The weird alchemy of archaeology

The Northwest Anthropology conference yields some interesting stories about what our waste can teach us.
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Archaeologists have studied waste left behind by the Lewis & Clark expedition in order to discover precisely where they stayed.

The Northwest Anthropology conference yields some interesting stories about what our waste can teach us.

The alchemists said that you could turn shit into gold, and thus archaeology was born.

Our knowledge of the past is continually being advanced by the people who probe into what we threw away or time forgot.

That's one of my take-aways from the first day of the 63rd Annual Northwest Anthropology Conference held at Central Washington University in Ellensburg last week. Each day, conference threads cover topics ranging from talking chimpanzees (a CWU specialty) to the anthropology of the Goth subculture, from the stone knapping skills of prehistoric Northwest hunters to the dining habits of the Union soldiers who manned Oregon's Fort Yamhill.

With multiple threads of 20-minute scholarly presentations, you'd need six clones to take it all in, and more stomachs than a cow to digest it. The first day alone I listened to at least 18 presentations.

I'm sitting here afterwards with the easier task of digesting a fine dinner of fresh seafood from, of all things, Ellensburg's excellent Valley Cafe. But as I ponder, I realize that eating fresh scallops and salmon in Kittitas Valley beef country isn't as odd as it seems. Archaeological evidence tells us that since ancient times seashells were part of the native trade currency throughout the region, and, as I also learned today, fish and shellfish were part of the regular diet of Chinese laborers in Jacksonville, Oregon, during the 19th century. At least, so their antique garbage tells us. Bottom line: Good seafood has been finding its way around Cascadia for a long time, and long before the interstate highway system.

There is much to be learned from disposable societies, which all are, in time. And also from the waste of Mother Nature. I began the morning with a lecture about the nature and source of the various gravels beneath the Columbia River, which together seem to tell a rather incredible story of that body of water, sometimes traveling hundreds of feet higher as alluvial soils build up, sometimes cutting canyons hundreds of feet deep, other times being scoured by massive catastrophic events like the Missoula floods, which pummeled the river bed with "gravel" the size of VW Beetles. If Woody Guthrie had had access to this data, his classic song might have been "Shake, rattle and roll on, Columbia." In any event, the history of a river is apparently written on its bottom.

James Chatters, an archaeologist who played a prominent role in the Kennewick Man controversy, told the story of an archaeological site near Bothell that turned out to be a complete bust. Various "artifacts" discovered there turned out to be nothing more than rocks, except for one ancient arrowhead later dug up. Chatters told how he tried to get something useful out of such an inconsequential find, especially since it was costing taxpayers some $40,000. By checking records of where other lone arrowheads of a similar type had been found, he was able to paint a picture about the landscape and hunting habits of the natives who lived in the area thousands of years ago. This was his attempt to make gold from government waste.

Speaking of waste, Washington State Parks & Recreation archaeologist Daniel Meatte talked about the efforts to precisely locate Lewis & Clark's westernmost camp on their expedition to the Pacific, which is somewhere close to Highway 101 on the road to Ilwaco. Sorting out the archeological evidence for what is called Station Camp is tricky, one reason being that the Corps of Discovery's camp might have been occupied by Chinook Indians after Lewis & Clark vacated the premises, meaning expedition artifacts and trade goods might be mixed with and even underneath native ones.

And, they were only in camp for about 10 days. How much evidence can you leave in such a short time? Plenty, apparently. Meatte told me that one of Lewis & Clark's other campsites was identified by excavating hollows that turned out to be the Corps' latrines. To nail that the 200-year-old poop belonged to the expedition's heroes, an archaeologist tested the ground for mercury, which members were taking as treatment for venereal disease. Sure enough, the old latrines were loaded with it.

And speaking of 19th century bowel movements, at yet another presentation, this by archaeologist Linda Jerofke, we were treated to the relics recovered from a garbage dump in Baker City, Ore., a onetime boomtown and den of corruption (crooked sheriffs, lots of gold). In this particular site, the data uncovered was mostly in the form of perfectly preserved glass bottles from the years 1860 to 1930 (people were apparently very attached to this dump). From this we learn that the well-to-do citizens of Baker city liked beer (according to Pabst, "the most nutritious food known to science"), patent medicines, and alcohol-laced "cough syrup." At least one fellow bought hair dye that was later shown to make one's hair fall out, which perhaps this sadder-but-wiser customer learned the hard way. The bottle recovered from the dump was corked and still had dye in it.

When not dyeing their hair, the Baker citizens were prosperous enough to buy Pluto water and have it shipped from Indiana. The purpose of this bottled water, and indeed of many of the elixirs consumed, wasn't conspicuous consumption but rather an attempt to cure constipation, the endemic frontier malady that could have lost the meat-and-potatos West.

For alchemists, or archaeologists, to turn shit into gold, they must first dig up shit, or at least the bottles of laxative that induce it.

More on the conference in tomorrow's Crosscut.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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