by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
One of the guiding principles Richard Daugherty instilled in the generation of Northwest archaeologists who found their passion, and dissertations, at Ozette was his ethic of excavation.
"Excavate 10 percent, leave the rest," explains Dale Croes ('77 Ph.D.), who wrote his dissertation on basketry at Ozette, is an adjunct WSU faculty member, and now teaches archaeology at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia.
Daugherty's principle is based primarily on the idea that by
definition excavating an archaeological site means destroying it.
Once a site has been explored, there is no going back to reconsider
chronology or to look at the placement of an artifact more
carefully. So if, as Daugherty believed, 10 percent would keep
everyone busy, then the remaining 90 percent could be left for
All of which led Daugherty to leave the bulk of the site, including Ozette, to future exploration. Time, he reasoned, may bring new techniques, new technology, and new ideas.
The legacy of Ozette is rich, deep, and diverse. In the preface to volume three of Ozette Archaeological Research Reports (WSU Department of Anthropology Reports of Investigations 68, 2005, ed. David L. Whelchel '75), archaeologist Kenneth Ames ('76 Ph.D.) warns against "Ozettopeia," the notion that Ozette is Pacific Northwest archaeology. He then proceeds to explain what a profound effect the exploration of the village has had on our archaeological methods and understanding of coastal Northwest culture.
Wet-site archaeology was not invented at Ozette, but it was certainly refined there. Equally significant is Ozette's contribution to Northwest ethnoarchaeology, the combining of ethnography—the study of a living culture—with archaeology, the systematic scientific recovery of past life and culture. Abandoned only in the 1920s, Ozette had been occupied continuously for at least 2,000 years. And for the Makah people, many of whom live in Neah Bay and had family who had lived in Ozette, the place was not just a memory. It was home. And thus Ozette presented an extraordinary opportunity, confirming much of Makah tradition and oral history. The Makahs could identify many of the artifacts recovered from the dig—because they themselves had used them or remembered their parents or grandparents using them.
Colin Grier recently joined WSU's anthropology department in the Northwest archaeology position occupied by Robert Ackerman for 50 years. Grier's dissertation, The Social Economy of a Prehistoric Northwest Coast Plank House, was "essentially based on what had been accomplished at Ozette," he says. He, like Ames, is a prominent investigator in the relatively new field of "household archaeology."
"I started out in the Gulf Islands [Canadian San Juans] digging houses."
The digging of the Ozette houses led to a great many insights
both about the Ozette people themselves and about other "complex
hunter-gatherers" along the Northwest Coast.
One such insight regarded property ownership, says David Huelsbeck ('83 Ph.D.), who earned his doctorate at Ozette and is now a professor of archaeology at Pacific Lutheran University.
"We demonstrated archaeologically that people did own different beaches for shellfish," says Huelsbeck.
Ozette had been thought of as a winter village, with Tatoosh Island, off Cape Flattery, as the Makahs' summer home.
"The assumption was very neat," says Huelsbeck. "Everyone picked up and moved to the next seasonal camp. That isn't accurate. Some people moved, some didn't." Much as some of us go to the beach, and some don't.
As demonstrated by the excavation, many inhabitants of Ozette had far too many belongings just to pick up and move for the summer. The excavated houses, for example, contained 13 looms. Those possessions were simply too valuable to leave for the taking.
There were things in the historic record, noted by 19-century ethnographer James Swan and others, that recent anthropologists doubted, but that Ozette confirmed. The importance of whaling, for example. Some thought that the role of whaling had been exaggerated.
"Quite prominent anthropologists in the Northwest thought that
whale hunting couldn't possibly have been the important economic
activity native people said it was," says Huelsbeck.
Well, he continues, "At Ozette, you can't move a foot without tripping over a whale bone."
Much also was learned about social patterning and behavior, with
analogies that could extend up and down the West Coast, says
Huelsbeck. For example, the high-status houses, swept by slaves,
were cleaner than others. Such an observation can be extended to
any coastal people who lived in plank houses similar to the
It might well be inferred that, given advances in the understanding of Northwest coastal culture as well as improved carbon dating and DNA techniques, the time for going back to look at some more of that remaining 90 percent could be now. "Ozette should be dug," says Croes, noting that beneath the initial excavation lies an 800-year-old house, buried, evidently, by an earlier slide.
