What is archaeology? What does it have to do with Mount Rainier?
Archaeology is a science dedicated to improving our understanding of our collective human past through study of physical remains left behind. Artifacts are perhaps the best known unit of study. These include all portable objects (from stone tools to forks) that have been made, modified or used by human beings. Features are objects, such as cooking hearths, rock walls, or storage pits, that cannot be removed without destroying their basic integrity. Clustered concentrations of artifacts and features on the landscape typically are defined as archaeological sites. The patterned configuration of sites with their associated features and artifacts provides a valuable archaeological record of long-term human use of a place –a record no less important at Mount Rainier than at parks, such as Mesa Verde in Colorado or Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, better known for their spectacular archaeological remains.
Although artifacts and features may be studied and appreciated in isolation from one another, it is their context --their spatial and temporal relationship to one another, to geological features in the ground, and to other sites across the landscape-- that provides the most meaningful information about the past and gives the objects and sites their greatest scientific value. Archaeological remains at Mount Rainier represent a uniquely important record of long-term human activity in the park. So long as it remains intact, that record provides a means to develop a better understanding of ancient peoples’ ways of life, how the mountain fit into broader regional subsistence and settlement patterns, and how those patterns changed through time.
Charred bone and plant remains found in archeological sites, for example, provide information about animals and plants hunted and gathered long before they were documented in historical records. These remains can indicate the age of the site, and the seasons in which people visited that location. In addition, they can answer questions about past habitat conditions and animal species inhabiting park landscapes.
From their manufacture stone tools and the debris can tell us about the technology of native peoples and how they organized their hunting and gathering activities. Site distribution patterns inform us as to how they allocated use of space. Even more recent archaeological remains such as old cans, bottles, machinery and other abandoned objects can tell us about aspects of the lives of local people which were never written down in historical documents.
What do we know about the human past of Mount Rainier?
Mount Rainier National Park maintains active relations with six Indian tribes located in its vicinity: the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, Muckleshoot, Yakama, and Cowlitz. All but the Cowlitz trace their modern tribal identity to one or more of three treaties signed in 1854 and 1855. The Upper Cowlitz, or Taidnapam, did not sign a treaty with the United States, but like the treaty tribes, maintained traditional ties to landscapes that later became part of Mount Rainier National Park. Tribal people journeyed to the park in the summer and early fall to hunt and to gather berries, medicinal plants and other resources of use to them throughout the year. They continued to pursue these activities even after the park was created in 1899, and the mountain remains important to them to this day.
Because of the park’s growing archaeological record, we know that the ancestors of modern tribal people ranged widely over the mountain’s mid to upper elevation landscapes. We also know that, as early as 15,000 to 10,000 years ago, when Mount Rainier was largely draped in ice and permanent snowpack, people lived in the plains and valleys within its view. Sometime between about 9,000 and 8,500 years ago the mountain’s mid-slope settings became free of permanent snowpack and developed plant and animal communities similar to modern subalpine parklands. From limited archaeological testing, we have learned that, by 4,000 years ago, Indian people were hunting and gathering at places like Sunrise and other park mid to upper elevation landscapes. We do not yet know how early this use began, but it is reasonable to believe that it began as early as productive plant and animal populations became established on the mountain about 8,500 years ago.
It was once widely believed that Indian people seldom used Mount Rainier’s imposing mountain landscapes. That view began to change in 1963 with the discovery of the park’s first archaeological site –a rockshelter later found to be about 1,200 years old and containing charred goat, mountain beaver, deer, elderberry and wild hazelnut remains in association with pit features, fire cracked rock, broken projectile points, and profuse stone tool re-sharpening flakes and debris. Archaeological studies at Mount Rainier began in earnest in the late 1990s with completion of the park’s first systematic survey and archaeological overview, and development of a permanent position to oversee protection of the park’s prehistoric and more recent historical cultural resources. In addition, an archaeological field school conducted by Central Washington University (CWU) between 1997 and 2001 provided valuable insight into the use of the northeastern portion of the park.
