Getting Some Weir Looks

Stone wall fishing structure being used near Hagwilget, LowerBulkley River near Skeena River, Wet'suwet'en Territory, ca. 1910. Source: BC Archives

Stone wall fishing structure being used near Hagwilget, LowerBulkley River just upstream of confluence with Skeena River at ‘Ksan and Gitanmaax, Wet’suwet’en Territory, ca. 1910. Source: BC Archives https://goo.gl/EKKB2S

This post is just a random collection of lesser-known historic images of fish weirs and traps from the Northwest Coast and Interior. There’s lots to learn for archaeologists from historic pictures generally, but the way that images circulate and are reproduced means we often see the same ones over and over again. I’ve found a few archival pics which may be familiar to some, but possibly novel to many.

For example, the picture above shows a surprisingly large (to me) stone weir near Hagwilget Canyon, which is a major fishing station on the Bulkley River. I think it must be in the large kidney-shaped pool just downstream of the bridge (map). While the main structure may be partially or wholly a natural cobble bar feature, to the left there is a smaller weir that definitely appears cultural. Note the drying structures and smoke houses in the background, detail below.

Drying fish in structures at Hagwilget, ca. 1890s. Source: BC Archives https://goo.gl/4aAy6w

Drying fish in structures at Hagwilget, ca. 1890s. Source: BC Archives https://goo.gl/4aAy6w

We discussed  Hagwilget once before when looking at the incredible bridge which used to span the river.  At that time I complained about copyright claims, and my opinion still holds when it comes to material digitized by public agencies. Anyway, the successor to the original Hagwilget bridge  bridge was not much more reassuring, and even the present day bridge is pretty hairy for the faint of butt. 

Lamp fishing at Gitanmaax, which means, "Place of Fishing with Lamp". Source: BRC https://goo.gl/4w9WVq

Lamp fishing with fire in a metal grate at Gitanmaax. The fire attracts the fish to be netted or speared. Source: BRC https://goo.gl/4w9WVq This is highest resolution picture I could find. 

Just downstream of this weir is Hazelton, or Gitanmaax, which means ‘People of the Torchlight Fishing Place’, so it’s particularly welcome to see the practice photographed above in a poorly dated or provenienced photo.

Fish weir and traps at Fraser Lake, 1908. Source BC Archives, https://goo.gl/eJjF46.

Fish weir and traps at Fraser Lake, 1908. Source BC Archives, https://goo.gl/eJjF46.

The picture above is interesting enough for the image of the weir, apparent box-traps, and the post-and lintel structures on the high ground, presumably on the Stellako River near Fraser Lake (Nechako watershed) in the central B.C. Interior. Further to this, if you squint into the background, you can see dozens of small stakes almost level with the water surface.  I would suggest these are likely the remains of former weirs, and a nice example of the “past in the past”.

Haida cultural specialist Jaalen Edenshaw with an extensive fish weir in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve / Haida Heritage Site. These wooden stakes are up to 2,000 years old. Photo by Daryl Fedje I think, or me, maybe.

Haida cultural specialist Jaalen Edenshaw with an extensive fish weir in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve / Haida Heritage Site. These wooden stakes are up to 2,000 years old. Photo by Daryl Fedje I think, or me, maybe.

Such arrays of stubby stakes is the most common archaeological signature of fish weirs in the present day, as seen above for an archaeological weir in a small creek in southern Haida Gwaii.

Fish weir elements exposed in a deep trench, Gray's Harbour, WA.  Source: Elder et al 2014, JICA, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15564894.2014.881933

Fish weir elements exposed in a deep trench, Gray’s Harbour, WA. Source: Elder et al 2014, JICA, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15564894.2014.881933

Indeed, sometimes the stubs themselves are buried under sediment, as is the case above from a site in Gray’s Harbour, Washington.

Salmon weir, Nautley River, Fraser Lake ,October, 1909. Photo by Frank Swannell. Source: BC Archives, https://goo.gl/qwJFnr .

Salmon weir, Nautley River, Fraser Lake ,October, 1909. Photo by Frank Swannell. Source: BC Archives, https://goo.gl/qwJFnr .

This is another picture of a Fraser Lake area fish weir. Two settlers are shown in October 1909 standing on the weir, which to my eye is not the same as the first Fraser Lake one above. While the two men seem to be the same fellows, the background bank, wood debris, structures, and the weir itself are quite different. Maybe these two made a day of it checking out fish weirs in the area, I know I would.

