A shell deposit that stopped the digging of the Bertha rescue pit in Pioneer Square appears likely to be of non-Indian origin, according to sources.
The discovery of the shells during the first stages of excavation of the shaft, located near the waterfront between Jackson and Main streets, brought a halt to digging last week. The find is being evaluated by archaeologists in consultation with local tribes and other experts.
The first thought was that it could be a Native American and possibly pre-European settlement shell midden. That would be problematic for the project, slowing it down because such a find would be considered to be of historical significance, according to federal standards. Indian middens frequently yield artifacts and even human remains.
But Crosscut has learned that the deposit appears, from initial work and observation at the site, to be post-settlement material. Bricks and ballast stones have been found beneath the shell layer and seem to extend down to the level of the original beach. In other words, the shells may well be a clump of historic-era stuff from pioneer Seattle, not of ancient, indigenous origin.
According to an email to interested parties by the project's cultural resources manager, Steve Archer, the shells "occur in large, homogenous piles with the native Olympia oysters on the east and butter clam on the west side of the trench — something not consistent with the patterns of pre-contact middens and may therefore be another clue that the deposit relates to commercial harvesting and processing."
That would not be at all surprising given the rescue pit's location. The soil above the stuck tunnel-boring machine is in an area along what was once the original shoreline, the site of major wharves and backyard to businesses that dumped material into Elliott Bay. Plus it is the site of other landfill dumping, such as debris from the Seattle fire of 1889. Historians and archaeologists have pointed out that the ground could possibly contain interesting historical material as well as potential Native American relics. Some have argued that the rescue-pit diggers should excavate these layers carefully to fill in pieces of the puzzle of early Seattle's origins. The Washington State Department of Transportation has tended to regard this material as lacking archaeological integrity and therefore not worthy of study.
A huge pile of commercial shellfish would not be inconsistent with what we know about the habits and appetites of early Seattleites. Pioneer era newspapers contained ads touting saloons that specialized in oysters and shellfish. The Seattle Gazette from December 1863 — the first issues of Seattle's first newspaper — contained an advertisement for The Exchange Saloon on Commercial Street (now First Avenue), established in 1858, offering "Wines, Liquors, Ale and Cider…Fresh Oysters" in an establishment they hoped would be a "quiet and pleasant resort for the public." Another ad for the nearby Fashion Saloon provided "Hot Coffee, Cakes, and Oysters served to customers at all hours, Night and Day."
Still, there could be a Native American connection. Local tribal members often made up the work force of early Seattle, from cutting timber, running Yesler's sawmill, to harvesting shellfish and seafood from Puget Sound. The site is still being examined and a definitive determination hasn't been made.
Still, whatever they do find is sure to shed some light on early Seattle history.