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.

Detail of house roof structures. Source: State Library of New South Wales.

In the previous discussion of the interior house view, the point was made about how the roofs were supported.  On the right-most house in this detail, there seem to be the longitudinal rafter poles above the actual house frame, which for some reason is to the outside of this house.  A similar structure holds for the house on the extreme left of this detail, where the ends of these rafter poles are just below the roof boards.  This image of Neah Bay in 1905 shows a Makah house with the planks well inside its frame.  Meanwhile, it is surprising to me to see the large logs on top of the middle house’s roof, presumably intended to hold down the roof planks – I always thought rocks served that role but of course logs are much more practical.  It’s also worth noting what appears to be an exterior wooden platform between the two central houses, suggesting what?  A kind of outdoors boardwalk or patio?  In the full image, a similar structure can be seen at the extreme right (see below).  And here, in a somewhat stylized Spanish engraving by Jose Cardero from Malaspina’s visit in 1792, we see a platform at Nootka used for outdoor ceremonials.  Specifically the caption is roughly translated as “Celebrations given by Chief Maquinna on the occasion of his daughter entering puberty” (library accession info).  These outdoor platforms have most interesting implications for site formation processes in coastal shell middens.

Detail of house(s) to the right - note the platform, lower right. Source: State Library of New South Wales.

At first glance this appears to be two houses in the picture above, but the continuous roofline suggests otherwise – is there an offset gap into which a figure is disappearing?  On the righthand roof, there is another unusual or unexpected arrangement of logs atop the roof.  The height of the mounded shell is quite apparent here — several metres!  Where will this shell eventually go?  Some will slide forward into the intertidal zone, the rest will level out, or eventually, be levelled out, I suspect.  To maintain the pathways between the mounds I suspect that shell dumping was fairly thoughtful and mostly out front.  This makes me wonder if the shell ridges which define house platforms was also a deliberate measure to control low-level irritating draftiness — an irritation these seaward berms must also have helped with.  The irregular racks of poles are undoubtedly fish-drying racks.  Similar ones can be seen in use here at Neah Bay in Makah territory.

Detail of beach. Source: State Library of New South Wales.

Turning now to the figures on the beach in front of the site, we see a canoe apparently loaded with fish.  I’d love to get more discussion on the form of the “Nootkan” canoe in 1778 – this one appears to have maximum beam surprisingly far forward.  Behind, three of the Nuu-chah-nulth figures are holding long, straight poles comparable to the “pikes” which previously came up in conversation.

Detail of beach to the left. Source: State Library of New South Wales.

Most surprising to me is this small structure right down on the beach, almost in what must be the intertidal zone.  With its extra long planks, it appears a little more haphazard to me is perhaps a more expedient shelter or special purpose building.  This famous picture of a Tatoosh Island potlatch shows similar structures at the top of the beach.  Surely such structures could not survive the winter storms?  The idea that there were more structures at a winter village in the summer than in the winter is rather novel and challenging for my tiny brain.

In any case, there is a wealth of stimulating detail in this original painting, and no doubt more to be gained were the actual painting to be examined: compare these reproductions to the British Museum painting I linked to before for a sense of how crisp an original Webber can be.  Additionally, Webber’s sketchbooks must be somewhere: I suspect he assembled these paintings from field sketches, each of which might be a rich source of, perhaps annotated, detail.  Gentlemen, start your googles.

11 responses to “Webber’s Village in Nootka Sound: Original Watercolour

  1. Thanks for posting these and hosting discussion.

    Those lumpy incised pathways and stockpiled and strategically redeposited mounds of shell are part of the beauty, utility, and complexity of shellmidden formation.

    The idea that shell middens are “stratigraphic nightmares” is an arguably justified perspective, but one which I think has hindered research over the long term.

    Being appropriately wary must not get in the way of being appropriately inquisitive!?


    • Hi twoeyes,

      OK I withdraw the term “nightmare” and replace it with “dreamlike conditions for appropriate inquisition!”

      But my point is: do you know of a better illustration of site formation process on the NW Coast?

      Those piles of shells must be being maintained, the shell is corralled, is dumped in piles 10 feet high, pathways are maintained, and people hang around on top. This is so, so far away from the flat landform with its subtle surficial features we tend to associate with shell midden archaeology. And yet, do we properly recognize just how dynamic and culturally structured the active surface of a shell midden is?