Family preparing salmon heads over a fire at Stuart lake, Central BC interior (near Fort St. James), 1909. Source: BC Archives. https://goo.gl/RPP4UP

Family preparing salmon heads over a fire at Stuart lake (Nak’albun), Central BC interior (near Fort St. James), 1909. Source: BC Archives. https://goo.gl/RPP4UP

I was going to make a ton more links here but my day job is beckoning (and getting on my nerves, no offence boss). The pic above though is super interesting.  From the Stuart River area, it shows a family at a fish camp smoking/drying/cooking some salmon heads over a fire. Generally speaking, salmon heads didn’t preserve as well as the bodies did, and tended to be eaten fresh where the fish were caught, and the post-cranial elements taken back to the base camp or winter village. Archaeologically, this means that fish processing camps should be identifiable by a disproportionate number of salmon head bones relative to body bones, while winter villages (where most salmon consumption was of stored stocks of dried/smoked salmon bodies) would be dominated by vertebrae and other post-cranial skeletal elements. This prediction or observation has been borne out by numerous studies at winter villages.  Studies of the fish camps is less common though, and it is cool to see this photo showing the family cooking up the heads, in contrast to the family near the top of this post who are seen with the dried/smoking salmon body filets and frames.

The figure below shows some archaeological and natural paleontological sites in relation to the natural ratio of salmon bones within a living salmon.

From Virginia Butler, 1993. Standard salmon skeleton contains 42% cranial bones. Note that archaeological site DO-285 is almost all cranial bones, while DO-211 is almost all post-cranial. Meanwhile, Pt Bar is a natural assemblage of dead salmon which is fairly similar to the standard skeleton ratios. Stolen from my intro archaeology course.

From Virginia Butler, 1993, Jrnl. Arch. Sci. A standard (natural) salmon skeleton contains 42% cranial bones. Note that archaeological site DO-285 is almost all cranial bones (so fish catch/process camp?), while DO-211 is almost all post-cranial (winter consumption?). Meanwhile, Pt Bar is a natural assemblage of dead salmon which is fairly similar to the standard skeleton ratios. Stolen from my intro archaeology course.

 

6 responses to “Getting Some Weir Looks

  1. This is a great post, Quentin. Thanks for sharing these great photographs. I am currently in Berkeley having just given a lecture… I finally got to meet Chris Ames in person who I understand has been working in your Dept. Sending all my UVic colleagues best regards.

    M. Moss

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    • Hi Madonna, thanks for commenting.

      Yes, Chris’ office is next to mine, and I suffer in any comparison of tidiness or output. He’s gone on to bigger and better things than the NW Coast, of course, but I still regard his MA thesis on ground stone through time as raising really important questions, such as the mixed utility of many of the culture type /phase distinctions – they characterize change but diffuse continuity. And also, his observation that ground stone may have arisen for personal adornment reasons is interesting and generally not the first place the largely ecological bias in NW Coast archaeology goes. I haven’t melted his mind, or anyone else’s for that matter, with some mid Holocene ground stone celts from a site in Haida Gwaii.

      Just look how heterogeneous Marpole assemblages are, and yet they get totalized or collapsed into a “thing”. Source: Ames’ thesis
      http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/thesescanada/vol1/QMM/TC-QMM-66987.pdf (direct download of thesis).

      [OMG look at all those “QMs” in that URL, must be a quality document]
      Anyway this is a comment not an essay so

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  2. Having had the honor of helping to restore the stakes extracted at Grays Harbor (photo above) we learned a valuable lesson. These artifacts had first been sent to a university where they were allowed to dry and were quickly deteriorating to a point where they might have been completely destroyed. Fortunately, lengthy submerging in PEG with occasional rinsing and cleaning saved the day. Just a word to the wise if others encounter this challenge.

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    • Hi Dale Fishel,
      Yes conservation of these kinds of water-saturated wooden artifacts is technically challenging — it seems like there are basic protocols, but then each case may be slightly different as well. We’re sitting on an early-mid Holocene wooden atlatl at my day job, which would make a good wooden spoon if we dried it out.

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  3. Due to a mixture of extreme skill, luck, and boredom, I’ve just come across an MA thesis on the topic of Babine wooden stake fish weirs. The following link will start a 2 meg PDF download. Haven’t read it yet but because Babine is close to the topic of this post, I’m sticking it in here – weirs in general could use a lot more close study in my opinion. I remember Madonna Moss’ observation way back when that a single intertidal wooden stake complex in Alaska had a thousand year use-life as a single feature, based on multiple 14C dates. That was quite a mind-melting demonstration of the tremendous continuities and long term occupancy in First Nations life on the coast. In fact, when I set off to do my PhD the proposal was to do fish traps and not the Crazyville topic (excavating Bourdieu’s termite nest) I wandered into. Lots of room for graduate students to take up this topic!

    BABINE WOOD-STAKE FISH WEIRS IN AN ELEVEN KILOMETER STRETCH OF THE BABINE RIVER AND NILKITKWA LAKE, NORTH CENTRAL BRITISH COLUMBIA by Michael Adam Kantakis UNBC 2017.

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  4. great post and super to have a revival of the blog, btw, im keen to supervise students on fish trap type topics and I think I took that pic of Jaalen

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