Monthly Archives: February 2010

Handmade Garnet Musket Ball from New Archangel

Garnet musket ball from excavations at Sitka, Alaska. Source: Alaska OHA.

It is a common trick in archaeology classes to puzzle students with gunflints – part of the sparking mechanism of older muskets – which were made until recent times by the remnants of a European flaked stone industry until modern cartridges replaced them.  However, I had never heard of the use of stone musket balls before — but the picture above shows one made out of garnet, which is a heavy and dense mineral. This specimen is from a historic Tlingit-Russian site in Alaska.  As the caption notes:

“Large garnets can be found in schist… Because of the shortage of lead, the Kolosh [Tlingit]  use them instead of shot to kill sea animals.” [Khlebnikov’s 1817-1832 report, 1976:39]

It is typically ingenious for the Tlingit to have adapted traditional stone working technologies to the new, introduced technologies.

Over much of coastal Alaska the first contact aboriginal people had with Europeans was with Russians, rather than Americans, British, French or Spanish.  One of the most important Russian settlements was Novoarkhangelsk, or New Archangel, founded in 1799 at the present day town of Sitka (map).  The tumultous history of the founding of this outpost near a Tlingit village called Gajaa Héen, its subsequent capture by Tlingit warriors and ransom of Russian captives for 10,000 rubles, and its recapture 1804 by a Russian naval fleet during the “Battle of Sitka” is a subject for another day.

Suffice it to say that, as with all history, archaeology can fill in the stories of the everyday life of people and of events that go unrecorded by pen and paper.  In this respect, it is good to see the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology has a very full, very detailed report available online about archaeological work at “Castle Hill”, the ancient Tlingit fort known as Noow Tlein which subsequently became the cornerstone of the Russian defensive facilities at New Archangel.  You can browse the report chapters here, and the photos here and here.  No doubt I will post more in due course, as there are some extraordinary artifacts found at this site, not least among which is this hand-made toy musket.

The Russians may have won the battle of Sitka, but they eventually left, leaving behind the Sitka Tlingit tribes to continue their journey to the present, where their vibrant culture continues to thrive as this interactive place names map for the modern Town of Sitka makes clear.

Fort at New Arkhangel -- "View of the Establishment at Norfolk Sound," 1805-06 (from a watercolor by G.H. von Langsdorff). Source: Alaska OHA.

PS:  if you are skeptical about that Wikipedia link to the Battle of Sitka, then you can hear about the events in Tlingit here).

Plan of New Archangel, 1804. Fort site is to centre right. Source Alaska OHA.

Raven de La Perouse

Wooden and brass pipe representing Kan Lituya in the form of a Supernatural Frog, and his Bear Slave creating waves in Lituya Bay. Source: de Laguna, Volume. 3

My recent post on the 1786 visit by La Perouse to Tsunami-prone Lituya Bay, Alaska sent me scurrying to download the massive ethnography by Frederica de Laguna entitled Under Mount St. Elia Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit.  As expected, there is a rich oral history of waves in this bay.  From Volume 1, page 94, she says

Emmons (1911, p. 295) recorded Indian beliefs about the dangers of Lituya Bay, caused by:
“… a monster of the deep who dwells in the ocean caverns near the entrance. He is known as Kan Lituya, ‘the Man of Lituya’ [qa htu ‘a?]. He resents any approach to his domain, and all of those whom he destroys become his slaves, and take the form of bears, and from their watch towers on the lofty mountains of the Mt Fairweather range they herald the approach of canoes, and with their master they grasp the surface water and shake it as if it were a sheet, causing tidal waves to rise and engulf the unwary.

De Laguna then continues to discuss an extraordinary wooden smoking pipe, illustrated above:

“This legend of Lituya is illustrated by a carved wooden pipe (fig. 50) [pi. 123], of splendid proportions, which was obtained in 1888 from the chief of the Tuck-tane-ton family of the Hoon-ah Kow [DAqdentan sib of Hoonah], who claimed this bay as his hereditary sea-otter hunting ground. It was used only upon occasions of particular ceremony—when the clan assembled to honor the dead, or to deliberate upon some important question of policy. At one end is shown a froglike figure with eyes of haliotis shell, which represents the Spirit of Lituya [possibly the Frog crest of the sib?], at the other end the bear slave sitting up on his haunches. Between them they hold the entrance of the bay, and the two brass-covered ridges are the tidal waves they have raised, underneath which, cut out of brass, is a canoe with two occupants, that has been engulfed. [Author’s note: This illustration was furnished through the courtesy of Mr George G. Heye, in whose collection the pipe now is.”]

