Needless to say, canvas did not have the reusable attributes of hide nor did it provide as much independence, since it required more contact with extemporaneous suppliers outside Indian culture.

Stephen Straight and Myles Mustoe. "Temporary Buildings: Where are They Going, Where Have They Been?"
Journal of Geography, March/April 1996, p. 73-80.


A portable GPS receiver uses satellites to provide longitude and latitude as well as elevation above sea level for each point. After the information is recorded, it can be transferred into a GIS program on a computer and added as a layer to existing maps.

Today, many thousands of tipi rings can be found on Montana's northern plains. An 8,000 year old tipi ring has been found in Wyoming, but most are assumed to be much more recent, dating from the last 2,000 years.

Since the age of stones tells us nothing about when they were used for tipis, dating tipi rings is very difficult. When artifacts such as points that belong to a particular tradition can be found, such as Avonlea points, it's reasonable to suppose that the tipi rings were used by people from that tradition, which allows a rough estimate of when the site was used. If organic material associated with human activity can be detected—such as charcoal or bone from the hearth— radio carbon dating can be done. Some attempts have been made to date the rings by analyzing the lichens growing on the rocks. But most often, when you find a tipi ring it will be hard to say when it was used.

Recording Information

Other information may be easier to figure out. As we gather and record data, we can "see" patterns that aren't visible just walking the landscape. We can see some patterns by gathering data from a single stone circle, but other patterns only become visible when we look at data from several circles within a single camp site, and yet other patterns become visible when we gather data from many campsites.

Materials Needed: To do a "Tipi Quick" mapping of a tipi circle requires only a little equipment: a piece of plywood with a circle marked off in  degrees and divided into octants with vector lines for the four cardinal directions as well as vector lines for the four inter-cardinal directions (NW, NE, SE, and SW), a metric tape measure, and a compass.

If every researcher gathers different data, these patterns might still remain invisible to us. If one researcher records the shapes of the tipi rings and the number of rocks used, while another researcher records the number of rings in each campsite and how close they are to water, they can't combine their work to see a bigger picture.

For any science to make progress, information needs to gathered in a systematic way so that it can be collected at a central location and made available for other researchers. For this reason, archaeologists have develop a set of forms to help researchers collect the same sets of information from various sites. For a set of such forms related to tipi rings, contact the Heritage Project.

Seeing Patterns

Much current interest in tipi rings is centered in attempts to recreate the cultural landscape of ancient peoples. Where did they camp at various times of year and why? What roles did water, fuel, plants, game and other people play in their choice of camps?

Step One: The board is placed in the center of the tipi ring and aligned to magnetic north using the compass.

Step Two: A a pivot rod is placed in the center of the board, and a metric tape measure is used to measure from this pivot rod to each rock, first to the near side and then to the far side, using the compass to ascertain the rock's direction from the center.

Some patterns emerge when each rock is represented by a mark on a site map. You can see where on the perimeter the most rocks and the largest rocks are, which may indicate which direction the wind was blowing. Researchers assume that the upwind side of the tipi would have been held down by the most or the heaviest rocks. Also, winter lodges would have used more rocks than summer lodges. You might also be able to detect the most likely entrance to the tipi.

Other patterns emerge when you can see all the rings for a particular site. For example, the tipis at some sites are clustered while others are laid out in circular forms. Circular camps are more formal than cluster camps, and they are associated with ceremonial events, such as the sundance, which occurred in the summer. The cluster camp appears to a more informal arrangement of tipis, organized by kin groups.

Still other patterns might become visible when enough data is gathered from enough sites. For example, how are sites located in relation to the topography, vegetation, water, and fuel.

Step Three: Each rock's angle, distance, and size is recorded on a site map, which is marked in meters and centimeters.

Many tipi rings are found on the rims of coulees and river valleys with expansive views of the landscape.

To assist in detecting such patterns, archaeologists generally record information on the land forms, the environment, distance to wood fuel, and to seasonally available water.

One researcher found high densities of tipi sites between 12 and 17 miles from major rivers, suggesting this might  reflect an average day's traveling distance for a band moving across the plains.

First, walk the area to get an overview of the site, marking with flags any stone circles or other features that seem worth further study. Then, focus in on the circle or circles that you are going to map.

Researchers generally record this information: (1) the shape of the ring, (2) the number of rows in the circle (there are often twoone for the tipi and a smaller inside ring for the tipi liner), (3) patterns of clustering or of gaps (4) the number of rocks and their average sizes, (4) the presence of artifacts or other cultural material.

Advanced techniques may include excavation combined with analyses of soil chemistry and microscopic analysis.