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.
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.
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.
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.
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.