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Ethan Ryan, archaeologist and PhD candidate at the University of Montana, illustrates the use of a ground-penetrating radar

Ethan Ryan, archaeologist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montana, illustrates the use of ground-penetrating radar Thursday at the Silver City Cemetery north of Helena.  

A group of history fans saw how ground-penetrating radar can be used to help discover unmarked graves Thursday, which was the first day of the 46th Montana History Conference in Helena. 

During a trip to the Silver City Cemetery north of Helena, University of Montana Ph.D. candidate Ethan Ryan, an archaeologist and ground-penetrating radar specialist, explained that he uses a 400 megahertz device with an electromagnetic pulse to detect anomalies underground. He can then use surface clues and disturbances to determine whether an unmarked grave might be nearby. 

Before the group went to the cemetery, Pam Attardo, preservation officer for the City of Helena and Lewis and Clark County, spoke about the ongoing preservation efforts happening there. She said the cemetery dates back to the days of the Wild West and is home to a number of graves, both marked and unmarked.

Attardo shared some myths about the location, including a story about a group of outlaws captured in Silver City and eventually buried in the cemetery. However, no historical record of any such event exists. 

This was one of many panels at the three-day Montana History Conference at the Marriott Delta Helena Colonial Hotel. There are also seminars about Native American history, women and drug use, Montana's first licensed physicians and even a historical account of cannibalism on the American frontier. 

According to Kirby Lambert, outreach and interpretation program manager for the Montana Historical Society, the conference was born from a passion for Montana's history.

"The Historical Society has a dual mission of preserving Montana history and disseminating knowledge about that history. The history conference is a great way to do that," Lambert said, adding that attendees include "people come from all parts of Montana, and some from out of state. Session topics are diverse to appeal to a broad audience. We also offer workshops that appeal primarily to teachers and archivists." 

Lambert said the historical society also holds field trips, like the one to Silver City Cemetery, to show off the host community's historical sites. According to Lambert, the conference is held every other year in Helena, and on off years it's held on the road in communities across the state.

The first conference was held in 1973. 

"The people who come to the conference are enthusiastic about Montana's past and like visiting with other people who are as well," Lambert said. "It's a good time and fun way to learn."

Lambert said this has been a good year for attendance in the conference. Around 300 people registered for the conference before registration closed. Attendance usually ranges between 200 and 300 people, depending on where the conference is held.

It is a lot of effort to put a Montana History Conference together, according to Lambert. He said conference planning is "pretty much a year-round activity."

In early November, MHS sends out its "call for proposal" for the conference the following year. Next year's conference will be held in Butte on the same dates, Sept. 26 through 28. Proposals are due before March and then MHS goes through the process of organizing panels and seeking out speakers to fill out the conference. 

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