But a new excavation is highly unlikely. Wet-site archaeology in the Northwest has diminished. In fact, Croes is one of the few people currently working wet sites. As few as a 100 people from around the world attend wet-site meetings, he says. "Most of my stuff is published in England and Scotland. I can't explain it. I never thought 30 years later we'd be just sitting here.
"People say it's too expensive," he says. "It's not. We do it here, at a community college."
One reason for the lack of activity, says Croes, is that the
technique is still not being taught. The learning tradition is
still stone, bone, and shell, and the excavation of middens, the
refuse dumps of ancient communities. Much can be learned from a
community's refuse. But middens lack the preservation and detail of
Another reason that more wet sites are not being explored could be that projects such as Ozette are simply too daunting. Coordinating and paying for a massive 11-year dig requires a leader with equal parts ego, salesmanship, political and diplomatic skill, and persistence—as minimum requirements.
Even if such a person were to step forward to resurrect wet-site
archaeology, there's another small matter.
"There's no money here," says Croes.
Funding for archaeology has actually risen consistently over the
years, explains Bill Andrefsky, who has headed WSU's Department of
Anthropology for the past eight years. But most of that has been
directed toward private contractors, primarily for "cultural
resource management"—and consequently away from academic
Just as excavation destroys a site, so of course does development.
Whether it's a housing development or a sewer project, if any sort of archaeological site is found, it must be assessed through Cultural Resource Management. CRM is the federally mandated survey and assessment of cultural resources, often archaeological sites, and particularly those threatened through development or other disruption. Most of it is done by private contractors.
One of those contractors is Gary Wessen ('82 Ph.D.). Wessen has been working with the Makahs almost continuously since Ozette, and he wrote his dissertation on the use of shellfish by the Ozette residents. Over the past 30 years, he has worked with probably 25 coastal tribes.
"I do probably 30–40 small CRM jobs a year," he says.
Wessen points to a corresponding, but not necessarily resulting, shift in regional archaeology that has lurked behind this story all along.
In the summer of 1974, a year after he came West, drawn by the promise of Ozette, there were four different field schools operated by WSU, all in Washington. The University of Washington had already shifted its archaeological focus elsewhere. Following high-profile digs such as Ozette and Hoko River, which was directed by Croes, large-scale Northwest archaeology, along with public and academic interest, has nearly disappeared.
What bothers Wessen most is that so much archaeology is going
undone—and so much knowledge of our past is being lost.
"I understand that it's cool go off somewhere far away," he says. "But the reality is, the University of New Mexico does not send archaeologists to the Puget Sound Basin."
Andrefsky acknowledges that shift in focus by both the UW and WSU away from the Northwest.
"I don't think UW is interested in developing their strengths in that way. Their faculty are all over the map," he says. "They don't have a Northwest focus any more, and in some sense we don't either. We need to tap into that."
WSU has traditionally had a regional strength, he continues. But for various reasons we've lost the emphasis of the regional past. Again, the reasons are many, including not-so-subtle pressures within academe.
"One thing people are afraid of is becoming identified as a regional university," says Andrefsky. "A lot of faculty think we should not hire based on region. Most big schools don't do that, because they don't want to be labeled as regional institutions. Many feel we should hire based on theoretical perspective.
But Andrefsky hopes for more.
"We can hire someone with a theoretical perspective as well as a Northwest regional emphasis."
Hopes for refocussing
"The museum is already there," says Andrefsky, referring to WSU's Museum of Anthropology, directed by Mary Collins. "It has collections from the old days, which we can go back and analyze in new ways."
The museum, which is primarily curatorial, contains many collections that have been only quickly analyzed, if at all, including hurriedly excavated artifacts from the Marmes site, one of the oldest documented human occupations in North America. Andrefsky points also to the recently developed Plateau Center and WSU's longtime relationship with regional tribes.
"There are a lot of resources right at our fingertips," he says. And not just resources, but multiple questions. "We have hunter-gatherer archaeology here, we've got complex hunter-gatherer archaeology here, we've got major social change on the coast during aboriginal time periods, incredible stuff, ripe for theory, too, fascinating stuff."
