Boundary Maintenance

Headland with wooden markers. Click to zoom.

This is one of my favourite pictures of B.C. Archaeology, even though  it doesn’t look like much.  It’s a bit fuzzy: I took it with a zoom lens in about 1985 , rounding a headland in a small boat  on the Central Coast.  In fact, you might think it doesn’t look all that archaeological.  Look closer: sticking up to the right of the white triangle you can see the carved head of a pole.

The white triangle is a standard device used by Fisheries to demarcate the different fishing zones on the coast, for management purposes.  On one side of the triangle there might be different catch limits or closures or seasons of harvest enforced than on the other.

I don’t know much about the pole, but its location on such a prominent headland, facing the open Pacific, next stop Japan, is suggestive it marked a change of territory, a boundary shift, a movement from the control of one lineage or house to another. You don’t often see such a pole away from a village site.

Both wooden markers may ultimately serve the same purpose: boundary maintenance between zones of control; advertisements for power; watchful symbols of formal rights; the means of resource management.  It is intriguing and almost poetic to see them standing, side by side, on the same headland, guarding the same water.

Detail of wooden markers.

14 responses to “Boundary Maintenance

  1. George Blenkinsop mentions a cairn built on a headland to mark the territory boundary between two groups in Barkley Sound. I can’t find my copy of his report from the 1870’s so can’t quote, but I think it is one of very few NWC boundaries that are recorded as having been marked this way. Brian Thom’s research on Coast Salish boundaries might indicate that boundary markers are unlikely to be found in the Gulf of Georgia area.


  2. Neat to hear about the carin on the headland in BS.

    Another island in the broken group was said to have had a line of vegetation visibly removed through the centre to mark the territorial boundaries between two local groups. Akin – to the line of trees and the strange green-red lazer beam visible from the ferry approaching the international boundary line at Tsawwassen.


  3. Interesting points and additions, APM and twoeyes, thanks.

    I should say explicitly I am inferring a boundary significance to the pole pictured. It’s possible it marks a burial site of some kind or commemorates an event. Nonetheless, material outlasts meaning, and so for one person at least, me, it suggests a zone of influence is being reinforced.


  4. Hey – I’ve just found this post again, after reading it a long time ago. I’ve been mulling it over as I go through my fieldwork and have a query/suggestion:
    Is it possible that rectangular bark-strips were markers of significant water features? I know that this obviously isn’t the case all the time, but just thinking about examples I have seen recently, it all adds up….
    Butze Rapids in Prince Rupert, has several large RBS CMTs adjacent to the rapids…East Narrows (Haida Gwaii) has a few large RBS CMTs along the shoreline… and more recently, I worked in an area that had a single RBS along a creek, and when talking to my friend who is doing the marine ecology study for the project, it is the same location as the fish break in the stream…
    I’d be interested in hearing any other thoughts on this.


  5. But Jo, there are (or were) tens or hundreds of thousands of rectangular bark-strips that WEREN’T near significant water features.

    Maybe logging tends to have been discouraged near significant water features so there are more CMTs near them than near other shorelines now?


  6. Yeah, it might be confirmation bias I think. Having said that, certainly practices like blazes for trails and to mark property and so forth are explicitly meant to mark terrain, and then there are arbroglyphs, which are a class unto themselves and might have some explicit territorial affirmation.

    So the question of intentionality arises – some CMTs are explicitly marking land. Most are all about the bark. I could imagine a study which took the position that the latter are really all about the former – bark, yes, but a kind of “we are here, stripping bark, this land is occupied” subtext as well. It’d be a tough argument to make persuasively, but I’d be open to someone trying.


  7. Ah, now thats a little different question from Jo’s. I tried to find either clan crest or trading trail affiliation for that magnificent arborgraph on the upper Kispiox but struck out on any explicit links (I think the feature is still with Simogyeet Geel, Walter Harris); some may remember this feature gracing the cover of The Midden in 1991. Michael Blackwater came up with some clear stated links of boundaries and arborglyphs in his examination of tree art in northern BC – Shauna McRanor goes over some of this in an article…/13186

    Aboriginal people travelling through forest on the Northwest Coast before industrial logging would have been highly aware of CMT of various ages that they passed. They would have had a sense of either their own or their forebearer’s harvests in their own territories. If they were travelling for any number of reasons (trade, scouting out enemy territory, or whatever) they would have been able to quickly obtain a good idea of the intensity and frequency of use of any particular landscape by observing CMTs. Given that, I suspect there may have been some good reasons to strip bark in some unusual places in order to send a message of ‘this land is occupied’ to anyone else who happened by.


  8. This image from near the BC/Yukon border is a classic:

    It comes from this site:

    I am pretty sure that I have heard another interpretation of this image – that it marks a location that a person or some people died crossing a river on the main trail from Haines AK to Haines Junction YT areas. However, there are several of these trees along that route and it might have been another of them that was a memorial.


  9. Thanks, APM, that is a classic picture and a nifty little Yukon website too.

    Morley, I guess it is different than Jo’s comment — I like your idea of CMTs as a sort of observable proxy of local population density. Valuable information, indeed. Last summer one of the fish weirs in Haida Gwaii had numerous bark strips near it, noticeably associated it seemed to me, which might well date the last or latest use of that weir. I think w.r.t. Jo’s comment, if one could show the bark strips were oriented in a way that maximized their visibility, i.e., statistically different cardinal direction vs. random sample, or something, that might bolster her argument. Interestingly, I bet a lot of the data needed to construct and test the hypothesis is already gathered and ready to go.


