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Chapter 2
Review of the Archaeological Data
Kenneth M. Ames

Archaeology of the Early Modern Period: The Other End of the Sequence

In some respects, this task is reminiscent of much of the archaeological work on the Plateau over the past 50 years. A dominant concern has been to trace through the archaeological record the development of what has usually been called "The Plateau Pattern " in order to establish the time depth of 19th century Plateau culture as described in 20th century ethnographies (e.g. Daugherty 1962; Swanson 1962a, b; Warren 1968; Sanger 1967; Nelson 1969, 1973). In general, these used the Direct Historical Approach, and relied on Ray's (1939) account of Plateau settlement and subsistence patterns, and material culture as their base. At the most basic level, the Plateau Pattern for most of these studies was the Early Modern (AD 1720 – 1850) pattern of winter sedentism along the main rivers based on stored foods, with dispersal across the landscape during the rest of the year to acquire resources. Nelson is perhaps the most explicit in this regard (Nelson 1969). Further, most, but not all, of these archaeologists assumed continuity and also assumed that the direct historical approach was the appropriate methodology. The goal here is quite different.

The Early Modern Period was defined as the period between the appearance of the horse, c. AD 1720, and the beginning of the reservation period. We are concerned in this study with the early portions of that time, from 1720 until the beginning of the 19th century, which marks the start of documented face–to–face contact between Indian people and Europeans. However, there may have been a longer period of indirect contact. Stapp (1984, 1985) demonstrates the presence of trade copper in the region before direct contact and argues for a precontact period beginning around AD 1600. Discovery of an iron adz in sediments dating to AD 144011 on the Lower Columbia River (Ames et al. 1999) shows that metal objects were present in the Northwest before the permanent presence of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere.

Archaeologists have paid relatively little attention to this period, primarily because they think its archaeological record is poor. Campbell (1989) reviews that record and concludes that there is sufficient data to conduct fruitful research. Her research problem was to try to determine whether there had been smallpox epidemics in the Northwest before the mid to late 1700s, when smallpox is documented for the region (Boyd 1998). Campbell was interested in testing Doybn's hypothesis that a major smallpox epidemic occurred in North America starting in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1520, with the Spanish Conquest (Dobyns 1983). Ramenofsky (1987) had also tested this hypothesis with archaeological data in other portions of the continent with mixed results. Campbell found what could be interpreted as evidence of a population decline in central Washington in the period between AD 1520 and 1540. Campbell's method (and indeed the work of Dobyns and many others) has been scathingly criticized by Henige (1998). Suffice it to say here, there is evidence, both weak and strong, to suggest that the impacts of European contact and the expansion of Euroamericans west from the eastern seaboard were probably felt here well before face–to–face contact, and before the arrival of the horse. So, while what I am calling the Early Modern Period begins c. AD 1720, a proto-Modern Period beginning as early as AD 1600 must be recognized (see also Collins 1997 for her discussion of this period).

Reid (1991b) provides a chart covering the last several hundred years for Hells Canyon (Figure 12). One distinctive feature of Reid's reconstruction of this period is the late date he assigns to full-equestrian culture. Most workers assume the full impact of the horse to have occurred during the mid-1700s. Reid places it after 1800.

Assemblages are usually assigned to this period based on the presence\absence of trade goods. Stapp (1984, 1985) and Campbell rightfully criticize this, since trade goods were probably rare at first. Therefore, assemblages dating to the earliest Early Modern, or the proto-Modern, period may mistakenly be seen as pre-contact. Similarly, assemblages with trade goods, particularly metal, may be mistakenly assigned to the post-contact period. Of course, the issue then becomes how to date such assemblages independently of the trade goods. The period after AD 1500 is notoriously difficult to date using radiocarbon dates, for example. There is no immediate or simple solution to that problem.