      So, what are the lessons? Maybe:

      Dumping was strategic and culturally structured and goal directed and not just taking out the trash.

      Dumping was mostly in front of the houses.

      The unconsolidated matrix and its cargo of culture ends up smeared out, somehow, eroded, lost, slumped backwards.

      Do we account for that in our interpretation? Does this demand more stratigraphic attention, or less? Do we go micro, like at Hoko rockshelter or English camp? Can we go micro in a 10 foot high pile of shell? What was actually learned from the micro approach – seriously – no doubt something was gained but can it be placed in a small nutchell for me?

      I mean, seriously, WTF are we supposed to do when confronted with the cultural terrain we see in this picture? Other than go dig in a cave, somewhere, that is.

      Also, the lumpiness is captured in the Cardero image I linked in the post as well, to the right:


      (Interesting discussion of naive North American stratigraphy over here:


  2. I take back my comment about the possibly accurate depiction of canoes; while the originals may have been accurate, the canoes in these engravings and paintings are distinctly odd; with very low shear (I think someone else mentioned this the other day) extending to the bow extension, beam forward, no stern post, ‘crude’ look, etc.

    The Webber houses from the outside also have some architectural oddities; again absent are paired small-diameter wall posts and the planks seem to be unslung. The forest of higglety-piggelty extending wall posts is visible on virtually every early historical photo (except for some on the North Coast of course). The main beams seem to be sitting on top of the roof planks on several houses.

    The big mounds of midden on the bank must have been reworked by storms and high tides and subsequent slumpage on a regular basis. There looks to be no demarkation between the beach and the midden bank. Mitchell suspected back in the early 1970s that in some cases midden accumulation could outstrip erosion into the intertidal, and result in ‘landfill’. Despite the mounds up top, when we have undertaken intertidal midden excavation, the layers have usually had pretty simple stratigraphy (lots of layers but generally parallel with a gentle dip( (various village midden/wetsites at Ditidaht, Montague Harbour, Portage Park). The south coast villages have marked differences to the north coast mainland villages, where large mounded midden ridges BEHIND the houses are the norm.


    • I suspect that Webber was an artist first, whereas many of the early renderings with which we are familiar were done by artistically-inclined naval officers, who may well have had, as you suggested, a keen eye for nautical detail.

      I’ve uploaded a couple of pictures from Samuels et al 1991, Ozette publication #1 (download page here: https://research.wsulibs.wsu.edu:8443/dspace/handle/2376/2057

      This shows Samuels’ schematic of wall construction, with planks supported on withes from paired support poles, structurally independent of the heavy house frame:

      This shows the archaeological base of such a wall.

      I agree the absence of paired support posts in the Webber is odd. This picture I linked before also lacks them:


      But I imagine that is a result of use of nails. I suppose the planks in the Webber could be pegged on somehow? I don’t know why he would omit them yet include so many other salient details.


      • They might be omitted as too noisy to make a nice image. Even J.G. Swan, who had plenty of time to get the details right since he lived in Neah Bay for several years, omits those details.

        This painting of a Makah village (Baada, Neah Bay) has no hint of the uprights, but is a lot further away.

        This painting inside a Makah house while packed with detail has no structural details to speak of.

        On the other hand, Frederick Whymper’s sketches and drawings and resulting etchings of Whyack (at mouth of Nitinat River) and a couple of Uchucklesaht villages from ~1864 all show the uprights. I can’t find online versions of these images, but they are reproduced in John Hayman’s book “Robert Brown and the Vancouver Island Expedition”. This is where they are stored physically:



  3. Funny thing about that Whymper sketch of Wya?ak (sorry to the memory of my old teacher tli?shal, John Thomas, I forget the spelling!) is that it has the Brown expedition tents set up in the middle of the intertidal. We had that sketch and a photo I took from the same location in the Ditidaht Inventory report – which I can’t get into from the Branch Library, some password issue.


  4. Re: This quote from Robert Haswell, 1st mate on the Columbia, 1789, on max width of Nootka canoes: “their extreem bredth is forward of the beem”. (Howay [ed], Voyages of the Columbia, 1990:63)


  5. I’m interested in tracking down any written records made by Cook or members of his crew while at Nootka Sound. Do you know if any have been published, or made available in an online database, or housed in a library I can visit? Thanks.


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