Herring Spawn and Beyond

Herring "spawn drying in the sun near Sitka Alaska", ca. 1900. Source: Sealaska Heritage Institute, Richard Wood Collection. http://goo.gl/y8NF2h

Herring “spawn drying in the sun near Sitka Alaska”, ca. 1900. Source: Sealaska Heritage Institute, Richard Wood Collection. http://goo.gl/y8NF2h

Herring are taking Northwest Coast archaeology by storm.  A series of key insights and publications has pulled these little fish into the heart of our reconstructions of subsistence – across the entire coast, and into its deepest history.  It’s an interesting development which highlights once again how prone archaeologists can be to a myopic faith in our received models: salmon and cedar speak the loudest and it turns out we needed an aid in hearing herring.

Herring were valued in two very different ways: as delicious food in their own right, and for their eggs, which they would spawn in prodigious numbers in the nearshore, often on kelp or on conifer branches, which could even be placed in the water by people for this purpose. The spawn fishery would leave little or no durable archaeological evidence, and perhaps has been correspondingly underestimated by local researchers. Eating the fish themselves has left a widespread, robust record, yet one which has also been underestimated.  All this by way of introducing the picture above, which I haven’t seen reproduced elsewhere, showing gobs of dried herring spawn near Sitka, Alaska. It’s from the excellent online photo archives of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Each of those clumps is like a rich, nutrient-dense, yet storable, delicious marine omelet.

The emerging archaeology of herring is too big a topic for a mere blog to cover, but click onwards for a couple more comments and links.

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Millennia Research’s miniature engraving tools from Prince Rupert

Miniature stone chisels or engravers from Prince Rupert.  Source: Millennia Research.

Miniature stone chisels or engravers from Prince Rupert. Source: Millennia Research. http://millennia-research.com/stone-miniature-chisels/

Millennia Research is one of the longest established and most respected consulting archaeologist firms in British Columbia, not least because they have an occasional blog.  They’re doing some really cool and advanced work on 3-D imaging using LiDAR and photogrammetry – you can see for yourself some of those posts, e.g. and e.g.’er.  But today’s topic, while cutting edge in its own way, is more at the speed of your humble scribe – some very small engraving tools they’ve uncovered in Prince Rupert Harbour, site GbTo-54.  The reason I’m posting it here is because they’re looking for input on the function of these and for any comparable artifacts people might know of, and I want to cast the net wider through this blog’s readership.  I’ll get the ball rolling.

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Stone Foundations and Tent Platforms in NW Coast Archaeology

Tlingit house with stone wall foundation near Juneau, Alaska.  Source: SHI Archives, Richard Wood collection. http://goo.gl/hH9Pfl

Tlingit house with stone wall foundation. “Photograph of a Taku village homes, photo likely by Partridge, circa 1887. Village site was located on the mainland across from Douglas Island, south of present-day Juneau”: SHI Archives, Richard Wood collection. http://goo.gl/hH9Pfl

We’re a little obsessed with wooden architecture in the NW Coast archaeology world – with good reason, I guess, since monumental wooden houses are such a prominent feature of the recent past. I suppose we sometimes stereotype these houses a little – a point some commenters made in the Houses on Stilts post here a while back – we think: “large rectangular house squatting in midden supported by giant house posts.” Not always the case, certainly not through time.

In general, we may underestimate large scale constructions in stone.  Burial cairns and mounds (one of Darcy’s consists of 18 dump-trucks worth of soil), rock wall defensive sites, trench embankments, canoe runs, fish traps, and of course, clam gardens, all involved massive deployments of stone, with associated labour investments and creation of a durable built environment. Anyway, we’ve recently been running into enigmatic rock structures on the central coast and Quadra Island, and in particular, the possibility of dwelling structures partially based on stone walls.  So it’s quite cool to run across the picture above from the SHI photo collections, showing a Taku Tlingit house from the historic period, sitting on a platform which has a stone wall as a foundation.

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Kuwoot yas.ein – A video about the discoveries at On-Your-Knees Cave, SE Alaska

Tim Heaton at work in OYK cave.  Screenshot from video.

