(Historical) context is everything

Making arrowheads, tossing spears, wandering old homesteads, and studying petroglyphs: All are part of a Washington state program designed to ensure that material progress doesn't completely obliterate the past. Part 1
Crosscut archive image.

Fishing at The Dalles, circa 1910. (UW Archive)

Making arrowheads, tossing spears, wandering old homesteads, and studying petroglyphs: All are part of a Washington state program designed to ensure that material progress doesn't completely obliterate the past. Part 1

First of two parts

One thing I learned down on the Columbia River last week: If I were left to survive using prehistoric technologies, I would starve if I did not die of exposure first. And it would not be the fault of early North American technologies, but my own lack of adaptation. As archaeologist Jeff Flenniken explained, Darwinian winnowing worked well in the old days. Our ancient predecessors were pretty damn smart.

That was one of my take-aways from a week-long "Cultural Resources Training" I attended in The Dalles, Oregon. The program is designed to immerse government workers — federal, state, and local — in a course in the pre-history and archaeology of the Pacific Northwest. It is currently sponsored by the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, and the Washington Department of Transportation and has been conducted twice a year for 13 years.

The involvement of the first entity is obvious: If you're gong to teach archaeology, leave it to the archaeologists. The involvement of WSDOT is a little less obvious until you think about it: What agency of government plows up more ground and potentially disturbs more possible archaeological sites than the road and bridge builders? The fact is, you cut a straight line or dig a hole in any part of the region and you'll likely plow up a valuable chunk of our history.

This lesson was painfully learned earlier this decade when WSDOT found that it had located a Hood Canal Bridge construction project on the site of an ancient Klallam Indian village, Tse-whit-zen, near Port Angeles. The bungle resulted in the abandonment of the site. That combined with delays cost state taxpayers an estimated $86.8 million (pdf). That's a cultural and fiscal fiasco no one wants to repeat. Since then, WSDOT has added 10 archaeologists to its staff, a bargain if it saves another $80 million-mistake.

Paying attention to disturbing historic sites is a must for any major capital project. Cultural resources are, in essence, the new wetlands, and they are disturbed at legal peril. There are a host of state, federal and even local laws and regulations that make pawing up the ground illegal unless you identify and consider the impact on places that might be historically, or prehistorically, significant. And worse, ignoring the rules, or following them without rigor, can result in costly delays, cost-overruns, mitigation expenses, and even fines.

The laws aren't designed to stop projects so much as to minimize the damage they can do, if possible. A road might be re-routed; an archaeological site might be excavated and documented before construction; artifacts might be relocated. The state Department of Archaeology has 22,000 archaeological sites in their database, and those are just ones that have been recorded. There are plenty out there that are unregistered, or yet unknown.

There are some landscapes, like those along the Columbia, where you can barely step without treading on a Native American campsite, an old homestead, or fishing or hunting ground thousands of years old. And during the training, we visited these places. We also learned that the woods of Washington have old mines, logger's cabins, ghost towns, and Civilian Conservation Corps projects. The beaches are lined with ancient shell middens — which are frequently also burial sites. Oh, and by the way, there are another whole set of laws that add protections for graves and cemeteries, the disturbance of which can result in felony charges. It was the discovery of human remains at Tse-whit-zen that put a stake in the heart of that boondoggle.

So the stakes are high for state agencies, and they had better understand and follow the rules. Other agencies, like the State Parks Commission and the Department of Natural Resources, are also heavily involved in these issues due to the lands they steward and projects they oversee. Their staffers are among the attendees and instructors of the course, which helps state workers deal with the details of the laws and paperwork, and learn from others' mistakes.

The course also teaches context. Just as we've all had to learn that a wetland is no longer a swamp, so too historic resources need to be explained. That arrowhead on the ground means something according to where's it's located; pick it up, and it's archaeologically worthless, and you've irreparably damaged an historic resource. That bluff looks like a great spot for an overlook and a restroom, but to a nearby tribe, it might be sacred. The laws make you stop and figure out what you're doing and the relative importance of where you want to do it. In other words, the ecosystem of a landscape includes the human past, from 50 years ago (the age something can become eligible for the National Historic Register) to 10,000 or more years ago, when humans spread over the landscape as the glaciers retreated.

To get us to see the landscape differently, our instructors took us to Columbia Hills State Park on the Washington side of The Dalles, a point along the Columbia that was a famed ancient fishing and gathering place. "The Dalles" is French for gutter or sluice, and it was here that the Indians built platforms to catch salmon as they crowded through the narrow rapids. The Dalles dam now slows the river here and killed the rapids and ended most of the fishing, but evidence of thousands of years of habitation is abundant if you can spot it.

The park encompasses over 3,300 acres and runs from near the river up to the high hills and buttes above it. It contains the world-famous petroglyph Tsagaglalal ("She Who Watches"), a figure that looks out with owlish eyes from atop of pile of basalt. She is sacred to local tribes, though they are cagey about her actually significance. Nearby are other petroglyphs that were salvaged and relocated after the dam flooded the valley below.

Less obvious than chiseled and painted rock figures are aspects of the land that would escape the casual observer: piles of rocks that, when looked at more closely, reveal an ancient wall or home site; small chips of flint that turn out to be the garbage — excuse me, the archaeological term is "debitage" — of those who chipped stone tools; or small groves of dry, wind-whipped trees that turn out to be evidence of a long-abandoned 19th century homestead. One tip: "If people like to live there now, they probably liked to live there then." In other words, one key to getting a sense of where artifacts or signs of human activity might be is figuring where you might want to build your dream home, such as on view property near the water. Even the ancients lived by the rule of "location, location, location."

And the landscape here is spectacular, offering sweeping views of the Columbia River, the plateau spreading southward into Oregon, the Cascade foothills topped by the cone of Mount Hood. It has also been heavily altered by roads, dams, power lines, vineyards, ranches, railroads, and towns. The trick is to see beyond the natural beauty and the modern reality and train the eye to pick out details that suggest an untold story of human impact that lies between the two: features like rock walls and pits that may look natural but are ancient and manmade.

The hope is that by training the eye to see such things, state workers will be more sensitized, and more educated, about what constitutes our physical heritage. Just as a swamp is a wetland, so a mud bank of clam shells becomes an information-rich midden containing important data on climate change, geology, and the flora and fauna of previous ages, not to mention the diet, technologies, art, and lifestyle of those who came before. Nothing is really unimportant to the archaeologist: We learn that one of the most exciting finds is the location of an old outhouse. The pit is a repository of great info on how your great grandparents lived, what they ate and drank — not to mention what they tried to hide. In one presentation, we were told the story of a 19th century temperance activist whose excavated privy revealed her to be a secret alcoholic with a fondness for 80-proof patent medicines. What would your recycling reveal?

Next: Government officials caught knapping  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.