One thng leading to another, I thought I would look into whether the Tlingit story of La Perouse’s visit had been passed on.  As it turns out, the early ethnographer G.T. Emmons records an account given by a Tlingit chief one hundred years after the visit of La Perouse to Lituya Bay.  This gives an indigenous perspective on what must have been an extraordinary series of events for both parties.  This account is well worth reading, so I am reproducing a portion of Emmons (1911) rendering below:

“In 1886, one hundred years after [the vist of la Perouse], Cowee, the principal chief of the Auk qwan of the Tlingit people, living at Sinta-ka- heenee, on Gastineaux Channel, told me the story of the first meeting of his ancestors with the white man, in Lituya Bay, where two boats of the strangers were upset and many of them were drowned. This narrative had been handed down by word of mouth for a century. These people possess no records nor had the chief, who spoke no word of our tongue, ever heard of La Perouse from outside sources; so we can here authenticate by an exact date a most interesting piece of native history in detail, the truth of which is substantiated by the fact that La Perouse was the only one of the early navigators to visit this locality in a large ship and by the attending loss of life in the destruction of his two boats.  Continue reading

Maori Canoe found in New Zealand Beach

Canoe being excavated at Muriwai Beach, 2010. Source: stuff.co.nz

From the Northwest Coast (of New Zealand) comes inspiring news for Northwest Coast (of North America) archaeologists.

I don’t know how many times I’ve told students that I would never really expect to find a canoe in an archaeological site and that the evidence for watercraft and marine fluency – still a contentious issue for the early Northwest Coast – will likely be resolved through interpretation of marine fauna from archaeological and from finding sites on remote islands.  While in my view Kilgii Gwaay settles this question for the early period on the Northwest Coast,  I suspect nothing short of a 10,000 year old dugout canoe will satisfy some people as to whether the first inhabitants around here could catch a fish.

So it came as a surprise to read that a nearly-complete, seven-metre long Maori wooden waka tikai, or river  canoe, has been recently found in Muriwai Beach (map) on the Northwest Coast of New Zealand (video clip).  The canoe may take several years to properly conserve, and is currently undated.  While the canoe presumably is less than a thousand years old (the accepted time frame for the  arrival of Maori in New Zealand), the fact that it survived at all, buried in the sands of what appears to be a fairly exposed beach, leads me to think we need to keep our eyes open more for this kind of find on the Northwest Coast.  This story claims that it was seen washing up in the 1920s, but still – once something like this survives the process of burial then it might survive for a very long time indeed protected deep in dark, wet beach or dune deposits.  Memo to self: don’t be so pessimistic!

Maori waka being raised. Source: nzherald.co.nz

Destruction of Kwalate Village

Major landslide scar near Kwalate Village. Source: panoramio user Obslord.

Yesterday’s post about Marianne Nicolson’s powerful pictograph in Kingcome Inlet and the post from a few days ago about the enormous Tsunami in Lituya Bay got me thinking again about recent work in Knight Inlet on the central B.C. Coast (map).

A recent project by a team of geomorphologists and an archaeologist, UVic’s own Duncan McLaren, investigated oral historical accounts about Kwalate Village of the A’wa’etlala and Da’naxda’xw peoples, of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations.  The accounts state that a landslide in Knight Inlet triggered a local Tsunami which swept this village away. This account is known anthropologically through a number of sources, including Franz Boas (1910, Kwakiutl Tales):

“About three generations ago, or possibly at an earlier date, a large portion of the mountain opposite Kwalate Point slid into the inlet causing a huge tidal wave which wiped out all of the inhabitants of the village opposite…and the vast slide is noticeable today”.

Of course, the story of the destruction of Kwalate is still told and the dead, unknown in number but perhaps up to one hundred, are still mourned and memorialized in the surrounding communities.  While it is not necessary, or even desirable or possible, for archaeology to confirm oral historical accounts, when that happens it can be of interest to archaeologists and First Nations people alike. Continue reading

Cliff Painting by Marianne Nicolson

Marianne Nicolson is a member of the Dzawada’enuxw Tribe of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations.  She is an internationally-known contemporary artist, and a Ph.D. candidate in the Departments of Linguistics and Anthropology at the University of Victoria.  Her work is outstanding and profound and if you get a chance to see her studio pieces, then by all means do so.

