Robert Gilder and the Nebraska Phase Archaeology of Fontenelle Forest

[September is Nebraska Archaeology Month! To celebrate, join Fontenelle Forest as it explores Nebraska Phase archaeology and the life of archaeologist Robert Gilder through a series of programs and an archaeological exhibit on display through December 2018!]

gilder nebraska phase pot

Nebraska Phase Pot (in Gilder Catalogue 1907-1912)

People have long been drawn to the Missouri River Bluffs in Nebraska. Access to timber, stone, and arable land, as well as water ways for transportation, makes the area ideal for settlement. As a result, the hills of eastern Nebraska are densely populated with evidence of human occupation, both past and present. From today’s urban development to the stone tools and shallow depressions marking the locations of habitations past, thousands of years of history can be found along this stretch of the Missouri River.

Nebraska archeology sites

Archaeological Sites (pink) recorded along the Missouri River in Eastern Nebraska [Nebraska Cultural Resources GIS, History Nebraska]

Besides providing life’s necessities, the Missouri River bluffs are also a destination for recreational opportunities such as hiking and birdwatching, and their natural beauty has inspired many writers and artists over time. This is in part what attracted Robert F. Gilder to the area in the late 1880s. With a background in art and journalism, Gilder came to the Omaha area to work in the newspaper industry, but pursued an active hobby in art in his spare time. The work he produced is still featured in museums across the state today.

Gilder Art at the Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney

Robert F. Gilder, Untitled (forest), oil on board, n.d. Accession No. 2009.33, Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA), Kearney, NE.

It was during his frequent trips to paint in the woods along these bluffs that he became interested in the shallow depressions found dotting the bluff tops.

”I turned my attention to locating a large number of saucer-like depressions in the earth, known locally as “buffalo wallows,” in reality sites of aboriginal earth lodges. Almost every circle had been dug into, although in each instance the excavation had been confined to its center…wherever excavation had been recent I found small sherds, and flint chips, ashes, and charcoal.” – Robert Gilder, 1907

“Archeology of the Ponca Creek District, Eastern Nebraska” in American Antiquity, p.702

This interest developed into his second hobby, and a later career in, archaeology. Despite no formal training in the field, his background in writing and art provided him a keen attention to detail and observation which he used to record his findings as he dug into these depressions, first north of Omaha, and later south in Sarpy County. He then would share this information with the public by publishing accounts and illustrations of his finds in the newspaper he worked for, and later in academic journals. This in turn led to more formal archaeological work and collaboration with other researchers.

Artifacts from the Gilder Collection

Bone tools, shell pendants, bone fishhooks, and stone projectile points from the Gilder collection. [University of Nebraska State Museum Newsletter, Vol. 55, No.11, October 20, 1975]

While some interpretations of the “wallows” have changed over the years since Gilder made his initial observations, his understanding of these house depressions led to the establishment of the “Nebraska Culture,” or the Nebraska Phase, a regional group of the broader Central Plains Tradition (CPT). These village farmers, who occupied the area 700-1,000 years ago, continued to hunt and gather wild plants as they practiced horticulture. Their houses, square to rectangular in shape, were timber-framed and covered with a mixture of branches, grass, and mud, and often contained a number of pits where food and tools were stored below the house floor.

Nebraska Phase Lodges

Examples of Nebraska Phase Lodges. [Figure 3a. in Blakeslee and Caldwell, 1979].

Since the early 1900s, additional surveys and investigations have taken place at Nebraska Phase sites along the Missouri River Bluffs, including within Fontenelle Forest, a 1400 acre forest, where Gilder resided until he passed away in 1940. Listed as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, the area is home to approximately 70 probable CPT-related features, in addition to earlier prehistoric occupations, as well as more recent sites – a fur trading post, a ferry crossing, and wagon roads. New technology continues to provide improved methods of documenting these sites, such as with LiDAR and the clearer view it provides of what lies under the forest canopy. However, it is still the early work of avocational archaeologist Robert Gilder that provides the foundation for much of what we know about this area today.

LiDAR archeology Nebraska Phase House Features

LiDAR imagery of house features within Fontenelle Forest.


Blakeslee, Donald J. and Warren W. Caldwell
1979     The Nebraska Phase: An Appraisal. Reprints in Anthropology, Vol. 18: 37.

Gilder, Robert F.
1907    Archeology of the Ponca Creek District, Eastern Nebraska. American Antiquity9(4): 702-719.
n.d.   Catalogue of Objects Used by a Prehistoric People in What is Now Douglas and Sarpy Counties, Nebraska, 1907 to 1912. C. N. Dietz, Omaha Library Board, Omaha: p.10.

Haack, Martha, Arthur H. Wolf, and Harvey L. Gunderson
1975   “Robert Fletcher Gilder: Archeologist for the Museum.” Programs Information: Nebraska State Museum, 55(11).

National Register of Historic Places, Fontenelle Forest Historic District, Bellevue, Sarpy County, Nebraska. National Register #74001139.

Interest in Robert Gilder’s work and the Nebraska Phase Culture has recently been renewed, as Fontenelle Forest has put together a series of upcoming programs about Gilder’s life and the area’s archeology, funded in part by Humanities Nebraska and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. An exhibit on Nebraska Phase Archaeology is on display daily at the Nature Center’s Baright Gallery through December. Visitors can also take guided or self-guided hikes along the area’s trails, which follow alongside the house depressions that the Nebraska Phase people left behind, as explored by Gilder. In addition, an archaeology lecture series is planned, with the first presentation planned for this Saturday, September 8 at 2:00 PM – “So….What Became of the Nebraska Phase People?” by State Archeologist Rob Bozell.

For more information on this and upcoming programs, visit

Fontenelle Forest Exhibit and Programs


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