The impact and affects of post-horse contact is also a matter of debate. For example, most assume that the appearance of the horse on the Plateau led to rapid changes (e.g. Josephy 1997), but Reid (1991a) argues that the full impact of the horse may not have been felt until the late 18th century – early 19th century. The traditional view in ethnography has long been that while contact had serious impacts on the cultures of the region (e.g. Kroeber 1938, Ray 1939), Plateau cultures were conservative, surviving relatively intact into the mid-19th century and even later. Thus, it was thought that ethnographic accounts written in the early 20th century provided an excellent basis for reconstructing precontact cultures. More recent workers have challenged that viewpoint, arguing that depopulation, in particular, caused serious disruptions (e.g. Campbell 1989). Much of this debate is beyond the scope of this study since it ends at 1800. However, it must be born in mind.

The approach taken here is to look for continuities and discontinuities between archaeological manifestations, rather than between an archaeological manifestation and cultures documented through historical documents, oral traditions, and ethnographic observations. In other words, what are the known material manifestations of late 18th-early 19th century Native American cultures along the Middle Columbia and Lower Snake Rivers and are there links between these and the "earlier manifestation"?

Walker (1998:3) provides a general picture, similar to the "Plateau Pattern" of earlier workers:

  1. Riverine focus (linear settlement patterns along the major rivers);
  2. Reliance on a diverse subsistence base of anadromous fish and extensive game and root resources;
  3. A complex fishing technology similar to that seen on the Northwest Coast;
  4. Mutual cross-utilization of subsistence resources among the various groups comprising the populations of the area;
  5. Extension of kinship ties through extensive intermarriage throughout the area;
  6. Extension of trade links throughout the area through institutionalized trading partnerships and regional trade fairs;
  7. Limited political integration, primarily at the village and band levels, until adoption of the horse;
  8. Relatively uniform mythology, art styles, and religious beliefs and practices focused on the vision quest, shamanism, life-cycle observances, and seasonal celebrations of the annual subsistence cycle.

Traits listed by other authors in the Handbook (Walker 1998) include: winter villages (in the horse period, large summer aggregations can also be expected) with long houses made of poles and mats. Some of these were up to 20 to 30 meters long, 10 meters wide, with a row of hearths down the middle. These structures were placed over pits 1 to 1.5 meters deep. The summerhouse was a mat lodge, which was a tipi–like structure, with pole frame, covered in mats. Food storage was in "pit houses" near villages. Other structures associated with villages/aggregations were sweat lodges and menstrual huts. The people of the Plateau made use of a complex bone technology, which was part of their fishing/hunting tackle. Harpoons were single barb toggling harpoon ("single prong"). Bone tools were also used for making and repairing nets, since netting made from traditional fibers was not very durable (Hewes 1998), requiring constant repair. Tapered hollow bone tubes were also part of the stick game (Brunton 1998), a definitive Plateau trait. Digging stick handles of antler/bone were also distinctive parts of the material culture. Roots were cooked in earth ovens.

I also culled Jorgensen's (1980) compilation of traits of Native American societies in western North America for ones that might be archaeologically visible. These traits are not necessarily exclusive to the Plateau, however, some being variously shared by groups to the south. Many are not archaeologically visible. People, myself included, will also debate some of the specifics of this list.

These trait lists can provide a general orientation and a guide, but they are not archaeological correlates for the archaeological record of the Early Modern or the proto-Modern periods. It is not possible to both devise such correlates in the time allotted for this study and to search the published record for the evidence for them. There are some archaeological studies that do cover the pre-contact and Early Modern Periods. These include Yent (1976), Stapp (1984, 1989), Campbell (1989), Reid (1991a), and Endzweig (1994). Yent's and Endzweig's studies are particularly useful. I will return to them below.

