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Tipis and Tipi Rings

Tipis and their Archaeological Evidence


Three Crow Tipis in Montana about 1905

Three Crow Tipis in Montana about 1905

Richard Throssel, ca 1905. Library of Congress LC-USZ62-95521

Tipis (formerly spelled teepee) were conical tents made of buffalo or other animal hides, used as a dwelling for mobile hunter-gatherers on the American Plains. Prior to the wide use of wooden stakes, the people of the Plains used available rocks to weigh down the edges of their tipis. When the camp moved, the tipis were taken down and moved with the camp. But of course, the people left the rocks behind, resulting in a series of stone circles on the ground.

Tipi rings are what archaeologists call the circle of stones that is left behind after the Plains people moved on. Thousands of intact or nearly intact groups of tipi rings have been identified throughout the Great Plains in the United States and Canada, where the construction of modern roads and cities have not destroyed these sites.

Mapping Tipi Rings

A recent investigation into tipi ring sites at the Bighorn Canyon in Montana was undertaken by Indiana University and Northwest College. The Bighorn Canyon was the historic home of several Plains groups, such as the Crow and Shoshone. Researchers used hand-held Personal Data Assistants (PDAs) to input data on tipi rings, part of a developed mapping method combining remote sensing, excavation, hand-drawing, computer-assisted drawing and Magellan Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment.

The survey identified 143 tipi rings at eight sites, part of a single archaeological landscape believed by researchers to be evidence of documented travel along the Bad Pass Trail. Radiocarbon dates for the use of the trail range between 300 and 2500 years ago. Scheiber and Finley tentatively associate some of the tipi rings as evidence of the historical Crow migration from their Hidatsa homeland, along the Missouri River in North Dakota.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Archaeological Site Types, Ancient House Types, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Adams G. 1983. Tipi rings at York Factory: An archaeological ethnographic interface. Memoir 19 Plains Anthropologist 28(102 pt. 2):7-16.

Brasser TJ. 1982. The Tipi as an element in the emergence of historic Plains indian nomadism. Plains Anthropologist 3(2):309-321.

Burley DV. 1990. Tipi rings and Alberta prehistory: Toward a historical and critical review of a legislated archaeology. Plains Anthropologist 35(132):343-357.

Dormaar JF. 1990. Soil Transformation Under Boulders In Situ as a Means of Relative Dating of Archaeological Sites. Plains Anthropologist 35(128):205-207.

Loendorf LL, and Weston LO. 1983. An Examination of Tipi Rings in the Bighorn Canyon Pryor Mountain Area. Memoir 19 Plains Anthropologist 28(102):147-155.

Oetelaar GA. 2000. Beyond activity areas: Structure and symbolism in the organization and use of space inside tipis. Plains Anthropologist 45(171):35-61.

Scheiber LL, and Finley JB. 2010. Domestic campsites and cyber landscapes in the Rocky Mountains. Antiquity 84(323):114-130.

Schneider FE. 1983. Artifact Distribution at Tipi Rings Sites: A Cautionary Tale. Memoir 19 Plains Anthropologist 28(102):93-100.

Travis L. 1988. An Archaeological Survey in the Plains Foothills Ecotone, Northern Colorado. Plains Anthropologist 33(120):171-186.

White EM. 1998. Soil changes beneath stones in mosaics and tipi rings. Plains Anthropologist 43(166):419-420.

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