Tag Archives: artifacts

More Mayne Island Museum

Unusual object in the Mayne Island Museum

Unusual object in the Mayne Island Museum, and two celts.

The above is maybe the most unusual object I saw in the archaeological cases in my visit to the Mayne Island museum.  As you can see, it’s labelled as a “large stone abrader” and may well be, I suppose.  It’s thin, an the reddish cast and sort of laminate structure of the rock makes me think it is schist, a material commonly used for flaked “slate” as well as for saws.  If it’s an abrader, I’d say it’d be a saw, since no sign (on this face) of any smooth abraded areas.  However, the general shape seems pretty elaborate for any abrader or saw from my experience. Maybe an elaborate ulu-style knife intended to be hafted across the neck.  Or, what I was wondering when I was there, maybe triggered by a false association to the shape, was something like the ground slate mirrors from the North Coast.  These would be polished to a sheen, then wetted, thus providing a reflection, and if memory serves (and it often doesn’t) were used in rituals more than for popping blackheads. But it doesn’t seem polished enough for that.  All the same, the shape rings a bell and rather than spend too much time looking through old Syesis’s (Syeses?  Syesisis?? ‘copies of the journal Syesis’ – phew) I’m throwing it out here for comment.

There’s a few other pictures form the museum below.

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R.I.P Hilary Stewart, 1924-2014

Hilary Stewart fish weir

Hilary Stewart drawing of a fish weir. Source: bcheritage.ca

Sad news out of Quadra Island with the news that Northwest Coast archaeological legend Hilary Stewart passed away on June 5th, at the age of 90.  The local newspaper the Discovery Islander has a full obituary (page 2) (PDF) written by her friend, anthropologist Joy Inglis.

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Dixon’s Underwater Entrance

Waters around OYK Cave. Source: Polarfield.com

E. James (Jim) Dixon, now at the University of New Mexico,  is pretty well known on the Northwest Coast for his pioneering work at the 10 to 12,000 year old 49-PET-408 (“On Your Knees Cave”) in the Alaskan Panhandle, and more recently for his exciting work on Alaskan Ice Patches. I see now that he apparently received some funding to go underwater during the summer of 2010 in the waters around PET-408, not far north from the aptly named Dixon Entrance, in Southeast Alaska (map).  This work could have implications for the coastal route of First Peopling of the Americas.

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East Wenatchee Clovis Photo Gallery

One of the East Wenatchee Clovis Points. Source: Washington State Historical Society.

A few months ago I posted about the surface finds, or other finds without archaeological context, of the Clovis archaeological culture in Puget Sound, noting that this shouldn’t be all that surprising considering the well-known East Wenatchee (Richey-Roberts) Clovis Cache from just east of the Cascades.  Clovis, as you may know, is an archaeological culture type long associated with the first peopling of the Americas, although a decreasing number of archaeologists think it reflects that series of events.

Anyway, you can review that other post for more details.  What I’ve subsequently found is that the Washington State Historical Society has a colour gallery of all 49 of the artifacts from East Wenatchee.  The pictures are not particularly high resolution but they are well-taken and well-lit and better than most you’ll find on the web.  You can match the projectile points up to this diagram if you are feeling keen, or compare to the pictures at the lithic casting lab, some of which have hands and other useful sizing aids in them.

Even so, since they were scanned from 4 X 5 inch format negatives, it’s disappointing there is no higher resolution downloadable.  For a fringe interest like this, and considering that bandwidth is practically free, let’s make this stuff available.  You can click on the view options to, for example, see both sides of the artifact displayed at once.  It’s also very surprising that there is no photo scale and dimensions are not given.

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Northwest Research Obsidian Studies Lab

A flake of obsidian from DhRr-18, southern British Columbia. This visually-distinctive glass is from the Mount Garibaldi obsidian source.

Obsidian is a kind of volcanic glass and was highly prized for making certain kinds of stone tools.  Obsidian forms at places of relatively small outflows of magma, or liquid rock.  Small flows can cool quickly, which allows the formation of a glassy crystalline structure ideal for stone tool manufacture.  Small flows also represent a small sample of well-mixed magma, and thus each little patch of obsidian may share a very distinctive chemical signature.  This signature, usually identified by trace elements such as Strontium, Zirconium, Yttrium and Rubidium, then allows for the chemical fingerprinting of each source.  Any obsidian artifact found, whether at a source or not, can also be “fingerprinted” and then compared to a catalogue of known obsidian ources.  Since the artifacts don’t move around on their own but only through the agency of humans, the distribution of obsidian artifacts is a proxy measure for the movement and interaction of people.  When you have hundreds or thousands of such artifacts and a large database of known sources, then you can start to see large scale, long-term social interaction emerge from the silent archaeological record.  Most obsidian isn’t visually distinctive enough to sort out by eye alone, so these geochemical methods are essential.

So far, so Archaeology 101.  I was really happy to find that Oregon’s Northwest Research Obsidian Studies Laboratory has a web site not which not only solicits business, but is a highly educational and informative site about many aspects of obsidian analysis, with a focus on the Northwest. Continue reading

Edenshaw Compote

Argillite and ivory compote attributed to Haida master carver Charles Edenshaw. Height: 30 cm. Source: Liverpool Museum.

