Technical Report

Environment, Prehistory & Archaeology of Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Greg C. Burtchard

Chapter 6:



Because of National Park status, cultural remains on Mount Rainier have been relatively free of logging and development related damage compared to many sites elsewhere in the Cascades. Primary sources of deterioration stem from road and Park facilities construction and artifact collection by visitors. At least two known prehistoric sites have been damaged by construction activities: site FS 90-01 on the south slope of Sunrise Ridge from earth removal, and site FS 88-01 from parking lot construction at Tipsoo Lakes. Both sites recently has been tested to assess damage and to establish remnant site boundaries and content (Sullivan pers. com. 1996; Liddle pers. com. 1997). Results were unavailable for inclusion here. A third find–an isolated ovate Cascade style point (IF 01-63)–was exposed in a cutbank for the Highway 706 turnout at Bench Lake. No additional remains were found at the time (Rice and Nelson n.d.), but it is not known how much of the site was lost in the construction process.

It is possible, perhaps probable, that additional prehistoric remains have been lost in construction of facilities at Longmire, Ohanapecosh, Paradise, Sunrise Ridge, various campground locations, and so on. Given site density patterns noted here, losses at higher elevation places like Paradise and Sunrise Ridge are likely to have been most severe. As with IF 01-63, however, these construction events are well in the past. With the exception of Sunrise Ridge Borrow Pit (FS 90-01) and perhaps IF 01-63, chances of meaningfully evaluating the extent of past losses are minimal.

Past cultural resource losses, while regrettable, do not significantly impact our ability to learn from and interpret Mount Rainier's prehistoric cultural heritage. Now that the Park has an archaeological staff, protection of prehistoric and historic period remains should be more systematic and effective.

Rather than dwelling on strictly cultural resource management/site preservation issues, the remainder of report deals with the link between research and interpretation of the prehistoric record. The first section below recommends staged research options developed above and in the body of the report. The second section offers interpretive suggestions. Research and interpretive options are considered in serial order because of the important role archaeological research plays in developing a meaningful prehistoric interpretive program. It is the primary means for building an understanding of the past beyond the memory of ethnographic sources, and is our only means to examine empirically the validity of the interpretations offered.

Research Implementation

Research options believed to be particularly well suited to Mount Rainier's archaeological record appear at various points in the body of the report. Specific recommendations were offered above. Here, prehistoric research options are pulled together in tabular form and grouped in terms of recommended implementation stages (Table 6.1). The approach is intended to provide a research strategy that will maximize information return in a context of pragmatic budget and personnel constraints. It is important to note that Stage One recommendations are not necessarily more important than those in "lower" numerical order. These options simply are those that I believe offer the best near-term opportunities to 1) more thoroughly evaluate the existing archaeological record; 2) refine approaches to subsequent research efforts; and/or 3) recover information from sites that are being damaged by natural and Park-use causes. It is important to emphasize, too, that recommendations should not be considered fixed, but subject to constant revision as more information becomes available. Equally important, however, is the need to maintain a general research design to impose order on the work done and to help keep results focused on the primary goal–a better, theoretically and empirically based understanding of processes of long-term human use of the montane landscapes that now constitute Mount Rainier National Park.

