Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Brooklyn Museum Collection

Tsimshian Skull "Helmet".  Click for higher resolution.

Tsimshian Skull "Helmet". Click for higher resolution.

Of all places, the Brooklyn Museum has amassed an impressive suite of NW Coast artifacts and art.  Their online catalogue is mainly lodged under the  “research” and “collections” tabs.  One interesting thing about this collection is that any viewer can ‘tag‘ a picture, building up a folk taxonomy that cross-cuts more traditional museum categories.  This has its advantages of course (e.g., items which are tagged “beards“, or “scary“), but also raises questions about just how comprehensive is any set of results?  And how accurate – this rattle is tagged Tsimshian despite being collected in Bella Bella (Heiltsuk territory).  Still, with a grain of salt it is an idea definitely worth pursuing.  You can also click around on their “visible storage” map.  The images are decent resolution and combined with the tag-surfing possibilities this is a fun and informative site.

Heiltsuk Ladle with Skull. Click for larger resolution.

Heiltsuk Ladle with Skull. Click for larger resolution.

NW Coast Objects in Madrid

Tlingit adze with quillwork and copper insets in the Museo de América, Madrid.

Tlingit adze with quillwork and copper insets in the Museo de América, Madrid.

Even though the Spanish were among the first outsiders to eplore the NW Coast, you don’t hear much about collections they may have made while out here.  So it is welcome to see this (now, 10 year old) writeup on NW Coast items in Madrid’s Museo de América.  The article suggests that many such objects were collected but not retained in Royal Collections, perhaps because they were considered inferior to, say, Aztec and Inka pieces.  Either way, there are some spectacular objects illustrated in the article, though the photographs are not very sharp at all.

Going to the Museo de América’s website shows they have a search function and some online thumbnails.  This link should take you to their 52 pieces labelled as NW Coast, while this takes you to six pieces listed as from BC.   Most of the illustrations are extremely low resolution, though I found one or two which aren’t such as the outstanding Haida waterfowl, below.  Look how fluid the form-line rendering is in this 18th century piece.  Click the images on the Museo site for slightly higher resolution or go to the records page by clicking on “Ficha Completa” and then on “Ampliar Imagen”, where you can zoom in slightly using the magnifying glass.  Also worth checking out, this Tlingit clap-board style “rattle”, this foreshaft and point, and this rather spectacular hat.  Anyway, something to poke more: online catalogues in Spanish Museums.

EDIT:  I see their search function makes links to search results expire after a short time so I crossed them out, above.  Pretty lame, but there you go.  Get into the system via the generic system and then browse around, if you want.

18th Century Haida Waterfowl.

18th Century Haida waterfowl, listed as made from"Ivory".

Dog Burial Field Guide

From PacificID's Dog Burial Field Guide.

From PacificID's Dog Burial Field Guide.

Dogs are such an important source of evidence for past human life.  Not just as “man’s best friend” and all that but because of the insight they give into domestication, into evolutionary processes, as proxies for stable isotope studies of human diet, and so forth.  So, pretty great to see PacificID is putting out a field guide to dog burials and in situ dog remains in archaeology, complete with snazzy laminated ID card. The book itself is also printed on waterproof paper.  There are also downloadable diagrams (PDF) for recording dog burials.  The author, Dr. Susan Crockford, is an authority on the evolution of dogs and other domestication and evolution issues, and on dog osteology.  This looks like excellent value for money.

Speaking of dSpace

The Globe and Mail has a story on the (in progress) digitization and internet posting of UBC’s complete run of over 35,500 theses and dissertations – with an arch response by SFU’s Dean of Libraries (or whatever).  As I’ve been noting, numerous other universities have these schemes as well, usually some flavour of the dSpace software package. Typically, University of Toronto calls it T-Space.  Dissertations there do not seem to be online unless you are a library card holder, though strictly speaking they are not in T-Space either I don’t think.  Nonetheless, they obviously have a digital copy mounted on a server.

Continue reading

dSpace: Elroy White (Xanius) on Fishtraps

FbTa 59, a possible clam garden on the central coast.

FbTa 59, a possible clam garden on the central coast. Source: Elroy White / Xanius M.A. thesis.

I’ve only met Elroy once or twice but he seems like a sharp guy and I was looking forward to reading his 2006 thesis, which turns out to be an exceptional work – ambitiously trying to implement Eldon Yellowhorn’s “internalist archaeology” in his home territory (Heiltsuk) on the central coast.  This project, which focuses on fishtraps, is exemplary in a couple of ways.  First, as a cutting edge exercise in the practice of archaeology, indeed, practice as theory.  The combination of field archaeology, internalist work with a dozen elders, and extensive videography was a great exercise.  (PS Elroy, post some videos!).   Second, well, fishtraps are exceptionally interesting and need more study.  Essentially, we are just guessing about the specific functions and efficiencies of these features.  Elroy gathers a lot of information from elders, including interesting longitudinal data showing how quickly these features silt up — evidence in some ways for their silt retention qualities and also a suggestion there may be a lot of partially or totally obscured fishtraps out there.  And, as above, Elroy appears to find some “clam gardens” (diagram) in Heiltsuk territory.  Maybe it’s because my doctoral SSHRC project was going to be on fishtraps until I got talked out of that and into a GIStraightjacket, but I love’em.  Anyway, you can get yourself a copy of this high quality MA theses here, at SFU dSpace.

