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Review

Is it a house? Archaeological Excavations at English Camp, San Juan Island, Washington

By Amanda K. Taylor and Julie Stein, Editors

November 4, 2013

Review By Duncan McLaren

Synthesizing archaeological research results from the Salish Sea can be a time-consuming task because of the international boundary that currently divides the region. This is further complicated by the rise of cultural resource management archaeology on both side of the border, where few research results are published and data repositories include state, provincial, and federal agencies, all of which have different restrictions to access. While it is possible for archaeologists to gain access to most of these documents, the hurdles involved dissuade most of us from attempting to. For this reason, the publication of Is it a House? provides an easily accessible contribution to the archaeological record of the region that will undoubtedly be a point of common reference to researchers working on both sides of the border.

In general, the book is a report on the analysis of materials collected during archaeological field school investigations carried out in one area (Operation D) of the English Camp site (45SJ24). Initial excavations of 1950, led by Adan Treganza of San Francisco State University, were followed by those in 1988, 1990, and 1991 by the University of Washington. The purpose of both series of excavations was to test a horseshoe shaped depression suspected of being the remains of a Coast Salish house. However, upon excavation, deposits were found to lack house floors, post holes, and hearth features, which are commonly found in other house excavations in the area (e.g. Grier 2001). Despite the lack of these features, the editors of this book asked all the contributors to consider the spatial distribution of the materials being analyzed for evidence that could be used to determine if this depression was indeed a house.

Following an extremely brief introduction to the volume and review of household archaeology in the region (Taylor and Stein), in Chapter 2 Faith presents a summary of research methods and results from the 1950 field school. Chapter 3 (Parr, Phillips, and Stein) provides a description of the research methods used in the later field schools. The difference in field methods between these two eras is striking. In 1950, no screens were employed, excavation was primarily by shovel, and no backfilling was undertaken. In contrast to this, field schools conducted in 1988 and 1990 used extremely fine-grained and detail excavation methods. In 1991 these rigorous standards were relaxed so as to complete the excavation units that had been opened.

Site mapping and the stratigraphy are presented in Chapter 4 (Stein, Taylor, and Daniels). Overall, the stratigraphic profile drawings are extremely detailed (every shell in the midden is depicted), but for the most part seem to lack clearly differentiated stratigraphic divisions, scales, keys, and locations of radiocarbon samples. Photographs are included, but are black and white and of such a poor quality that little can be gained from their inclusion. Stratigraphic divisions, referred to in the volume as facies, are presented in Harris diagrams. Overall, however, the presentation of these results in this manner is unsatisfactory in a published document.

The remaining chapters in the volume report on the analysis of materials collected during University of Washington excavations: sediments (Stein, Green, Sherwood), chipped stone artifacts (Close), ground stone artifacts (Chao), bone and antler tools (West), mammal bones (Boone), bird bones (Bovy), shell (Daniels), and fish bone (Kopperl). As with her other work in the Gulf Islands (Stein 1992; Stein et al. 2003), Stein’s geoarchaeological approach to studying shell middens is thorough and detailed, and employs methods rarely used in Northwest Coast archaeology, including grain size analysis, measurements of pH, percentage of organic matter and carbonates, and the use of micromorphology. Close’s approach to the analysis of chipped stone tools from the site is unique in Northwest Coast archaeology, not so much that it examines the Chaîne Opértoire of lithics from English Camp, but that it draws upon Bordes’ (1961) Old World lithic typology and is written up in seeming disregard for the local cultural historical sequence and typology devised by Donald Mitchell (Mitchell 1971). Close’s chapter provides far more interpretive material than the other chapters in this volume, and her discussion of the sexual division of labour, and the reflection of this in the lithic assemblage, provides much food for thought. The last chapters in the volume are for the most part descriptive lists of the objects found during excavations with some consideration of their spatial distributions.

It is disappointing that the research question that binds all chapters together, and is the title of this book, is not answered in a satisfactory manner. Upon the completion of each chapter the authors seem uncertain if the spatial distribution of materials reflects that of a Coast Salish (or any) structure. The concluding chapter (Taylor) provides no further guidance as to whether this initial research question has been answered. Overall, a great deal of time and effort has gone into this question, yet the answers given are ambiguous. The publication of this volume will undoubtedly serve as a cautionary tale to other archaeologists desiring to conduct household archaeology on the Northwest Coast: choose the location of your project carefully and be certain it is house before investing enormous amounts of time and labour in excavation and analysis.

References Cited

Bordes, FranÒ«ois. 1961. Typologie du Paléolithique Ancien and Moyen. Mémoire de L’Institut Préhistorique de l’Université de Bordeaux I. Delmas, Bordeaux.

Grier, Colin. 2006. “Political Dimensions of Monumental Residences on the Northwest Coast of North America.” In Jessica Joyce Christie and Patricia Joan Sarro (Eds.), Palaces and Power in the Americas: From Peru to the Northwest Coast (pp. 141-165). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Mitchell, Donald. 1971. “Archaeology of the Gulf of Georgia Area, a Natural Region.” Syesis, 4 (Supplement 1).

Stein, Julie K. (Ed.). 1992. Deciphering a Shell Midden. San Diego: Academic Press.

Stein, Julie, Jennie N. Deo, and Laura S. Phillips. 2003. “Big Sites – Short Time: Accumulation Rates in Archaeological Sites.” Journal of Archaeological Science 30, 297-316.

Is it a house? Archaeological Excavations at English Camp, San Juan Island, Washington
Amanda K. Taylor and Julie Stein, editors 
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011. 182 pp. $30.00