A year after looters dug up a chunk of land previously occupied by a historic military fort, local educators are using the opportunity to learn more about Bozeman’s past.

Last October, three men were caught digging on land a few miles east of downtown Bozeman, which, nearly 150 years earlier, was home to the area’s military camp Fort Ellis. The square-mile parcel of land is currently owned by Montana State University’s Agricultural Experiment Station, which occasionally uses it for grazing. The men, who claimed they had only dug up two vintage beer bottles, were not charged.

But the sizeable hole — filled with historically significant artifacts from buttons and tools to animal bones — presented the university with a problem. Left exposed, the artifacts would quickly degrade, so a group of MSU instructors decided to use the chance to study the site.

On Saturday, Nancy Mahoney, an instructor in MSU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Jack Fisher, a professor in the same department, as well as a group of students, spent the day surveying the site and excavating noteworthy relics.

“We looked at is as an opportunity to do something great, and that’s what it’s turned into,” Mahoney said.

The hole was dug on one of the fort’s trash sites, Mahoney said, and its contents are extremely useful in understanding more about the way the camp operated.

“We want to see what are they drinking? Was there a lot of medicine out here? Were there women out here?” she said. “A lot of things we can learn from the trash and supplement the historical record.”

Fort Ellis, located east of the city off what is now Frontage Road, opened in 1867 after Gallatin Valley residents demanded protection from local Indian populations.

The fort community grew to include 250 buildings — containing a hospital, cemetery and 30,000-acre grazing and timberland reservation — helping provide economic support to the area after the closure of the Bozeman Trail. Fort Ellis closed in 1886.

After securing a permit from the state to excavate the 35-by-25 foot hole, Mahoney, Fisher and Crystal Alegria, who works for educational organization Project Archaeology and co-founded the Extreme History Project, spent the last several weeks clearing, weeding and imaging the area.

With the help of students, the group plans to analyze the various artifacts — which will find a new home at the Museum of the Rockies — and present their findings to the Montana Archaeological Society next year.

“When a site is important to the town, it’s important for the community to know about it so it has more care and protection,” Mahoney said. “This site is integral to understanding how Bozeman became a thriving town.”

“It presents a good opportunity to bring to the public’s attention this historic site and its value to the region,” added Fisher. “And it’s a good opportunity for students to get some hands-on experience.”

Once their work is done, the group plans to cover the hole and fill it back in with dirt to preserve the site for future study. The university is working with local law enforcement and promoting its Montana Site Stewardship Program to prevent similar looting incidents, Mahoney said.

“This is the kind of thing that can happen very quickly if we’re not aware,” she said. “This is an educational opportunity not only because of what it can tell us about the past, but also that this stuff can disappear if we don’t protect it.”

Kendall can be reached at lkendall@dailychronicle.com. Kendall is on Twitter at @lewdak