It might be argued that the Little Bighorn battlefield became an archaeological site the moment the battle ended, or perhaps when the burial parties left the field, leaving nature to take its course on the debris of war left behind from the fight. However, it seems unlikely that anyone in June 1876 or the remainder of the nineteenth century even remotely considered that possibility. That they were part of an event that had historical import was not lost on the participants, and some even used the distribution of the dead and clusters of fired cartridge cases to make deductions about what may have happened. Though the importance of physical evidence was not lost on these individuals, preservation of the debris of war and the context in which those artifacts were associated likely never entered their minds. It would take time and the evolution of the field of anthropological archaeology over the next hundred years before the necessary theoretical and methodological means were at hand to tease information from the context of the fight’s debris to build an increased understanding of the multitude of individual actions that is the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Interest in the physical evidence of the battle is not new. It began with the victorious warriors who took war trophies, with the soldiers who buried the dead and commandeered souvenirs, and with later visitors to the site who wished to have a tangible reminder of their sojourn on the hallowed ground.