Waatch River: a raised beach site on the Olympic Peninsula

View from West up Waatch River Valley to Neah Bay; Vancouver Island in the distance. Source: Panoramio user Sam Beebe.

The Waatch River flows in a low valley that connects Neah Bay across the Olympic Peninsula to Makah Bay.  When sea levels were higher, it would flood with sea water and turn Cape Flattery into an island.  Interesting, then, to see that an old raised beach site has been found on the Waatch River at an elevation of about 13 metres above, and 2 km away from, the modern shoreline.

Waatch River stratigraphy. Source: Wessen, 2006.

The site has been preliminarily excavated by old Ozette hands Jeff Mauger and Dave Huelsbeck, under the general oversight of Gary Wessen from the Makah Cultural Centre.  A series of radiocarbon dates puts most of the occupation between 3,000 and 4,000 radiocarbon years ago.  The site report from 2006 by Wessen is available for online download (2 meg PDF), while there is a very short item here – the PDF is the best source of information.   There is one date of 4,300, from a part of the site which has seen little other excavation.  The majority of the deposits are shell-rich, but Wessen notes that most of the non-shell strata are also cultural.

A large faunal sample has been recovered (Shellfish NISP > 30,000, Fish NISP > 6,000).  Shellfish are dominated by Butter and Horse clams.  Among fish, greenling are, perhaps surprisingly, the most abundant, followed by salmon and herring.   Mammals are much less common, and are mainly sea mammal with Northern Fur Seal dominant.  Unfortunately, the fish and mammal bone tables are missing from the report – there are placeholders for them. Birds are well represented by Scoter, ducks, gulls and albatross.

Two unusual finds are a probable turtle bone, and a fossil univalve, which Wessen concludes was brought to the site by people.  The artifact assemblage includes the usual bone  as well as a flaked stone assemblage (n=245), indicating this is not part of the “West Coast Culture Type”.  A prominent part of the flaked stone is a  bipolar industry on water-worn quartz pebbles, as seen at the nearby Hoko River site  The two flaked stone projectile points were surface finds and do not have associated dates.

Field School students at work at Waatch River. Source: NOAA

All in all, this is an intriguing site which should  be better known, especially in comparison to sites of similar age now being found on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  The sea level history appears to be quite different in detail from Vancouver Island, and the fact that the oldest date is from the least investigated part of the site offers hope there might be older material still to be found.

Fossil snail shell from Waatch River Site. Source: Wessen 2006.



18 responses to “Waatch River: a raised beach site on the Olympic Peninsula

  1. Interesting site; as usual, Garry Wessen seems to have done more than his share of ‘interesting’ projects. Is the sea level curve that different for Olympic Peninsula? The sea level is certainly still falling on the west coast of Vancouver Island – we found shoreline surveyor’s cairns that were now stranded 40 or 50 m inland during the Ditidaht Reserve inventory way back when. I believe the yearly change is now measured by GPS stations across Vancouver Island that the Pacific Geoscience people installed.


    • Hi Morley,

      The report says “40 feet” above sea level, but if that is, say, chart datum vs mean high tide it makes a big difference as you know — say, 13 metres +/- 3 metres right there. Then, subtract a metre for the depth of the cultural deposits I suppose. But it is not that easy to get this elevation down to a comparable 4 to 6 metre elevation for Barkley Sound high stand. Of course, it might just have been on a little river terrace and not on a wave-cut bank reflecting palaeo-shoreline precisely.

      I haven’t read every word of the report so there might be more in there, but I don’t think it would be at all unexpected that this remote tip of a peninsula close to the continental shelf edge and major faults would have a pretty different sea level history than western Vancouver Island. I expect twoeyes will know; if not it reflects poorly on UBC doesn’t it.


  2. Quentin

    Thank you for noticing this report. I was first a little mystified where you got it, but following your links, I see that the NOAA folks have it up on their site. I didn’t realize that before. Unfortunately, they have some of the facts wrong and the file they have available is an incomplete draft. The report was actually prepared for the MCRC and they have the complete final copy.

    45CA400 is a very interesting site and you are correct, we have only done a little work there. This is actually the fifth raised beach site on the northwestern Olympic Peninsula that I have tested. The MCRC also has similar testing reports for 45CA3, 45CA22, and 45CA420, and there is also a report for 45CA201. Huelsbeck and I have a summary paper on these sites in draft at the moment and we are hopefully that it will appear soon.