I only have a short post today since I am up to my neck in alligators, courtesy of my day job.  So, take a moment and check out the spectacular argillite compote (a pedestaled serving dish), attributed to Haida master carver Da.axiigang, Charles Edenshaw.  This particular dish is in the collection of the Liverpool Museum – an institution that  holds a collection donated by well-known coastal collector, casual ethnographer, and (apparently) former Liverpudlian, Dr. Charles Newcombe – many of the items in their Northwest Coast section must come from this source.  It is one of the more striking pieces of Argillite I have seen in that the form is so clearly derived from silverware: it is sublimely ridiculous, and I can’t help but feel that Edenshaw was in on the joke.  Yes, he would make what would sell, but a piece like this makes me wonder if he wasn’t slyly pulling the touristic leg, somewhat.

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Arrow from Tsitsutl Peak Glacier, Western B.C.

400 year old arrow or dart from Tsitsutl glacier, B.C. Source: Keddie and Nelson: 2005.

In 1924, a land surveyor found an arrow at an elevation of 2,100 metres near Tsitsutl Peak in west-central British Columbia (map).  The arrow made its way to the Royal BC Museum where it lay for over 80 years, until a timely inquiry and increased awareness of ice-patch archaeology stimulated a small research program.  This research, initiated by RBCM curator Grant Keddie and reported in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology (Keddie and Nelson 2005), establishes that the arrow is about 400 years old.

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Shopping maul

Maul from the Dundas Collection.  Source: Sotheby's

Tsimshian Maul from the Dundas Collection. Source: Sotheby's

The Dundas collection of Tsimshian objects deserves a week of posts – not just for the stunning beauty and resonance of the art but for the profound issues in heritage management, cultural property ownership, and repatriation ethics which it raises or exemplifies.  I’ve been reading up on it a bit, and at one level the isssue is very simple: these Tsimshian treasures should have been repatriated – not to Canada per se, but to Tsimshian Territory.  At another level, there are complex, interwoven threads of (mutual) respect and ownership which make (and made) for no easy solution.   And no easy solution was reached: the collection was broken up, with the majority of the pieces sold to foreign hands (by foreign, here, I mean non-Tsimshian though I am prepared to argue this).

But for today, I was interested to see the Sotheby’s auction catalogue from the 2006 sale of this collection is still online.  The most interesting piece, of course, is the northern-style maul, seen above.  It sold for a surprising USD $1,320.00.  I wonder if it was in use at the time of collection or if it was already an archaeological specimen.  Collection of such materials from archaeological sites and their sale is, of course, now illegal although so far as I know there is a grandfather clause for older collections pre-dating the modern legislation.  I imagine any maul without such prominent provenance would be worth very little indeed.  Despite fetching far more than I would have imagined, it was a mere snip compared to the mask below which sold for a jaw-dropping USD$1,808,000.00.

Tsimshian Mask from the Dundas Collection. Source: Sotheby's.

Ha’ina: supernatural Nuu-chah-nulth crystal?

Crystal artifact said to be used to summon guests to feasts. Source: British Museum

Hmmm, coincidences.  Two or three days ago I was having a beer with a recently graduated student of mine, who was telling me about a number of quartz crystal artifacts he had found in an excavation in the Fraser Valley.  Now, artifacts made of quartz crystal are well known in the Gulf of Georgia — the nature of the rock makes it highly suitable for flaked stone tool production, especially microblades.  Ethnographic accounts suggest they could also be used for sawing very tough rock types such as nephrite.  However, the artifacts being described to me the other night included complete crystals with grooves around the bases — pendant-like, perhaps, or specialized abraders, or, well, or what?

Well,  in a stunning display of “coincidence”, or a happy intervention from a raven, today I ran across just such a shiny little thing at the British Museum website.  From their text, (which I cannot vouch for, having never heard of such a thing before):

The Nuu-chah-nulth believed that these crystals, or ha’ina, grew on the top of mountains and were endowed with magical qualities for bringing wealth and good fortune, for example, when hunting sea otter.

This ha’ina was collected by Captain George Dixon, who had accompanied Captain Cook on his Third Voyage (1776-80) to Vancouver Island. In 1785-88 Dixon made a trading voyage on the King George and Queen Charlotte which was promoted by the King George’s Sound Company (King George’s Sound was Captain Cook’s short-lived name for Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, where this crystal was collected, probably from the Mowachaht people.)

The Nuu-chah-nulth used the ha’ina to invite people to potlatches, the great feasts given to celebrate life-cycle events at which hereditary rights were displayed. The invitation to a potlatch would take place at a gathering a year or two before the potlatch, when the crystal would be, metaphorically speaking, sent out to the prospective guests. They may have ‘sent’ this example to Dixon. Dixon was supported by Sir Joseph Banks in his work, and through Banks gave this ‘piece of rock crystal’ to the British Museum on 22 May 1789.

It would be sad and ironic (though not surprising) if this artifact was indeed an invitation never acknowledged, an unfulfilled RSVP, and if the gormless British had managed to interpret an invitation as a commodity and not as a request for honour, attendance and respect.  It would be wrong on a number of levels to draw conclusions about the Fraser Valley examples, but it does show the potentially fuzzy boundaries between symbolic and functional material culture.

Oregon: Where Past is Present

Stone lamp from interior Oregon with inset eyes of abalone shell. Source: OMNCH.

The Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History has some very nice exhibits and it looks like their underlying collections are superb.  Their online photo-gallery “Oregon: Where Past is Present” is some pretty nice eye-candy, though I would love to see them give a little more information about each piece.  The sculptural lamp above is simply superb.

So-called "wealth blade" made of flaked obsidian, length 25 cm. Source: OMNCH