One work you will not be seeing in a gallery anytime soon is her massive pictograph, Cliff Painting, near the head of Kingcome Inlet in her traditional territory (map).  The work is over 15 metres high by 10 metres wide, emblazoned on a prominent cliff as you round the final corner heading into Kingcome (video, scroll down).  It formed the focal point of the book by Judith Williams Two Wolves at the Dawn of Time, which is highly recommended.  Painted using scaffolds lowered from above the cliff, the work is a profound statement of power and energy.  The image is of a “copper“, a large shield-shaped symbol of chiefly power, family prestige and spiritual inheritance, among many more nuanced meanings.  Many pictographs on the coast are fading away, rinsed by sun and rain, vandalized even.  This massive pictograph takes a stance for all the past, present, and future powers of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation.

Cliff Painting in Progress. Source: The Medicine Project.

Northwest Coast in New Zealand

Masset, ca. 1924. Source: University of Canterbury, NZ.

I found myself poking around in a New Zealand archive at the University of Canterbury the other day and found some nice historic pictures from the NW Coast.  These are assigned to the collection of John Macmillan Brown, an early New Zealand academic and, in retirement, an amateur anthropologist.  I am guessing these pictures were taken by him in retirement.  Most are undated; one carries a date of 1924.  The subjects are familiar yet the views are new – the more we can catalogue the world’s pictures of the NW Coast, the better we can understand the processes of transformation which continue to unfold.

Update: fixed links, sort of.  Note to web types: you should always provide stable URLs, none of this “your search has expired” junk.  If you want your collections used, and you do, because you put them on the web, you need to make it so the results can be bookmarked and shared.  Gosh.

Skidegate ca. 1924. Are those oarlocks on that canoe? Source: University of Canterbury.

La Perouse at Port des Francais (Lituya Bay)

Detail of entrance of Port des Francais. Source: Brown University. Click for zoom version.

Most readers will be very familiar with Captains Vancouver and Cook and some of the other early European explorers of the Northwest Coast.  Less familiar is Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, (1741-1788), who embarked on a world journey of exploration in 1785:

The French decided to mount a scientific and exploration voyage to rival that of Captain James Cook. Two ships, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, under La Perouse’s command left France in August 1785. They spent the summer of 1786 off the coasts of Alaska looking for a northwest passage then sailed down the west coast of North America in August and September 1786.

One of their most memorable and tragic periods was the time they spent in Lituya Bay, Alaska, which they called Port des Francais (map).

Lituya Bay, with Cenotaph Island in the foreground. Source; Panoramio user footsnviews.

Their mapping and illustration of Tlingit life are not unknown but also not that easy to find.  I recently came across an interesting site which has the best web presentation of these materials (actually reproduced from a 1798 British edition) I have seen: the images are highly zoomable, and the zoom is fast and crisp and smooth.  Linking to specific images is possible and the links don’t break.  With a little bit of effort, you can download the images (hint: “view source” of the page and search for ‘Size4″).  So zoom right in and see the details of pictures such as this one of a fish camp (are those halibut drying, or Pacific cod?), or this one of both a fine Tlingit dugout, and the construction of a skin vessel, with its seal skin hull removed and placed to one side.  The chart made by La Perouse is here and full of detail (again, these are English re-engravings of the originals).

While spending  time in Lituya Bay, tragedy befell the expedition. From here, an account of La Perouse’s time in Port des Francais:

1786 July Port des Francais / Lituya Bay

The next day, the narrow entrance to an inlet was located to the east of Cape Fairweather. De Pierrevert, from the Boussole, and Flassan, from the Astrolabe, were dispatched in small boats to investigate the inlet. Their favourable reports encouraged a somewhat reluctant La Pérouse to take the ships in. Their first approach was unsuccessful and they tacked offshore through the night before the tide carried them in the next morning. Even then, it was a precarious passage and the ships both nearly were driven onto rocks. They anchored just inside the entrance but La Pérouse was not happy with this spot, it having a shallow, rocky bottom. He sent men off to a find safer anchorage. D’Escures found a better location behind the large island in the inlet and the two ships transferred there. It was 3 July 1786.

Continue reading