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Emerging from the Mist: Studies in Northwest Coast Culture History

By R. G. Matson

Review By Catherine Carlson

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 144 Winter 2004-2005  | p. 136-9

IN ORGANIZING this collection of papers on late-period Northwest Coast archaeology, R.G. Matson, in his introduction to this edited volume, proposes to make Northwest Coast archaeology more visible in the literature alongside the prominent ethnographic accounts. Following a discussion that re-evaluates the boundaries of the Northwest Coast, the introduction serves to present an overview of each chapter. The introduction would have provided a better outline of the goals and purpose of the volume if it had been merged with Leland Donald’s extensive concluding chapter 13, especially given that Donald also provides a separate epilogue.

In the following chapter 2, Andrew Martindale evaluates the early contact period of the Tsimshian along the Skeena River and in Prince Rupert Harbour by comparing precontact and historic site locations. He argues that, after the construction of Fort Simpson, settlement location and the seasonal cycle of residential movement changed. In the early 1800s there occurred a consolidation of economic power brought about through the control of fur redistribution under individual Native leaders, resulting in a temporary historic phenomenon – the creation of “paramount chiefdoms.” In the process of clarifying the complex contact history of the Tsimshian, using both archaeological and documentary data, he also portrays the rapidity with which indigenous social institutions were able to change. There is room to argue, however, that these particular historic chiefs were not true “paramount chiefs” but, rather, the servants of the fur traders. 

The excellent chapter by Dale Croes describes rich wood and fibre artifacts found in wet sites, and discusses how they add significantly to resolving questions about precontact resource procurement, storage, social organization, and exchange. He describes three major types of wooden fishhook, each with different spatial and temporal distributions. Wooden arrow points vastly outnumber stone in the assemblages, and the high number of arrow points and shafts probably suggest substantial warfare in the late precontact period. Significantly, the wood harpoons from the Hoko site indicate that the lack of unilaterally barbed harpoons (which define Locarno phase non-wet sites) is not cultural but, rather, is the product of poor preservation. As for storage technologies, the most common type of storage basket found archaeologically — the open-twined cedar-splint utility basket — is rare in museum collections, indicating an ethnographic collection bias. Three different types of woven cedar hats suggest at least a 3,000-year history for a hierarchical social organization involving nobles (knob-topped hats), commoners (flat-topped hats), and northern noblewomen who had intermarried (round-topped hats). Foreign basketry types also show extensive exchange networks from afar. 

The purpose of R.G. Matson’s chapter is to describe his research on the design of the Coast Salish shed-roof house by comparing ethnographic descriptions to archaeological excavations of a house feature on Valdes Island. After the excavation of roughly half of the house (initially delimited by remote sensing), a compacted floor was encountered and inside wall “benches” were inferred on the basis of a change in soil compaction. He also infers two inside “compartments,” but it is unclear as to how they were delimited. In addition, a number of large and small post moulds were found, including a cluster of small ones along one wall, which suggests the use of ethnographic-style Salish shed-house walls. The two compartments were compared and it was determined that the floor of one was more swept than was the floor of the other. This is interpreted as suggesting that the elite lived on the swept side of the house because they typically hosted dances, which Matson believes called for the sweeping of the floors. Sea urchin spines found in the swept compartment also corroborate status differences between compartments. 

Alexander Mackie and Laurie Williamson describe the mapping of thirty-one house depressions at two Nuu-chah-nulth sites in Barkley Sound, dating to the mid-nineteenth century. At one site there are preserved wood house posts and rafters showing both gable and shed roofs. Numerous tables provide the dimensions of the houses as well as the diameters and lengths of the posts and beams. The so-called shed-roof houses do not differ in construction from gable-roof houses, and they are not of the Salish shed-roof style. I suggest that it would be more correct to call them half gable-roof houses. 

Gary Coupland, Roger Colten and Rebecca Case discuss excavations at the late precontact village site of McNichol Creek in Prince Rupert Harbour. Fifteen house depressions and two separate middens (front and back) were mapped. Three of the houses were partially excavated, and the middens were tested. They suggest differences in “primary” and “secondary” midden deposition between the front and back middens, but unfortunately do not offer a clear definition of the cultural meaning of primary versus secondary (particularly since both middens contained human burials). There is indication of status differentiation between the houses based on the presence of labrets, nephrite, and exotic chert and obsidian in one house, which also contained a very large central hearth. The large hearth suggests “competitive feasting” activities, but how this differs from the more traditional “potlatching” is not defined. 

Colin Grier looks at the question of how groups from the Gulf Islands were linked in “regional interactions” with the Gulf of Georgia and Fraser River areas during the Marpole phase (2500 -1000 BP). Ethnographic evidence suggests substantial seasonal population movement from the Gulf Islands to the Fraser River, and this is supported in reference to Roy Carlson’s archaeological study of the obsidian trade, plus the widespread distribution of nephrite and Marpole burial mound features. Grier’s new faunal data from the Dionisio Point site on Galiano Island, which contains significant amounts of salmon, is suggested as evidence for procurement of “extralocal” salmon. Salmon rivers on the east coast of Vancouver Island and the Fraser River are the implied source for this extralocal salmon, thereby supporting a model of regional human interaction. It is odd that the author did not consider as a source of fish the abundant and locally available runs of salmon travelling through the narrow marine passes between the Gulf Islands on their way to spawn in the Fraser River. In addition to the faunal data, it is argued that two wonderful pecked stone human head bowls found in situ at the site are further evidence of linkage to a regional ceremonial complex found along the Fraser River. 

