Seattle waterfront archaeology

"Native American encampment on landfill, circa 1900, south of South Royal Brougham Way and east of First Avenue South." Source:

At the ASBC talk last night it was clear that major industrial development can still leave substantial and highly significant archaeological materials interspersed even within the boundaries of heavy impact – in this case within a few dozen metres of a major hydroelectric dam.  This reminded me of a recent story I read about downtown Seattle archaeology.  Due mainly to concerns about what would happen in even a moderate earthquake comparable to the Nisqually event of 2001, Seattle is planning to replace the Alaska Way viaduct – that multi-level highway which blocks the city from its own waterfront.  You can watch a video of a simulation of the collapse of the viaduct here – I am sure most Seattlers would like to be done with that uncivic monstrosity, but not, perhaps, so suddenly.  Ironically, the ASBC talk on Ruskin Dam was also a seismic upgrade project.

Anyway, the current plan in Seattle is to put a cut-and-cover tunnel in its place – similar to some of the tunnels recently built in Vancouver’s new Canada Line LRT.’s Archaeology-savvy reporter “Mossback” (Knute Berger) has two excellent articles on the problems likely to arise when you dig such a large ditch through dense pre-contact and historic archaeology.  The first article ran on May 11th, with the followup article on May 12th.  If you are truly dedicated, there is a 200 page overview (6 meg PDF) of cultural resource management for the project, though it largely focuses on historic buildings and it relatively vague.

1855 Plan of Seattle Waterfront. Source: UW

Some of the existing knowledge from the area makes it seem likely that the archaeological finds could be of the highest significance, such as this intriguing little hint (anyone know anything more about this site?):

In 1913, the digging of the Ship Canal’s lockpits uncovered a deep shell midden and many ancient artifacts. When Union Bay was lowered, just across from Foster Island, the remains of ancient fishing weirs were uncovered at the site of a native town called Little Canoe Passage (roughly the site of present day University Village). Thrush writes that along the shorelines, ancient stone hearths were uncovered “laid millennia earlier when the lake had been an inlet of Puget Sound.”

As Mossback notes,

First, consider that this area is where the city of Seattle was actually founded, early structures being built on a small point of land called Denny’s Island, a peninsula that was sometimes cut off from the mainland at high tide. It was roughly where First and Jackson is now. In addition to early commercial buildings, there were native village sites there, according to old maps. A wharf was built and eventually docks extended into Elliott Bay and the Duwamish River Delta. What we think of as SoDo was water and a vast tideflat.

At the bottom level, then, you have the old delta, and likely remains of prehistoric activities, covered with sand and mud, and later debris. As docks extended southward, the flats underneath eventually filled in with garbage from the ships and the businesses that sprouted, like sawmills and warehouses. Fill dirt also came from surrounding areas, dug out of Beacon Hill during an aborted ship canal dig project to Lake Washington.

Remains of the 1889 Great Fire were dumped onto the flats to clear the way for the new Pioneer Square. Railroads extended lines and trestles out, and people built homes and shops on the docks and the new land that filled in around them. And those structures were replaced by subsequent generations of warehouses, rail yards, industrial buildings, and residences.

Brewing up support from the public for an extensive archaeological project is, as Mossback says, an important part of the enterprise.  Part of this is the “stick” – and we need look no further than the expensive (100 million dollar) archaeological issues around the Tse-whit-zen site near Port Townsend, a project also handled by Washinton’s Department of Transportation archaeological managers.  Avoiding a similar outcome must be a priority!  But the “carrot” could involve some excellent public interpretation, as has happened with the nearby, West Point Site and its superb website.  About the the viaduct, Berger writes:

In addition, a problem with public archaeology is that projects generate lots of interesting data, but the general public rarely hears about the results. Recently on Crosscut, Art Skolnik, the former head of the Pioneer Square Historic District, suggested that the old Elliott Bay Book Co. space be employed to engage the public with new discoveries from the Viaduct Replacement Project:

Tens of thousands of artifacts will be itemized and documented from paleontological periods, prehistoric native settlements and historic archaeological periods such as the first white settlements and the 1889 Seattle fire. It has been recommended that a sampling of these artifacts with intrepretive displays and lectures should be put on exhibit in Pioneer Square. That is what needs to fill this pivotal recently vacated space. It would be a major economic generator for the District as a destination facility.

Skolnik makes a vital point, which is the need to communicate with the public the excitement of what is being learned as these large projects go forward. Building the future, if it’s done right, can teach us valuable lessons about the past, and that’s a major public benefit.

Coping with cultural resources isn’t only a legal requirement, it’s a valuable part of city-shaping. Despite stereotypes about preservationists wanting to stop progress, I’ve encountered virtually none who do. Only rarely will projects be brought to a screeching halt for archaeological reasons (though disasters do happen). The laws are trying to ensure that cultural impacts, like environmental ones, help shape change by ensuring that history and progress are integrated and strengthen culture, or at the very least, that heritage is not irreparably harmed.

Anyway, both articles are well worth reading and I am a little envious that Seattle has such an archaeologically knowledgeable and yet constructively critical journalist as Berger — we could use one of those in Vancouver!  I think part of the secret is Berger doesn’t distinguish much between pre-contact and historical archaeology, but casts them as a seamless history of the city.  And, as is abundantly clear at Ruskin Dam, at West Point, and numerous other urban or industrial contexts, there can be substantial archaeological materials from the distant past still preserved in strips and patches and deserving of full protection or careful excavation and interpretation.

Labrets from the West Point Site, Seattle. Source: UW

One response to “Seattle waterfront archaeology

  1. Pingback: News – 11 January 2011 | Northwest Coast Maritime Heritage

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