Incidentally, for an earlier, wider scope take on subsistence and settlement and fish traps on the central coast, you can also download John Pomeroy’s 1980 PhD thesis (which doesn’t show up under “archaeology” in their classification or keyword scheme for some reason.)

Elroy White (Xanius) with intertida fishtraps.  Credit: Ecostrust Canada.

Elroy White (Xanius) with intertidal fishtraps. Credit: Ecotrust Canada.

Tseycum Repatriation from AMNH

Inside the Tseycum Longhouse.  Click Image for etended video.

Inside the Tseycum Longhouse. Click Image for extended video.

This is old news now that in 2008 the Tseycum First Nation in North Saanich managed to repatriate the remains of 55 of their ancestors who had been removed and sold by Harlan I. Smith.  What I didn’t realize is in addition to the snippet on The National with Wendy Mesley (the file is incongruously called “brown-bones” – WTF CBC?), there is also an extended uncut video of the ceremony in the Tseycum longhouse.   Cora Jacks, who spearheaded the Tseycum repatriation effort and is interviewed here, sadly passed away soon after.

The detailed field notes kept between 1854 and 1910 assisted greatly in tracing the location of the ancestral remains. Museums in the states are required by law to provide information when a nation makes its request. This law called NAGPRA is the Native American Gravesite Protection Repatriation Act and has greatly facilitated the provision of a long list of human remains and sacred objects. (Similar legislation in Canada does not exist.) Historic references show that skulls had been sold for $5 each with similar price tags having been placed on skeletal remains.

Cora had visited New York in 2005 with Vern Jacks Jr. and experienced the deep emotionality of viewing the remains stored in boxes and placed on shelves. The museum had not followed any cultural protocol so that skulls were often separated and Jacks explains the “spiritual restlessness,” which results from this disrespectful treatment. In Chicago Jacks also discovered about 79 sets of remains many of which are probably from this region and most of them were small children who had likely died of smallpox after contact with European settlers. (source).

As the NY Times noted, the Field Museum in Chicago had not yet begun repatriation negotiations with the Tseycum.  While the NAGPRA law in the states is very strong when applicable, it clearly does not apply outside American borders so credit to the AMNH for working in good faith with the Tseycum.

But also: Grant – what the heck – is it really necessary to defend Harlan Smith?  Maybe as a curator of archaeology it is.  I dunno, seems like another relativising moment rather than a chance for an apology or a plain admission that it was wrong, then and now, to steal human remains for profit. But hey, stealing their land was also done in the spirit of the times, so what the heck?  Let’s not forget the RBCM itself is built on top of a village site.

NorthWord Archaeology

Layer 1: snow.  Layer 2: littermat.

Layer 1: snow. Layer 2: littermat.

I just found a pretty good article from NorthWord, a community newspaper that covers northern BC’s coast and interior.  Nice quotes and insights from Rick Budwha, Farid Rahemtulla and David Archer – but what caught my eye was the surreal photo used to illustrate the piece.  Is that a light dusting of snow on the clipboard?  Is that wind down the plumber-butt?  Is that a marginally insane unit location right in the root mat of a huge tree?  Is this winter impact assessment under Oil and Gas Commission guidelines? How did they establish the glorious sidelight?   Is there snow on the soles of their boots?  Could this be a painting?  I want to know more about this picture, dammit!

Speaking of Clovis

Michael Collins' Licence Plate - Just needs a "pre" fix.

Michael Collins' Licence Plate - Just needs a "pre" fix.

The Gault Site in Texas is a classic Clovis site, though one which awaits full and complete recording.  The site was purchased by old-school Clovis archaeologist Michael Collins to protect it – the previous owners would rent out digging time to pothunters.  Collins  then donated it to an archaeological trust – a stunning example of putting your money close to your mouth!  It has always been on my radar as a big site down in Texas with tons of Clovis stuff but frankly I had never looked into it that closely – other than indirectly through Collins’ excellent studies of Clovis blade technology, and an awareness that it had produced some of the earliest art known in the Americas (2, 3).  Any Clovis site is of interest, not just because Clovis is an unusual archaeological phenomenon, but also because the history of the discipline will see “Clovis First” archaeology as a classic example of a paradigm that got shifted, reluctantly.  And anyone working on the early periods in BC Archaeology is profoundly influenced by Clovis — whether that be the northeastern Ice Free Corridor sites, or on the coast where Clovis ages of 11,000 radiocarbon years ago are a benchmark for first peopling.

So I was interested to learn that there is 400 years of Clovis occupation here — pretty much the whole span of the Clovis Culture as now understood.  That’s not very overkill-and-move-on-ish.  Then I find out the dominant resources at Gault include frogs, small mammals, and turtles — not very big-gam-hunterish.  Now I read the Collins is reporting pre-Clovis deposits at the Gault Site — certainly not very Clovis-Firsty.  As  this article from a local newspaper in Waco states:

The latest evidence to debunk this theory may come from the Gault site. In the dig site now covered by the big white tent, archaeologists took a core sample in 2007 and found something startling: what appear to be manmade stone artifacts that differ from Clovis technology. That could mean Gault was inhabited some 14,500 years ago, Gault School officials said.