Gregory Monks investigates the cultural transport and usage of whale bone at two West Coast sites – Ozette and Ch’uumat’a. He argues that the ethnographic accounts are biased towards describing the prestige of hunting whales and the distribution of the blubber and oil. Archaeological study of the bone indicates that many parts of the whale were used in a wide variety of ways in the villages. Taphonomic study of the bone shows that whale was butchered for meat, preserved, consumed, and processed for oil. The bones were also used for architectural purposes (drains, support posts), in tool technologies, and for social symbolic purposes. 

In a well-written chapter that reviews archaeological and ethnographic evidence for the use and manufacture of copper and iron tools, Steven Acheson argues that an incipient metallurgical tradition was present on the Coast in the late precontact period. Iron was rare and was probably obtained as “drift iron” from Asian shipwrecks. Less rare were small copper artifacts made from native copper; however, the large potlatch coppers of the nineteenth century were made from industrial trade copper. A recently recovered small fragment of native copper wire wrapped around a shell, taken from a Haida site and dated AD 1150 -1400, led to this review of precontact artifacts. Acheson notes that a growing inventory of archaeological sites containing copper artifacts (labret inlay, tubular beads, figurines, daggers, projectile points, and pendant wire) argue for a “well established and sophisticated pre-contact metal-working tradition” (227). While that is probably overstated, clearly the production of metal artifacts was precontact in origin, but became well developed only after the introduction of trade copper. 

Kathryn Bernick discusses the implications of a unique archaeological find – a 900-year-old cross-stitch wrapped cedar basket found eroding on the Fraser River banks in Coquitlam, albeit one that she has previously reported on. Basketry techniques are seen here as indicators of ethnicity, but this specimen was problematic because none of this type is known from this part of the Coast Salish area. The only ones known are from Puget Sound, and they are generally of twentieth-century vintage. Bernick sees cross-stitching as a variant of wrapped twining, a technique common in all precontact Coast Salish baskets. She concludes that this unique specimen represents a “residual type of ancient woven basket” (242), supporting stylistic continuity from precontact times to the present, and that cross-stitch wrapping is therefore not an introduced European or African embroidery technique. Significantly, Bernick also clearly shows the inherent biases in a knowledge of basketry based largely on ethnographic museum specimens. 

In a thoughtful and well-written article Alan McMillan provides an overview of his earlier ideas of cultural change as an in situ evolution of culture versus one of population migrations. He outlines how linguistic models that favour migrationism may explain discontinuities in archaeological assemblages and support an archaeological model for population replacement of earlier Salishan groups by Wakashan speakers on the West Coast. Initial occupation of proto-Wakashan speakers appears in the “homeland” near Yuquot and Quatsino around 4000 BP, where no archaeological discontinuities exist. From there, linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests Waskashan movement both north and south as well as inland into Alberni Inlet, replacing earlier Salishan occupations about 2000 BP. New archaeological work in Barkley Sound, as well as oral histories of some southern groups, support this view. 

Using a type of geographical spatial interaction analysis known as Location-Allocation Modelling, Quentin Mackie studies the site distribution of 576 shell middens on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. He argues that, whereas the use of predictive modelling of archaeological site location can result in strong correlations between site location and environmental variables (exposure, slope, freshwater), site size is not predicted. Therefore, modelling a more social geography of the landscape may be a better predictor of site size and location. Citing the theoretical work of Martin Wobst and Alexander Lesser, his analysis produced maps of networks and several “solution sets” that were beyond my comprehension (despite my having studied under Wobst). Unfortunately, the general discussion and conclusions did not bring clarity to the study, and the original question of how to predict the relationship between site size and location was not addressed. 

In an overly long final chapter, Leland Donald provides a useful summary of the ethnographic Northwest Coast within Kroeber’s culture area concept. As previously mentioned, this would have provided a good introductory chapter. He describes environmental factors, such as the pivotal role of salmon and cedar. He also presents a discussion of characteristic ethnographic traits, including slave killing, head deformation and labrets, dancing societies, and seated human figure bowls. The chapter ends with a discussion of the definition of the boundaries of the Northwest Coast, with the “Oregon Coast gap” being problematic. Following this is an epilogue (also by Donald) that provides a summary of the book’s chapters by breaking them into loose themes: boundaries, whaling, stratification and big houses, interaction spheres, wet-site data, and new analytical approaches. 

In summary, Emerging from the Mist presents a diverse set of largely archaeological papers on the Northwest Coast that focuses on the late precontact period. It also presents a substantial incorporation of ethnographic materials. The chapters describe several new and different data sets that depart from more conventional archaeological culture history studies, and this is a welcome change in archaeological reporting. Unfortunately, each chapter topic is not linked under an over-arching theme; there is no well-defined goal for the book, making it more a compendium than an integrated scholarly work. The editors and authors have not made even a minimal attempt to cross-reference the chapters. Organizing the chapters into a set of themes – an idea proposed in Donald’s epilogue – would have given the book more cohesion. The audience for this work will be academic rather than popular; however, its usefulness as a class textbook on BC archaeology is limited by the idiosyncratic and highly specialized topics of many of the chapters.