Table 6.1 Research Implementation Summary Recommendations


1 Consolidate and field evaluate remaining reported but undocumented sites and isolates based on interviews with Park employees and informed individuals. Cost effective means to expand existing site database.
1 Test and data recovery salvage excavation at Sunrise Ridge Borrow Pit (FS 90-01). Obtain remnant archaeological information from damaged and eroding site. Provide data from possible residential base camp in forest ecotone setting. Site retains known deposits in stratigraphic context.
1 Expand existing test excavation at Fryingpan Rockshelter (FS 63-01). Improve on poorly controlled initial excavation in a site with established faunal and assemblage content (but relatively young age). Excavation will provide an opportunity to expand assemblage and faunal database and to refine strategies for excavation elsewhere.
1 Incorporate historical archaeological remains into a unified program with prehistoric resources. Provide a coordinated systems for documenting and interpreting all archaeological remains in the Park.
1 Discuss cultural resource issues with Tribal representatives. If possible, develop informant information on historical land-use practices, travel routes and known site locations. Improve understanding of historical land-use practices. Increase list of potential site locations. Improve interaction with Indian groups in the cultural resource process.
1 Publish and distribute as appropriate Smith's Ethnographic Guide to the Archaeology of Mount Rainier. Best available compilation of ethnographic information relevant to historical indigenous use of Mount Rainier.
2 Increase representation of rockshelter sites through directed reconnaissance and low-volume subsurface testing. Increase rockshelter sample size. Assess assemblage characteristics, stratigraphic context, and approximate age of cultural remains. Results to provide a foundation developing larger volume test excavation strategies.
2 Conduct low-volume subsurface auger test strategy at selected currently identified surface sites and isolates. Maximize probability of identifying early Holocene cultural deposits. Improve understanding of the relationship between surface visible and subsurface remains.
2 Profile and test as necessary visible deep erosion scars in varied Park contexts. Refine understanding of natural stratigraphy across the Park and attempt to identify early Holocene cultural deposits.
2 Paleoenvironmental reconstruction with archaeological implications drawn from set of deep pollen core profiles. Establish time of initial floral colonization of Mount Rainier and monitor changing Holocene vegetation patterns. Refine understanding of environmental-cultural feedback mechanisms. Improve understanding of Mount Rainier fire history.
3 New surface survey (subsurface testing as possible) stratified by landform, resource zone and Park quadrant. Examine validity of the proposed subalpine-alpine site density pattern. Identify alternative site types such as scarred trees, plant processing sites and stacked rock features.
3 Sample excavation of a subset of identified rockshelter sites, emphasizing those with most deeply stratified cultural content and faunal and assemblage data. Develop a stratigraphically controlled sample of cultural remains and resources from sites that maximize probability of gaining meaningful resource, assemblage and temporal data.
3 Sample excavation of a subset of deeply stratified sites identified in auger and erosion face tests. Improve understanding of earliest use of Mount Rainier. Monitor changes in assemblage variation through time. Improve quantitative bases for land-use inferences. Refine temporal data relevant to land-use processes. Address possible population hiatus in southern Washington Cascades.
3 Survey and excavation procedures to locate and examine huckleberry processing features. Determine morphology of plant processing features and examine inferred late adoption of mass huckleberry processing practices.
4 Controlled excavation at varied site locations–initially suggest Upper White River Trail (FS 95-04), Mist Park (FS 95-05), and Frozen Lake (FS 86-01). Improve intersite comparative base. Refine functional and temporal inferences. (Actual site selection should be flexible enough to accommodate new information from earlier stage procedures.)
4 Expand survey coverage and tested site sample sites as indicated by accumulating results. Refine and expand on a broad range of cultural resource inferences.
5 Renew overview and research design for Mount Rainier National Park. Pull together the expanded information base to review and improve on Mount Rainier settlement and subsistence models. Review the Park's cultural resource program with recommendations as appropriate.

Interpreting Mount Rainier's Prehistoric Past

Archaeological research efforts, no matter how well planned and conducted, are of little value if they are not relayed to a broader professional and lay audience. Mount Rainier National Park, with its high visitor base and established interpretive program, is well positioned to offer high-quality public presentations on its extensive prehistoric past. Interpretive specialists are best suited to gauge the relative value of different approaches. Here, I offer suggestions in three basic categories: 1) museum displays, interpretive signs, brochures and books; 2) public outreach talks and displays; and 3) archaeological excavation with public interpretation. Hopefully, these brief discussions will serve to stimulate additional, more sophisticated ideas to increase public awareness and involvement in Mount Rainier's prehistoric and historic archaeological record.

At the outset, I wish to underscore the importance of public interpretive efforts and maintenance of research integrity in the process. Archaeology is the only science oriented to study of long-term human organizational processes that extend far beyond living memory or the written record. As such, it is uniquely suited to help us better understand how humans, through their cultural systems, have used and changed the earth, and have themselves changed in the process. In this light, Mount Rainier's cultural resources constitute a record of our shared human past as expressed in this place. The story of that past has a natural constituency in the indigenous people that still reside in the area and in the broader population who can learn, not only about the prehistory of a particular place, but about land-use processes that transcend racial, ethnic and national boundaries. Maintenance of regular feedback between ongoing archaeological research and cultural resource interpretation is emphasized because it is the only means at our disposal to evaluate and improve the accuracy of the prehistoric story we relate.