Finally, there are no studies available for the Plateau similar to Fowler's (1994) analysis of Great Basin material culture in museum collections, Adovasio's analyses of basketry styles, or similar analyses on the Northwest Coast (e.g. Croes, 1989 Bernicke 1998). The appropriate perishables are very rare in Plateau archaeological collections, where neither dry caves occur (or have been discovered) in any numbers, nor have wet sites been found. There are studies of Modern period Plateau basketry (e.g. Conn and Schlick 1998). Coiled and twinned basketry fragments are reported for the Five Mile Rapids site, perhaps dating in excess of 9000 years. However, as Conn and Schlick note, these manufacturing styles are common world–wide. We would need a sequence of decorations which are unique to the Plateau.

As has been noted, prior to the 1970s archaeologists working on the Plateau sought to establish the time depth of what was termed the "Winter Village Pattern" – the archaeological manifestation of what was thought of as the ethnographic pattern. Nelson's is the most explicit (Nelson 1969, 1973):

  1. Storage facilities, usually pits, within the village or nearby rock shelters;
  2. Burial, with some exception, in cemeteries associated with villages;
  3. A complex cycle of religious rituals with its focal point in the winter village, often producing tangible remains, such as pictographs, petroglyphs, rock alignments and sweat baths;
  4. Winter villages linked to a series of task–related satellite camps located at important resource localities;
  5. The winter village would be substantially larger than the task sites, which would lack evidence of structures;
  6. Winter hunting to supplement stored fish and roots, and carcasses returned to the village whole;
  7. Winter collection of fresh water mussels;
  8. The winter village would contain the widest possible array of artifacts.

Many of the features he describes are characteristics of collectors generally (4, 5, 6, 7 and 8), and duplicate traits listed by Walker and Jorgensen. However, the specifics are not (collection of mussels as winter food). Of archaeological interest, however, is that animals hunted during the winter were not field processed, implying they were taken within the foraging radius of the winter village itself. The presence of winter storage is a standard collector feature, although, again, the use of storage caves is specific to the Plateau.

Table 3 Plateau material culture traits (Jorgensen 1980)
Dug-out canoes
Portable nets for mammals
Log Deadfalls – Nez Perce
Gill nets and seines
Fish weirs with traps
Single point harpoons
No seed baskets
No seed parching implements
No milling stones
Stone boiling of food
Crutch handled digging sticks
Wooden mortars in sides and ends of logs
Portable stone mortars, both hollowed and slab
Meat dried by smoking or over fire
Food storage in pits, caves, rockshelters, in houses, house roofs, platforms and other special structures
Semi-subterranean house dominant house type
Conical dwellings, three and four pole construction
Structures covered in hide, woven and sewn mats
Houses covered in unprocessed earth or sod
Basketry: both twining and coiling (equally)
Domesticated dog
Aquatic animals (fish) important to diet (50- 100%)
Fish/fish by products, aquatic mammals procured "extra–locally" 1 – 10 % of diet
Hunting of secondary/tertiary importance; Medium/large mammals dominant
Estimates 11 – 50% diet locally hunter mammals and birds
Gathered plants of secondary importance
26 – 50% of diet locally gathered plant foods
Plant foods gathered: herbs, roots, tubers, seeds, berries, fruits
Extra–local procurement of plant foods: 1 – 10% of diet
Transportation (pre – horse) humans and dogs
Medium craft used for rivers
Food storage 7 – 12 months
Claims no ownership of key gathering sites
Some ownership of hunting sites
Equal reciprocity of food and chattels
Redistribution: individual to non-kin
Bargain with strangers, gifts to friends
Gift exchange: between any and all
Access to resources, generally open
Bargaining with everyone in trade between communities
Settlements described as "semi-nomadic"
Compact villages of camps
Community sizes (winter) 50 – 99
Population densities 1 – 5/m2
Residential kin group/village maximal political unit
Leadership: inherited from "privileged group" wealth, quality
Raiding rare (0- 1/year) to moderate (2 – 4/year)

11The adz is dated by six radiocarbon dates, including one on charcoal recovered within 10 cm of the adz in the same depositional lens.

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