    All of these sites provide evidence that a sophisticated maritime tradition has been present in this region far longer than Schalk’s (1988) model suggests.

    The question of the region’s sea level history, in relation to the west coast of Vancouver Island, is of considerable interest to us, but not something we know much about. We actually know of at least nine of these sites. All of them are now in interior settings, but there appears to be significant differences in their elevations (although I should acknowledge that we don’t have very good vertical controls on most of them). Thus, while all or most may be associated with the same sea level stand, they don’t appear to have all had the same relationship to the beach they were associated with. We are hoping to do some work on Holocene sea level chronology this summer and perhaps we will learn a few things.


    • Hi Gary,

      Thanks for your comments. yes, I found the PDF on the NOAA site and presumed it was a public document. If the Makah didn’t want this to be in the public domain then I can take down that link. Or, if you’d prefer to have the final report linked then I can arrange that too. 🙂 Email is under the “about” tab.

      Anyway, it is a fascinating site and the resonances with western Vancouver Island are striking. Several of the archaeologists out here are working hard on sea level history, that is, generating their own data as well as using the natural science data, and it is directly leading to filling in substantial gaps in the local culture histories. Duncan McLaren, for example, pushed north coast archaeological record back from 5000 years old to almost 10,000 years old with a focused sea level approach. Similarly, I think we’ll be seeing some early Holocene dates out of Barkley Sound soon. So I am really loking forward to following along with these cool finds you mention in Makah Territory.



  3. Karen L Church, BGS

    I would love to see more info on this topic. Any more links easily available? What about the different high still stand levels on the Charlottes? Wonder if a paper has been put together on the arch sites found in the last 10 years, in particular sites on Copper River, Moresby Island, a few kilometers up stream of the mouth. These sites, found during AIAs for a local logging company , provide more info on possible still stand elevation.


  4. Hi Karen,

    I think occasional commenter here “Jo” worked on the copper river ones. I don’t know much about them myself. They would be useful for connecting the dots between the NE Graham high stand data (which is pretty good) and the SE Moresby high stand data (which is excellent). And of course it would be good to see some nice excavation at those Copper River sites and their position relative to the paleo-river — there is still not that much concrete evidence for salmon use in the early Holocene (though I am sure it was used) and the site location there could speak volumes. Even without good preservation, then there might be calcine salmon bone which is readily identifiable relative to most fish bones (as shown in a recent UVIC MA thesis on hearths at Richardson island which contain salmon at 9200 14Cbp.

    Of course the Copper River sites might only be 5000 BP and comparable to Cohoe Creek.

    To answer your question, I don’t know of any other info on these Makah sites, but Gary Wessen above alludes to some forthcoming material and the existence of more complete reports….


  5. Quentin

    I am pleased that there is interest in the recent work on these sites on the Olympic Peninsula, and I regret that the reports on most of this work are difficult to access. I think that the paper that Dave Huelsbeck and I are almost finished with should help address the latter issue, but perhaps it might be useful if I offered a few overview details here.

    We currently know of at least nine sites on the northwestern Olympic Peninsula that contain cultural deposits which do not appear to be associated with modern sea level. Seven of the sites in this group do not appear to have been occupied during the last ca. 1,000 years and are (apparently) not known to Makah oral history. Two of them are late prehistoric to early historic traditional Makah village sites which also contain older deposits on raised surfaces interior to the more recent deposits. (Neither of the latter sites have been extensively studied and I would not be surprised if more detailed internal mapping showed that the older and more recent deposits are not actually continuous.)

    All of the sites contain shell midden deposits; in some cases, very thick high densityshell midden deposits. In all cases, the shell midden deposits begin approximately 30 to 60 cms below the ground surface (and yes, this makes them difficult to find). In at least four cases, chipped stone artifacts, FCR, and a low density of bone is present in the deposits which overlie the shell midden. The latter assemblages are dominted by bi-polar quartz microlith materials very much like those reported from the Hoko wet site.

    At least one C14 date is available for eight of the nine sites and multiple dates are available for six of them. Most dates for the shell midden deposits fall between ca. 1,500 and 4,000 cal B.P. A few older dates have been reported and our oldest date is 5,233 +/- 155 cal B.P. Of some note, shell deposition at at least four of the sites ends during the interval between ca. 1,500 and 1,700 cal B.P. and we are suspecting that there may be a seismic dimension to this picture. (Hopefully, geolgical work planned for this summer will address the latter thought.)

