If archaeologists turn muck into gold, they are also often left with unanswered questions. Such is the nature of inquiry: One question inevitably leads to another, one answer demands the next. Is it science, or a hall of mirrors?
The Northwest has its share of mysteries, and archaeologists are the ultimate "cold case" detectives, trying to solve them, sometimes millennia after the fact. A couple of examples of as-yet-unanswered questions were outlined at the Northwest Anthropology Conference at Central Washington University, which I attended last week. About certain subjects, I left the conference with more questions than answers.
For example, take the notable Elizabethan privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake. He was the first Englishman to camp out in what was to become America, and that event in 1579 turns our history on its head. We all know that America was settled by the Pilgrims in their inexorable march from East to West, from Plymouth to the Pacific, at least so traditionalists like the Texas School Textbook Committee would have you believe. But in fact, Britain's first claim was established on the West Coast, by Drake, who claimed the continent, from West to East, for England, and dubbed the new land Nova Albion.
Just where that claim occurred has been debated for many decades. The officially accepted version is that Drake sailed as far north up the coast as southern Oregon, turned back, holed up just north of modern day San Francisco at what is now called Drake's Bay, claimed the land for the Virgin Queen, read from the Book of Common Prayer, met the local Indians, fixed his boat, then headed across the Pacific to finish sailing around the world. In this version of events, British America actually began in California, so the Pilgrims and Jamestown folks were merely chasing Drake's Golden Hind end.
But that version of history has been hotly contested. Despite a fair amount of documentary and archaeological evidence, Drake's West Coast harbor has been placed, according to various alternative theories, anywhere from Alaska and British Columbia to Washington and Oregon. Part of the trouble is how far north Drake actually sailed. A major account of the voyage and testimony from Drake's cousin, who was along, say they reached 48 degrees, putting them off the Washington coast. They were turned back, in part, because of lousy June weather, which tends to add to this account's credibility: who hasn't faced yuck off the coast in summer?
Recently, a book by author Garry Gitzen, proposes that Drake's landing spot was in Nehalem Bay in Oregon. The book received praise in a review published in the Oregon Archaeological Newsletter, so it can't be dismissed as merely hawking a maritime Bigfoot legend, though Drake's Bay believers warn of buying into "conspiracy" theories.
The California view was strongly defended at the conference by Drake researcher Ed Von der Porten, who told the archaeologists that all of the evidence, including artifacts (iron, stoneware, lead and Chinese Ming porcelain that made its way on shore), maps, navigational calculations, etc. lead to the conclusion that Drake's Bay was the place. It even has the white cliffs, like Dover, that inspired the Nova Albion name, the ancient name the Greek's legendarily gave to Britain long ago.
It should be noted that one of the chief advisers on such matters to Drake's boss, Queen Elizabeth, was the alchemist/spy/mathematician John Dee, who wrote a white paper for her majesty outlining Britain's right to the New World. It was based in part, he wrote, on the fact that long before Francis Drake, King Arthur himself had made his way to the new continent after a trek through the snowy Arctic. With such ideas, Britain pooh-poohed Spanish claims to the New World.
Von der Porten, who has spent over 60 years researching Drake's landing, has extra credibility because he has also helped debunk an artifact (the purported brass plaque left by Drake) as nothing more than a hoax, even though the plaque appeared to support the California claim (he says he has a book coming out on that topic in the near future, one that identifies the hoaxers and their motives).
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