Archaeologists hope to begin digging this spring for equipment discarded by soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry as they retreated after the defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Dennis Ditmanson, superintendent at the 1876 battle site, said the National Park Service wants to survey the Reno-Benteen dump a few miles from the site where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his command were wiped out.The site is believed to contain the remains of excess equipment destroyed by the cavalry after the two-day siege at the Reno-Benteen defensive position was lifted.

About six companies of the Seventh Cavalry were divided from Custer's command just before the battle.

While Custer and about 215 men were wiped out by Sioux and Cheyenne, the companies under Maj. Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen dug in a few miles away on the bluffs above the Little Bighorn River. Much of what is known about Custer's last day comes from the survivors under Reno and Benteen.

According to historic accounts, everything that could not be carried away or that was damaged beyond repair was gathered at the dump and burned. Ammunition and ration boxes were used as fuel, said archaeologist Doug Scott. Nails and screws found during a dig could confirm the contemporary accounts.

Scott, of the Midwest Archaeological Center at Lincoln, Neb., will supervise the three-week project. Scott, along with Hardin, Mont., archeologist Rich Fox, directed archaeological surveys at the battlefield in 1984 and 1985, during which the dump site was identified.

Scott said he expects to find bits and pieces of equipment that will fill in some gaps in the historical record.

He said there probably won't be any startling revelations about the June 25, 1876, battle, but the dump could serve as a time capsule of military gear in use on the Plains during the era.

Scott will be looking for pieces of saddles and tack, as well as the nails from ammunition and ration boxes. Horse gear could show what model of saddles the Seventh Cavalry was using at the time, which he said could give insight into how quickly military hardware changes made their way to troopers in the field.

The archaeologists also hope to find enough clues to reconstruct ration boxes, none of which survived the period. There are some pictures, but the ration boxes are usually in the backdrop of a photograph of something else.

Aside from the scientific aspects of the proposal, one object is to survey the site before vandals and artifact hunters damage it, Ditmanson said. He said the Park Service has heard that a raid on the site is being contemplated.

High prices brought by Custer memorabilia have increased the incentive for artifact hunters, even though removing them is a federal offense.