Museum Displays and Interpretive Literature

Passive displays and literature are an effective means of providing information to a large number of Park visitors. There are numerous ways in which museum displays could be developed to emphasize various aspects of Mount Rainier's prehistory. Displays that emphasize life scenes, rather than only artifacts, can provide a reasonably complete understanding about how the mountain has been used in the past. For example, hunting dioramas focused on subalpine or alpine settings and animals hunted could be used as a spring-board for discussing seasonality, environmental zones, resources sought and the forager lifestyle generally. Rockshelter dioramas could stress the importance of this type of natural shelter in the face of Mount Rainier's unstable weather. Other possibilities include butchering scenes, huckleberry processing, and residential settings. Tool use involved in these scenes could set the stage for artifact presentations if desired. In my opinion, however, simple artifact displays tend to elevate the importance of the material remains of past life ways rather than the life ways themselves. However, if linked to more general scenes, the importance of the archaeological record to understanding the past could be emphasized in a manner that promotes preserving (rather than stealing) the archeological record.

The simplest forms of interpretive literature are short brochures and trail side interpretive signs. Brochures with appropriate descriptions of Mount Rainier archaeology, and subsistence and settlement patterns, compliment information offered in museum dioramas. Indeed the brochure may be used as explanatory material for the museum displays themselves. Perhaps most useful, however, brochures could be used to promote Mount Rainier's cultural resource program, emphasize the importance of fragile archaeological remains to our ability to interpret the past, and offer a condensed Holocene history of human use of the Park.

Trail side interpretive signs may be an effective way to promote an understanding of past land-use practices even in places, like Mount Rainier, where physical archaeological remains are difficult to see. Interpretive signs located at places like the multiple trail junction near Frozen Lake can draw attention to the importance of the alpine landscape for goat, marmot and perhaps elk hunting; discuss the time ranges and land-use practices involved; and draw attention to the hunting/butchering site in the vicinity (without drawing attention to the specific place). Existing information already is adequate to support comparable interpretive signs in several well traveled backcountry settings such as Windy Gap and Spray Park/Mist Park in the northwest quadrant, and Indian Henry's Hunting Ground in the southwest quadrant. Interpretive signs could also be productively placed at Typsoo lakes (northeast quadrant) and at varied campground locations throughout the Park.

Finally, I suggest that prehistoric interpretive information be added to existing trail literature. Again, interpretive comments should emphasize landscapes, plant and animal communities, and subsistence and settlement patterns. In this, as in other field interpretive displays, people need not actually see archaeological remains to appreciate the context in which significant prehistoric events took place.

Public Outreach Presentations

Public presentations involve in-Park programs, increased involvement with surrounding Indian Tribes and Nations, and various other talks and mobile displays. As with museum and other passive interpretive displays, I suggest that presentations use artifact displays as necessary to generate interest, but place primary emphasis on long-term land-use and environmental processes. Campfire and visitor center talks or short tours are obvious in-Park options. Slide and print photographic documentation was made for all sites and isolates recorded during the present project. Landform and general environmental photographs were taken as well. If desired, this slide record can be made available to the Park Service to serve as a starting point for various kinds of interpretive talks.

In my opinion, it is important for the Park to continue to develop and sustain effective working and information exchange relationships with nearby Tribal organizations that hold an historical interest in Mount Rainier. In recent years, Indian interest in and concern with their prehistory has grown. Relations with government agencies and archaeological research programs have run the gamut from strong support to equally strong opposition to archaeological resource policies and procedures. We must recognize that it is reasonable for indigenous people anywhere to have an interest in the archaeological record that links them to a past that they view as their own. It also is reasonable for them to wish to participate, if not in the decision making process per se, at least in information exchange on cultural resource plans and results. Recognizing these concerns, the Park has developed formal relationships with Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup and Yakama Tribal governments.

In my experience, once these kinds of relationships develop to a level of mutual trust, they can be rewarding to all involved. The professional archaeological community and administrative agencies gain a level of insight and cultural sensitivity that often is otherwise absent. Indian communities can gain a new understanding of the more distant past and benefit indirectly from a growing appreciation for past life ways that, in an ecological perspective can be seen as reasonable, intelligent responses to a environmental circumstance operative through time in the Pacific Northwest.

Public outreach presentations, of course, should be directed toward Indian and other nearby communities. Presentations need not be complex but should focus on what is being learned about longterm use of Mount Rainier and about the close association between use and montane environmental patterns. Cultural resource presentations directed toward local schools, libraries and other civic organizations can help build goodwill and appreciation for Mount Rainier's human past. The Park also may wish to consider developing a mobile display that can be loaned temporarily to libraries and schools to extend information to local residents who may seldom visit in-Park museum displays. Such displays can be durable and attractive, and serve as a format for presenting additional information through pamphlets and brochures.