  10. monday morning distraction number 4 (thanks to Q)…

    I assume that big bark boards found near a water body on the south central coast (the limit of their distribution), signify a camp is nearby, someone has camped there – on the north coast where bark boards were a valuable trade item, it appears these can be found all over the place. On Haida Gwaii we found some unusual bark boards several km up a valley in association with a major yellow cedar bark harvest area – one BB was way up the stem of the tree and faced out to the valley, would have been very difficult to remove but also would have been visible from the valley below, possible a marker, or just some young guy showing off.

    Smaller rectangular scars found near water bodies, I generally assume, are associated with canoe bailers and travel, possibly a short stay. these may also be expedient cooking vessels associated with travel and short stay.

    We have found CMTs are often a secondary pursuit, occurring while doing other activities. Indeed the ‘Namgis people I work with will often harvest bark whenever the chance arises, while we are ‘working’. This is why these features are found near berry harvest areas (especially berry harvest areas) fish camps, weirs, trails, river crossings, hunting areas and camps, etc etc. And this is why CMTs provide an excellent above ground indicator (signs) of what may be found below the surface or nearby in a rockshelter, creek, etc, if one was to look very carefully (or a good place to stop and eat berries). The RBS at the fish break likely associated with a camp.

    As Morley says, for those in know, these features would alert locals and non-locals alike to use of the land, although as Hobler used to say ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ (sorry for the cheese).

    Re: territorial markers, I believe some testhole/undercut features on Haida Gwaii have been suggested to be markers of family logging areas. In areas with lots of big waterways, rock art seems to be the marker of choice. I had the great opportunity to check out the Woss lake ‘grease trail’ at the upper end of the Nimpkish valley, there are signs such as rock art panels and even arborglyphs that may be perceived as territorial markers to outsiders but actually have specific meanings and relate some specific histories/events and/or connections between the different populations, in this case the ‘Namgis and the Mowachaht.

    Check out Elms article on the Woss Lake Grease Trail and Don Svanviks recent arborglyphs…

    One of the older arborglyphs dates to 1982 and the other the late 1800’s.


    • Hi Jim,

      Hey, great comment, very stimulating. TO some degree, a bark strip is always going to be a visible marker – former students of mine will laugh, but this is where the sort of reflexive relationship with the world that is mediated through “stigmergic communication” – the signs of work accomplished which further guide future work – comes in. That is, the bark strips themselves come to guide the utilization of an area for bark stripping by communicating the message, “someone, once, at some time, maybe someone you don’t even know, found this stand of trees useful for stripping bark” and can thus instigate that action. Communication and harmonization of work through material culture. OK enough of that, but that’s a direction I might go with it, derived from my [insert declaimer: crazy] phd thesis.

      I’m pretty sure Hobler got that expression from me 😦

      That Woss article is really interesting and a nice piece of work. That’s a huge age range on the arborglyphs!

      I like it when these old posts come back to life, thanks Jo for the CPR.


  11. A couple of examples of CMTs maybe being markers, incidentally or deliberately occur to me from my experience recording sites in Haida Gwaii. In Gwaii Haanas park there are a few definite tree burial sites (associated boards and/or human remains), all making use of spruce trees. There seems to be an association with bark strips on some of the spruce at most of these sites. I expect that the bark was removed with some purpose associated with the burials – maybe for a slab of bark (no cedar anywhere near) for covering a box, or perhaps for some other purposes. It seems highly unlikely that it would be cambium stripped after the burials were put in place, but you never know. They do end up like a big blaze and might mean more than just “bark was removed here”. However, before anyone jumps sideways on this, I most certainly do not think that scarred spruce are a predictor of burials, since it is well known that they were used for nutrition (while tree burial is very poorly documented for the Haida) and I have seen quite a few such sites with absolutely no indications of use as burial trees.

    Another example was one of the burial caves that we recorded. In the cave were the outlines of where boxes had once been, cleared in the cobble floor. Lying around were some pieces of cedar bark and other items not infrequently found in such caves. The cedar bark had its exterior bark still in place. On the cliff top, immediately above the cave, was a single large cedar with a rectangular bark slab removed. No other CMTs anywhere near by, very little in the way of cedar either. I would bet that the bark in the cave came off that tree above. The prominent scar could serve to mark the burial cave below, or could just be incidental to getting some bark to put over a box when it was placed in the cave.


  12. Wow – I hadn’t expected so much feedback from an old post 🙂
    Thanks everyone.
    Jamie Anfossi and I found a large arboglyph (face) in a tree YEARS ago, out of Hazelton. I remember at the time somebody saying they were supposed to be the faces of the local chiefs, so you knew who to pay tribute to as you used their trail…I’m going to have to try and look up that report – I hope there’s a photo in it!
    Interesting food for thought. While spending time in the bush, it’s the large rectangulars that tend to stick out (both in my memory, and on the ground!).
    I have gone through several theories myself, and do admit to the majority of them just having to do with ‘practical’ functions. My first ‘RBS along the shorelines’ theory was that if one needed to cross the water, how best to do it than just grabbing the nearest large piece of wood, sewing it up and having an ‘expedient’ canoe…However, it was the ONE, by itself, in the same location as the fish break that sparked it for me. (No ‘camp’ nearby, low arch potential for about a 400m diameter around it!)
    In our CMT recording data, we often give information on bearing, slope, side, etc. But not usually data with regards to orientation to the nearest water source etc. Although I’m sure some magical GIS fairies can figure that out 😉
    Thanks for the neat links and thoughts. One day I’ll have the time to come up with some stats to solidify things!


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