Our present understanding of prehistoric Mount Rainier is based on systematic surveys and small to moderate size testing projects such as these. Site specific reconnaissance projects and geological studies also are made possible by construction and maintenance activities in the park. At present, approximately 3.5% of the park’s land area has been inventoried for archaeological remains. These inventories have documented over 75 prehistoric sites and isolated artifacts. These are predominantly lithic scatters, collections of debris from the manufacture and re-sharpening of chipped stone tools. Patterned variation in artifact content and setting suggest that different sites were used for long-term base camps, short-term hunting camps, kill sites, and butchering sites. Other sites include places where cedar bark was stripped from trees, places food was stored in talus slope pits, and places where tool stone was extracted.
Inventoried archaeological remains at Mount Rainier also include over 35 historic period sites and isolated artifacts. Most of these represent late 19th to early 20th century mining, recreation and early park development, and consist of old camp sites, trash, abandoned roadbeds, mine adits, and remnant structural remains.
Transcripts of 2015 Ohanapecosh Archaeology Project
[Greg Burtchard] Well my name is Greg Burtchard. I'm the archaeologist here at Mount Rainier National Park. I also coordinate Indian relations with the park. We're standing here at Ohanapecosh Campground, at the southeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park, which we've got an archaeological site that I think is of some importance to the park. So we've got about 110 archaeological properties documented all around the mountain, dating to as early as 9,000 years ago. So we've got - this is a site map a working site map of Ohanapecosh Campground, southeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park. In 2014, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do archaeological testing in advance of the new utility line route that was replacing an older one that was about 40 or 50 years old, that's aging. In advance of that route, we were excavated Constant Volume Samples--
The system we call Constant Volume Sampling, which essentially uses a special in-curved handled post hole digger, that allows us to dig 30 centimeter diameter holes at a consistent diameter, perfectly nice cylinders down to about a meter and a half.
-- along that route, every where you see a red dot on this map. Along the road line, around the road- - campground road loops and into the campground facilities, restroom areas, power boxes, things like that. This by the way is the Ohanapecosh River and these are the various campground loops in the campground. In the process of doing that we located our first four low elevation archaeological sites, pre-contact archaeological sites, ever recorded at Mount Rainier. So finding four sites, intact, in situ, at a low elevation place where none had ever been documented before, nor was there any indication of a presence here on the surface at that time was a big deal. And so working off of that success from last year, the park has authorized us to sample the landscape now more broadly to see if the pattern that we observed in the utility lines is general to the landscape as a whole. So what we did in that process was set up a grid system. Every where there is a cross was an excavation point for where we did constant volume sampling and in the process of doing that, isolated a series of about 20 more positive units that had chip stone tool remains at varying depths. One reason that this works is that tool stone- stone tools for piercing and cutting and scraping work well. It makes a fine sharp edge. The problem is they break a lot. It's very fragile, it's brittle. So for us that's handy, because in the process of repairing and refurbishing these tools, which has to be done daily, people in the past generate a rain or a deposit of this chip stone tool remains where they've been repaired and even though the tools themselves are saved and taken away, they still leave behind enough of the repair material that we can identify where people sat in the past and did these things. So what we do then in these samples is - sampling system- is to separate the intact sediment, the in situ sediments, from tool stone materials. These are cherts and obsidians, things like that.
[Eric Gleason] So here at this area of the site, what we initially did is we opened up that little constant volume sample in the corner and when that turned out to be positive after doing several others in the area, we decided to expand on that area. So first we excavated a 1-meter by 1-meter square unit which Cory is standing in at this time and we had pretty good results from that. The recovery of pretty much matched what we had found in the constant volume sample and we also recovered one tool from there. We also noticed as we excavated that the stratigraphic layers, the layers of different ash falls that have built over time to form this campground, were fairly intact, had not been disturbed too much by the forest that has grown up here over the last thousands of years and so that made us really want to expand on that unit because the less disturbance we have, the better idea we have of exactly where in that profile of different ash layers that artifacts are coming from and we have a better chance of finding them kind of where they were dropped at that time.