    All of these sites contain abundant evidence of the use of both nearshore and deeper water marine resources. Some of the sites contain faunal assemblages suggesting fall/winter/ spring ocupation.

    Hope this brief overview is helpful to those wanting more information.


  6. Gary, that is great information and what I like about this blog – it is international NWC, not just one state or province. Great opportunity to spread data across those artificial boundaries.

    Maybe someone will summarise for you the Barkley Sound data for older deposits, in more detail than I can. I have worked on one of what must now be 4 or 5 sites with dated old deposits. These sites have been found on higher terraces at one end or behind more recent midden sites. All are associated with major village sites, but that is probably a matter of research focus since most of this data arises incidentally to village-centric studies. They are either an older deposit comprised of a single component separated by elevation from the newer adjacent village deposits, or an older component beneath more recent midden deposits.

    I don’t recall the elevations, but think they tend to be around 5 m to 8m above mean sea level for the dated basal deposit. The dates are pretty consistent in around 5000 calBP.

    The site I worked on has a date collected in an auger sample from the base of a 2.0m thick deposit near its interface with a marine? sand at an elevation of ~4.6m above the barnacle line which was used as a rough approximation for mean sea level (gotta tie that elevation down to a surveyed benchmark sometime, or better yet to a LIDAR flight). The date was 4540 +/-40BP, calibrated 2 sigma to 5320-5050BP.

    Maybe someone that has worked on the other sites can chime in with a bit more data – twoeyes are you out there?

    Also, I have seen sites in Clayoquot Sound at these kinds of elevations that are not associated with villages so expect that there are quite a few of these sites out there just waiting for a more focussed raised beach project with some money for LIDAR (if it will penetrate the salal) to guide the study.

    Source: 2002 Kiik7in Village Mapping and Dating Project, Kiix7in National Historic Site. Sumpter et al, 2003. Parks Canada. (DeSh-2)


  7. Gary – thanks for that excellent summary. Incidentally, we now have an example of that small rounded quartzite pebble, bipolar-reduction splintering technology in Barkley Sound; it’s part of a collection a graduate student here is working up so no details yet. And the potential seismic connection is very cool, not only for the impact on people and settlement history, but also just for the influence on sea level itself.

    APM – that sounds about right except I think those would be the elevations of the tops of the deposits and the basal deposts are more like 4-6 at the highstand. But that’s from memory!


  8. The DeSh-2 auger location was about 6.6m abl on the surface, 4.6m abl at the date location. The barnacle line is the fly in the ointment – the report refers to as equivalent to mean high tide rather than mean sea level, so maybe that is the difference you are thinking of?


  9. I wasn’t thinking of any particular site, just what the generic sea level history is, which I suspect has something of SW-NE gradient as you get more continental on V.I. since the island is, if I recall, tilting (spinning) on its longitudinal axis, with the west side rising quicker than the east.

    Re: barnacle line, this is an interesting review article from the Gwaii Haanas guys on all the different ways to express it (mht, aht, chart datum, etc.) and the ensuent problems when dealing with small but significant changes and doing terrestrial and marine GIS overlays. Only the abstract is online (if anyone wants to see it I can lend them my PDF, hint):


    Journal of Coastal Research 23(1):75-86. 2007
    doi: 10.2112/05-0526.1

    Reconciling Maps with Charts towards Harmonizing Coastal Zone Base Mapping: A Case Study from British Columbia

    P. M. Bartier and N. A. Sloan


  10. Gary, thanks for sharing your report and great comments on the very interesting ‘coastal sites in the forest’ (neat to hear about the thick humic layers and fauna btw). Quentin, thanks for imposing a consuming distraction from my coursework and proposal writing.

    Gary, I am involved in an ongoing project in Barkley Sound with Tseshaht First Nation and have been trying to reconcile sea level and settlement histories by drawing on available data as well as my own ongoing fieldwork. Thus, it is exciting to hear that there are similar yet intriguingly different issues in Makah territory.

    As many readers will know, Al McMillan and Denis St. Claire have excavated several sites with elevated cultural components behind and ‘above’ large villages (Arcas, Morley, APM, IR Wilson, Baseline, Parks Canada, and others have also made vital sea level observations). As the APM – Qmackie discourse eludes to, while these data are conclusively suggestive, a challenge is in comparing the different definitions of ‘elevation above sea level’ used by different archaeological projects. What does ‘sea level’ mean (e.g., high tide-line, highest high-tide line, vegetation line, barnacle line, mean sea level/geodetic datum, low low tide/chart datum, etc.). These complicate our attempts to compare elevations – which really need to be compared and where sub-metre accuracy matters.

