Monthly Archives: March 2010

Vanishing Eulachon

Eulachon. Source: Sitnews.net

I often use eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus, a small, anadramous smelt) as an example of “archaeologically-invisible” food. They are also known as “candlefish”, on account of being so oily that a wick jammed down their throat will burn like a candle.

These small fish run by the millions up rivers to spawn, where they could be intercepted.   Traditionally, many or most eulachon would be processed into eulachon oil, or grease: a highly nutritious, calorie-dense substance that preserved very well and could also be used to preserve other foods such as berries.  The means of processing was to put them into a large container, perhaps an old canoe, known colloquially as a “stink box”, let them “rest” there for a week, and then heat them up, enabling the oil to rise and then be skimmed off, or pressed out.  The residue (bones, guts, brains, etc.) would then be returned to the river and few or no bones would make it away from the processing site.  In this way, eulachon provided a staple food, a nutritional supplement, a means of preservation, and an extremely valuable trade item – when Alexander Mackenzie arrived near Bella Coola in 1793, “Over Land, From Canada”, he did so on one of the well-worn grease trails that linked coast to interior. Since the fish arrive in the early Spring, they were hailed as starvation busters in lean years.  Nonetheless, archaeologically they are almost invisible, relative to their importance.

Haisla eulachon catch from the Kemano River. Source: living landscapes.

It is therefore sobering to read that U.S. President Obama has listed the Columbia River eulachon as an endangered species: eulachon are becoming almost invisible relative to the real world now, it seems.

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Northwest Research Obsidian Studies Lab

A flake of obsidian from DhRr-18, southern British Columbia. This visually-distinctive glass is from the Mount Garibaldi obsidian source.

Obsidian is a kind of volcanic glass and was highly prized for making certain kinds of stone tools.  Obsidian forms at places of relatively small outflows of magma, or liquid rock.  Small flows can cool quickly, which allows the formation of a glassy crystalline structure ideal for stone tool manufacture.  Small flows also represent a small sample of well-mixed magma, and thus each little patch of obsidian may share a very distinctive chemical signature.  This signature, usually identified by trace elements such as Strontium, Zirconium, Yttrium and Rubidium, then allows for the chemical fingerprinting of each source.  Any obsidian artifact found, whether at a source or not, can also be “fingerprinted” and then compared to a catalogue of known obsidian ources.  Since the artifacts don’t move around on their own but only through the agency of humans, the distribution of obsidian artifacts is a proxy measure for the movement and interaction of people.  When you have hundreds or thousands of such artifacts and a large database of known sources, then you can start to see large scale, long-term social interaction emerge from the silent archaeological record.  Most obsidian isn’t visually distinctive enough to sort out by eye alone, so these geochemical methods are essential.

So far, so Archaeology 101.  I was really happy to find that Oregon’s Northwest Research Obsidian Studies Laboratory has a web site not which not only solicits business, but is a highly educational and informative site about many aspects of obsidian analysis, with a focus on the Northwest. Continue reading

Edenshaw Compote

Argillite and ivory compote attributed to Haida master carver Charles Edenshaw. Height: 30 cm. Source: Liverpool Museum.

I only have a short post today since I am up to my neck in alligators, courtesy of my day job.  So, take a moment and check out the spectacular argillite compote (a pedestaled serving dish), attributed to Haida master carver Da.axiigang, Charles Edenshaw.  This particular dish is in the collection of the Liverpool Museum – an institution that  holds a collection donated by well-known coastal collector, casual ethnographer, and (apparently) former Liverpudlian, Dr. Charles Newcombe – many of the items in their Northwest Coast section must come from this source.  It is one of the more striking pieces of Argillite I have seen in that the form is so clearly derived from silverware: it is sublimely ridiculous, and I can’t help but feel that Edenshaw was in on the joke.  Yes, he would make what would sell, but a piece like this makes me wonder if he wasn’t slyly pulling the touristic leg, somewhat.

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Salish Villages of Puget Sound

Overview map of Coast Salish Villages of Puget Sound. Click to go to the page of interactive maps at coastsalishmap.org

Tom Dailey has put together a large and very interesting site which documents the Coast Salish villages of Puget Sound.  The core of the site is a series of clickable maps (see the left hand side black/white map grid), each of which is marked with little village icons.  Clicking on these icons takes you to a master document with a synopsis of the settlement name and, usually, a couple of sentences about the village.  These are referenced to scholarly literature and other sources.  It is striking to see all these villages on one map, and notable how many are shown on rivers and lakes.

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Arrow from Tsitsutl Peak Glacier, Western B.C.

400 year old arrow or dart from Tsitsutl glacier, B.C. Source: Keddie and Nelson: 2005.

In 1924, a land surveyor found an arrow at an elevation of 2,100 metres near Tsitsutl Peak in west-central British Columbia (map).  The arrow made its way to the Royal BC Museum where it lay for over 80 years, until a timely inquiry and increased awareness of ice-patch archaeology stimulated a small research program.  This research, initiated by RBCM curator Grant Keddie and reported in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology (Keddie and Nelson 2005), establishes that the arrow is about 400 years old.

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Webber’s Village in Nootka Sound: Original Watercolour

Painting of a village in Nootka Sound, 1778, by John Webber. Source: State Library of New South Wales. Click for larger original.

Yesterday I linked to the original watercolour of a 1778 Nootka Sound house interior by John Webber, which is the basis for the widely reproduced engraving.  Today we can take a look at Webber’s original painting of a Nootka Sound village, presumably Yuquot but not so labelled, as found at the State Library of New South Wales (though yesterday’s post brought forth questions as to whether these are watercolours or coloured engravings – see the comments).  The first and most important point is, see that lumpy, dissected landform in front of the houses?  That, my friends, is what an active shell midden looks like.  No wonder they can be such stratigraphic nightmares.

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Webber’s House Interior: Original Watercolour

1778 Watercolour by John Webber of the interior of a house in Nootka Sound. Source: State Library of New South Wales. Click for original.

A few days ago I posted a beautiful watercolour of Nootka Sound by John Webber, artist on Cook’s third voyage.  In the ensuing discussion, it was brought up how nice it would be to see the original watercolours of more of his paintings, which often formed the basis for the  numerous engraved reproductions which are what one normally sees.  The loss of information in moving from the original to the engraving is something of an unknown quantity, and I for one had never seen the watercolours.  Until yesterday!

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