Andrefsky's optimism is fueled by the many major questions that have recently been identified. Much remains to be explored, both on the coast and on the Plateau.
During the heyday of reservoir building, all the money was directed toward salvage work on the big rivers, primarily the Snake and Columbia. Now those sites are submerged—at least until the reservoirs silt in or the dams are breached. As a result, what archaeology is being done in the Plateau region has moved up out of the canyons into the uplands.
"As a result of lack of reservoir work, people are starting to
look in the uplands, ... places they haven't looked in the
Andrefsky points to sites "right here in Pullman" that have long been ignored.
"[We] don't know how these sites fit into the larger occupation picture down on the river."
At one time, he says, there were huge occupations where the
Deschutes and the John Day rivers come into the Columbia.
"Then for a 3,000-year period nobody was there."
Like the better-known Anasazi of the Southwest, these people simply disappeared.
It turns out those same kinds of villages that were abandoned are now located far upriver, in the upper stretches of the John Day.
While it's not clear that these are the same people, the village structures are the same.
Were they the same people? What happened? Was there flooding? Drought? Was it warmer inland? Or safer, perhaps?
Another excavation, on the Oregon Plateau, revealed human
coprolites—petrified feces—over 12,000 years old. DNA analysis
showed the people at that site were eating horse; it was previously
thought that the native horse had been long extinct at the
Andrefsky points to yet other unresolved questions. It is now believed that there were migrations—perhaps many—into North America between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago.
"My feeling," says Andrefsky, "is that one of the places [where] they could have turned into the interior was right here at the Columbia River.
"That means the interior Northwest should hold promise of some of the earliest people in all of the New World, because the ice sheet reached as far south as Spokane."
Andrefsky talks about a graduate student who came here recently from the University of Wyoming. He was interested in arrow technology and brought with him some arrows he had found on the Great Plains. Andrefsky suggested that he begin documenting arrow technology across North America. It turns out the earliest sites were on the Plateau, including the Harder site near Washtucna.
"How did it come that arrow technology was earliest in the Plateau?" Andrefsky asks. "It obviously didn't start here. The technology is 10,000 years old in the Old World. In fact the dating takes these arrows back only 2,400 years, which is actually fairly recent, even in American archaeology."
But the first documented arrows in the Southwest are 1,500 years old.
"Isn't that neat?" Andrefsky says, from the edge of his seat. "The earliest is right here."
Meanwhile, in his Olympia laboratory, Dale Croes has set up a model of an acorn leaching system used by coastal tribes. A basket of acorns would be buried in a shallow aquifer. The constant wash of fresh water would leach the harsh tannins from the acorns, yielding a nutritious meal. Intriguingly, Japanese archaeologists have discovered identical systems used in northern Japan, one tantalizing reason the Japanese are interested in, and have invested heavily in, Northwest archaeology.
"The Indians around here take great notice," says Croes, "that they will put a billion dollars a year into doing archaeology, and it's not their ancestry.
"Why can't we be more like that here? We may not be Indian, but this is where we live. It's a lot of what we are."
Colin Grier will be excavating a 2,000-year-old house on Galiano Island in the Canadian Gulf Islands this summer. He is investigating a cultural shift that occurred over the past 5,000 years, a move toward multi-family dwellings and the development of social hierarchy.
"It's unique when a bunch of people want to live together," says Grier. "It suggests something unique about this large social, collaborative unit. And how does that fit in with the overall organization of Northwest Coast people?"
Public attention may well be directed toward the prehistory and early migrations into the Pacific Northwest now that the courts have cleared the way again for study of the 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man remains. In spite of the unresolved cultural issues in how those remains have been handled, any information as to who Kennewick Man was and whether or not he is an ancestor of contemporary tribes could give profound insight into the deep history of human occupation of the New World.
"Without getting too cosmic," says Gary Wessen, "I'm 58 years old and have been doing this stuff continuously since 1973.
"Archaeological resources come closer to being magical than
anything else in my existence. Archaeological sites have a real
time-transcendent quality. The first director of the [Makah] museum
likes to say Ozette is his book. And books can talk to us.
"But I like to [say] archaeological sites are better than books. If we're smart, we can have a dialogue with the past."
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