    Thus, in hopes of being helpful, one of my goals for this summer is to revisit a series of dated sites to remeasure datum elevations in relation to these different reference points so that all data can be plotted on a single axis. For me, an interesting issue are the within-region differences in relative sea level amidst the complexities of tectonics and uplift as they affect settlement location and archaeological potential. I will be able to share this data at some point in the future but since I’m a student who eventually wants a job, I should probably aim to share/publish these in a venue other than this ‘peer-reviewed’ blog.

    All the best with your fieldwork and thanks for sharing this info.

    Many cheers,

    Iain McKechnie

    PS Quentin, there is a tectonically important difference between Vancouver Island and Washington State and it is not just limited to sea levels! Gary may be able to describe this more extensively…


  11. twoeyes – at DeSh-2 when we were mapping the site with a theodolite we did take a few measurements on tidal level and I am pretty sure noted the exact time. If you can get access to those data you might be able to get a reasonably precise estimate of elevation for that site. For some work I did in Gwaii Haanas , we did the same, though with a hand level only, and with the help of the tidal levels scientist at Canadian Hydrographic Service was able to get an elevation that we figured was something in the oder of +/- 20cm. This was preliminary and not readily testable due to lack of nearby surveyed benchmark datums. The ability to get a precise estimate of sea level is connected also to things like proximity to a tidal station, wave action (ie, none) and number of measurements taken on different days.

    I suggest you look more closely into this method in the Barkley Sound area as I think it could prove useful. It does require proof which is something I never was in a location suited to testing.

    You could, for instance, get a map (online somewhere) of the Geodetic Survey Datums that are near the shoreline (which there are bound to be a few of in the Bamfield and Ucluelet areas, and maybe one or two somewhere in the Broken Group) and try to tie some of them into a timed observation of sea level in nice calm protected waters. With a hand level or better yet a construction site level you would have reasonably precise data, In that way you could have “absloute” measurements with which to compare the precision of the elevation estimates derived from tidal level at a fixed time. And if it works, or if it has an acceptable +/- then you could apply it to sites without proximity to a control datum.


  12. Just had to pipe in here about ‘elevation above sea level’ and getting precise (rather than accurate) previous sea level positions down to less than a meter precision using archaeological data. Given that tidal ranges vary and are generally quite large (6 m typical?) and that people used the intertidal area (salmon roasting and beach parties for example) as well as the terrestrial shoreline which (as noted above) also varies greatly in profile etc., and not all sites are located at the high tide line (many sites here on pender are 5-10 m above the high tide line), obtaining such precision using archaeological data will be very difficult if not impossible to do.

    Other factors also contribute to the stranding of sites inland (confounding things further). As Iain should be aware (please read the draft report I sent you) and is well documented on NE Graham island by Ian Walker and others
    (http://www.geog.uvic.ca/blast/publication2.html) , eroding sea cliffs and stream sediment contribute to longshore drift and the building of new land. Stranded sites in the Masset and Rose Spit area for example are associated with both sea level fall and increased sedimentation from the eroding NE coast, which builds the beach and creates alot of windblown sands. One fellow who owns a lot on North beach, east of Masset, told me the land had grown over a hundred meters sea ward since it was surveyed in ca 1910.


  13. Hi Jim, the problem I am trying to address is not to determine sea level history from the archaeological evidence, but to get an accurate elevation for a site, in order to plug it back into sea level history as an in important piece of palaeoenvironmental context. Sea level curves often do include archaeological data in their development, but as you suggest they must be used with care.


  14. Jim, thanks for the reminder about my report reading responsibilities (a public tisk tisk!?) and apt substitute of the word ‘precise’ for ‘accurate’. However, I concur with APM – measuring the elevation of excavated and dated archaeological deposits in relation to ‘sea level’ is different than assuming that archaeological deposits are always above or at sea level. Sorry if that’s the impression I gave. I am going to try and find a writing cave now and will diligently read your report this weekend.


  15. Sorry all, my misunderstanding, I just wanted to use the term ‘longshore drift’. I better get back to reading words on paper, making little notes and digging holes…


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