Interpretive Archaeological Excavations

Public interest in archaeology, and particularly in archeological field excavation, has been high for some time. Field excavations are particularly interesting to people because they show the science in action and provide visual stimulation even when cultural remains and features are limited or subtle. Because of the level of public interest and active research environment in the Park, ongoing excavations provide an opportunity to extend a learning experience difficult to match with passive displays or talks alone. Risks of damage or theft of archaeological remains are negligible if visitation is controlled carefully.

Two of the sites recommended for near-term test or data recovery research are located in high visibility, high use areas by visitors to Sunrise Ridge. The Upper White River Trail site (FS 95-04)–a moderate density lithic scatter presently classified as a hunting camp–is located immediately adjacent to the Emmons Overlook trail at its junction with the trail to White River Campground. Visitation and interest was high even during the few hours spent documenting the site during the present project. Because of its proximity to the Visitor's Center, the site provides an unusual opportunity to simultaneously investigate a potentially important archeological location, promote a better understanding of Mount Rainier archaeology, and develop interest in the research process. If the area is cordoned off, and tours are conducted on a scheduled basis, interference with the excavation process should be minor and damage to the site negligible.

Site FS 86-01 near Frozen Lake is also situated in a visible, heavily visited location. As with the White River Trail site, interest was high during the documentation process. Unlike the former site, surface exposed artifact density is high. Unfortunately, formed tool artifacts have already been lost to artifact collectors (see Burtchard and Hamilton 1998). Excavation at Frozen Lake is recommended to recover information from a site continually exposed to damage, and to investigate what appears to be Mount Rainier's only known butchering locality and one of only two documented sites in alpine context. Even though the site is further from the Sunrise Ridge Visitor's Center than FS 95-05, excavation at Frozen Lake presents an excellent opportunity to conduct meaningful archaeological research and present methods related to that research in the setting in which the past events being studied actually took place.

A third site–FS 90-01 or the Sunrise Ridge Borrow Pit Site–is recommended for near term study due to past damage and ongoing erosion. While more distant from the interpretive center, excavation at this site also offers good interpretive possibilities. The site is one of the few documented in the forest-subalpine ecotone setting. It also is located near what is reputed to be the Yakama trail to Sunrise Ridge. Auto or walking tours beginning at the Visitor's Center could employ an interpretive scheme including both historical use focussing on implications of the trail, and prehistoric use emphasizing excavations at FS 90-01. If the trail could be traced from its presently reported location near the borrow pit to the crest of Sunrise Ridge, a particularly effective approach would be to walk that portion of the route to the site. Interpretive opportunities abound; including discussions about the flora and fauna en route, implications of the Yakama trail for early historical use of Sunrise Ridge, importance of the ecotone and, of course, prehistoric land-use practices and the archaeological record.

Clearly, excavation/interpretation efforts could extend beyond the three cited here. These sites are recommended particularly because they offer the dual advantage of providing useful archaeological data in the near-term, and being easily accessed from one of the Park's major Visitor's Centers. The bias toward Sunrise Ridge reflects the extensive subalpine habitat and relatively high site density common to the Park's northeast quadrant. Tours, of course, could be promoted at other centers. At present, however, no prehistoric sites have been documented near enough to them to warrant combined excavationinterpretation efforts at other than Sunrise Ridge.

Interpretive and research possibilities outlined here represent a sample of the many ways in which the emerging picture of prehistoric use of Mount Rainier may be presented to the public. The salient issue is to recognize that the Park's archaeological remains preserve an important record of long standing human use of the mountain and its surrounding landscapes. The existing record suggests that Tahoma has been used by people from all sides of the mountain for at least 3,400 years. With additional archeological research, it is likely that the record eventually will be extended perhaps to 8,500 years into the prehistoric past. Archaeological data, ethnographic accounts and ecological-anthropological theory converge to suggest that the mountain's subalpine and alpine habitats have long provided valuable animal and plant resources during its brief summer season. We now have ample reason to believe that for thousands of years these landscapes were not remote, uninhabited places, but routinely supported foraging then collecting groups living between its forested slopes and alpine snow. Our task now is to present that story as effectively and accurately as possible, and to take the steps required to genuinely improve our understanding of these long-term land-use processes. I hope that this volume has served to stimulate thought in this regard and made a useful contribution toward this greater goal.

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Last Updated: Monday, 18-Oct-2004 20:10:54
Author: Natural & Cultural Resources Division

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