“That would be the nail in the coffin of Clovis First,” said Collins, the University of Texas archaeologist who has been the site’s chief excavator.

Collins, 68, said that when he started in archaeology in 1960, almost nobody questioned the Clovis First theory. Collins grew to doubt it, based on new discoveries in Chile and elsewhere, but it took a long time for alternative theories to gain traction in the world of archaeology.

“What I despised most among my colleagues was that they would simply dismiss your argument when they didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “Or they would ignore it.”

Today, the question of the first Americans is a wide-open debate, with scientists such as Collins suggesting Asian and even European colonization by boat between 15,000 and 24,000 years ago.

“When I first started doubting Clovis First a long time ago, maybe 2 percent of professional archaeologists considered the possibility of an earlier date, Collins said. “Now, that number is probably 95 percent.”

Maybe I haven’t been paying attention but, wow.  Gault Site has pre-Clovis and Michael Collins slams the “Clovis Police.  It’s a good day.

Clovis Exceptionalism Craters

An impactor (top) may have produced magnetic spherules (lower right), but similar spherules (lower left) continually fall from space.

An impactor (top) may have produced magnetic spherules (lower right), but similar spherules (lower left) continually fall from space.

John Hawks has a good writeup about the latest news on the theory put forward a couple of years ago that a comet impacted the Laurentide ice Sheets, overkilling Clovis culture, megafauna, and instigating the Younger Dryas Event to boot.  The new paper by Todd Surovell et al. completely fails to replicate a key bit of support for the theory, namely that magnetic iron spherules, said to be the comet’s smoking gun, were associated with terminal Clovis stratigraphy across the Americas.   Other studies have chipped away at the theory as well. I’m not an expert and it’s hard to judge the state of debate — though as Hawks notes, the paper is unusually unequivocal in its conclusions of ‘no evidence”.

I have to say, I don’t mind seeing more theories of Clovis exceptionalism shot down — it is an unusual archaeological phenomenon to be sure, but it hardly takes white-hot fallout across the Americas to bring it down.  Let’s start looking at Clovis on a more human scale! Enough with the megafaunal overkill models, when the most ubiquitous fauna associated with Clovis are turtles and tortoises.  Enough with the ignoring of plant remains — the Clovis Policemen’s longstanding refusal to accept Monte Verde tells us everything we need to know about their knowledge of ethnobotany.  Enough with the phallocentric failure to look beyond the Clovis Point to see that the rest of lithic Clovis  is pretty much a standard Upper Palaeolithic toolkit.

Smoked mammoth.

Smoked mammoth.

Thinking about that the other day,  I realized that Clovis is (ironically, counter-intuitively) ripe for a post-processualist analysis. Not a critique – an analysis.  Why?  What makes Clovis different is style – widespread projectile point style as a sort of hyperkinetic effort to maintain social cohesion through semiotics, if you like.  When something is so unusual we have to posit its arrival in a river of blood through the parting of a white sea, and then see it off with a rain of fire from heaven, surely it is time to turn it over to the school of archaeology that deals with histories, not generalities.

Surovell TA, Holliday VT, Gingerich JAM, Ketron C, Haynes CV, Jr, Hilman I, Wagner DP, Johnson E, Claeys P. 2009. An independent evaluation of the Younger Dryas extraterrestrial impact hypothesis. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA (early) doi:10.1073/pnas.0907857106 (subscription required)

Akerman Collection – Salt Spring Island

Stone Bowl from Akerman Museum

Stone Bowl from Akerman Museum

Salt Spring Island has a pretty active museum and archival society, by the looks of it – at least, they are putting a lot of pictures and documents online.  One thing which caught my eye was their photos of the Akerman Museum – which I take to be the private collection at the home of Bob Akerman.  This is a striking carved object (of which I wish there were more photographs) described as: Black stone that they claim had healing power. Shamans used it when they were visiting the sick. Though elsewhere, they show another object with a similar description which appears not to be worked much, if at all.  There’s no real documentation which is too bad — the stone tools in this picture, for example, strike me as more of a neolithic thing than a northwest coast one.  I hope they have the information somewhere.  This is an impressive metal celt, and it looks like he has a good collection of nephrite ones as well, though the picture is exceptionally poor.  (NB – bandwidth is not nearly so much of a concern these days, so don’t shrink your pictures so much!) There are lots of slightly unusual artifacts, like this collection of handstones. All around, it looks like Akerman has a great collection — I don’t want to think too much about where the archaeological material came from, or how he came to have it, and I’d like to think there is a shoebox full of notes somewhere — but all the same it is interesting to peruse and I’m glad the Salt Spring Archives have at least some documentation of it.

Another highlight of the site is Chris Arnett’s short, but lively and informative history of First Nations of Saltspring Island.