Tim Heaton at work in OYK cave. Screenshot from video.

On July 4, 1996, paleontologist Tim Heaton was busy at his last day of fieldwork at On-Your-Knees Cave on northern Prince of Wales Island, Southeast Alaska (map).  At this and other caves Heaton had recovered a remarkable array of fauna from both before, during, and after the last glacial maximum, including a variety of black and brown bear bones.  Until this point, he had not found any human remains, but that changed with the discovery of a human mandible and the subsequent discoveries of other scattered, chewed remains.  In due course, an archaeological site was also found at the entrance to the cave, dating to about 10,300 calender years ago, the same as the human remains. Excavation at this site was led by E. James (Jim) Dixon, whose footsteps I often feel like I am stumbling along in. In one layer in the site, they actually found one of the missing teeth from the mandible, showing the extent to which the bones had been scattered, and, sinisterly, chewed, presumably by bears.  The most likely interpretation is that the site represents a bear hunting camp at the entrance to the cave, and that on at least one occasion, the bears got the upper hand.

Anyway, the remains of this young man have revealed important details of the life of early people on the Northwest Coast, and the study also exemplifies how strong relationships, respect, and adherence to protocol can allow for scientific and cultural priorities to unfold together. It’s therefore quite exciting to find a 30 minute video detailing the process of research at On-Your-Knees Cave: “Kuwoot yas.ein: His Spirit is Looking Out from the Cave“.

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ASBC Victoria Public Talk: Tue. Oct. 21 – Darcy Mathews on Funerary Petroforms at Rocky Point

Darcy Matthews leading a UVic field trip to burial features in Metchosin.  Photo:qmackie

Darcy Matthews leading a UVic field trip to burial features in Metchosin. Photo:qmackie

ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA, VICTORIA,  OCTOBER MEETING:

Dr. Darcy Mathews

Funerary Ritual and Ancestral Presence at Rocky Point, British Columbia

Tuesday, October 21, 2014, 7:30 pm

UVIC Cornett Building B129 (map)

Free and open to the public

While you might think you’ll have had your fill of cool archaeology at Saturday’s BC Archaeology Forum in Nanaimo, you won’t have seen the latest from Dr.(!!) Darcy Mathews, who will be presenting his recent UVic Ph.D. research to the ASBC next week. Perhaps benefitting from the finest supervision which single-malt can buy, Darcy’s dissertation is Piled Higher and Deeper with carefully chosen nuggets of the finest methods and theories, much like the cairns funerary petroforms it is based on. Seriously, it is a tour de force which absolutely nails its topic in a way seldom seen. No doubt it’ll be coming soon to a prestigious academic press near you.

Anyway, the ASBC provides the abstract: Continue reading

Reburial at Hagwilget: A Video

Click to Play Video

Click to play Sacred Ground video.

Archaeological encounters with human remains bring into sharp relief the competing values surrounding cultural heritage.  It doesn’t always go well – powerful emotions are uncovered alongside the burials.  So it’s refreshing and informative to come across a short video, Sacred Ground: In honour and in memory of our ancestors, made by Crossroads Cultural Resource Management, which follows the aftermath of the accidental disturbance of human remains at Hagwilget, on the Skeena Bulkley River.

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A Lummi Reef Net Model

Lummi Reef Netting Model. Source: WhatcomWatch.org

Lummi Reef Netting Model. Source: http://whatcomwatch.org/wpww/?p=348

A while back I found the cool picture above in an online exhibit of the Whatcom Museum showing photographs of Point Roberts and Lummi Island, on Puget Sound just south of the Canadian border.  Reef netting is a peculiarly Straits Salish technology which involved the setting of complex nets, suspended between two canoes, at strategic locations where the natural flow of salmon was constrained. A sort of on-ramp led the fish up to the net by creating a gentle optical illusion of a rising bottom.  When the salmon were milling around in the horizontal net, still free, the canoes would be suddenly swung together, closing the net and trapping the salmon.

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