[Corrine Michel] So what I'm doing now is I'm just skimming a real thin amount of dirt off the test unit at a time and we skim just really small amounts so that hopefully we can find artifacts in place and then that gives us more information as to the time frame that they came from. After I skim the dirt off we bucket it and go sift the dirt in the screening area over there. and then anything that's found in the screen is bagged for this particular level that we're in.
[Greg Burtchard] And we're testing a number of the locations across the Ohanapecosh area in which we had positive results. So this is another test unit.
[Jacqueline Cheung] These are flakes we found today and then sometimes we collect rocks that kind of look like they might be flakes and we can look at those more closely later. So we're getting maybe about like 12 to 20 flakes per level.
[Eric Gleason] What happened was right above that Mount Mazama ash we found a diagnostic artifact, a temporally diagnostic artifact, which was pretty exciting. So this is what would have been the base of a spear or dart-sized point and a similar one was found at an archaeological site not far from here and this is about where it would fit on that complete point. So it's just the base, the hefting element, of the point. This style of point is generally associated with earlier occupations in this area and finding this point style helps us kind of more firmly establish that this is an early site. All of these points are from a fairly early site that was excavated nearby probably with an age range somewhere between 7,300 and 7,900 years old.
[Greg Burtchard] So right now our working interpretation is that folks moved seasonally up into high elevation landscapes along various routes into Mount Rainier, with this being one of them. Making short term stops along the river on their way up to higher elevation ground where folks were seasonally gathering resources of use to them. Huckleberries, marmots, mountain beaver, glacier lily, elk, mountain goats- mountain goats perhaps foremost of all. Things that aren't available at low elevations landscapes and bringing them back. The modern representatives of people who have been in this area for a very long period of time are still here. They have different names. They have names that were applied by treaties, but they include such groups around Mount Rainier as the Nisqually Indian Tribe, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, Squaxin Island Indian Tribe, and others, that reside in this vicinity that were signatories to various treaties, and some didin't sign treaties, but those folks are still here. And their ancestors were here before them and I hope this helps make people aware that Native American people aren't just an artifact of the last two hundred years or of their treaties. That they have a past that goes on for a very long period of time and they used landscapes like Mount Rainier through much of that period of time, for at least 9,000 years.
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Mount Rainier is a well known symbol in the Washington landscape. But how far back does people's relationship with Mount Rainier go? An archaeology project in 2015 at Ohanapecosh campground found evidence that native people have been traveling to and living around Mount Rainier for thousands of years.
For more background on the Ohanapecosh Campground project, check out archaeologist Greg Burtchard in a 2014 Ranger Brief video.
How can I learn more?
Mount Rainier National Park has been used by Native American people for thousands of years. In recent years, the park has implemented a program to better document the mountain's archaeological record, and to improve our understanding of long-term human use of its high-elevation landscapes.
A report entitled "Environment, Prehistory and Archaeology of Mount Rainier National Park" (1998, updated 2003) is a comprehensive archaeological overview and research design. Based on the results of field and archival research through 2002, it draws together the park’s known prehistoric archaeological record, and evaluates it in light of its place within broader regional subsistence and settlement patterns. This updated edition adds color graphics and several otherwise hard-to-get citations. Key arguments from the 2003 report were then extracted, updated and refined through more recent research. The latest report, "Holocene Subsistence and Settlement Patterns: Mount Rainier and the Montane Pacific Northwest" (2007), was published in the journal Archaeology in Washington.
The Paradise Camp Report documents the archaeological remains of the historic Paradise Camp building. The Paradise Camp archaeological exploration occurred in 2006, when Mount Rainier National Park began construction of the new Jackson Visitor Center on the site of the former Paradise Camp Lodge. The construction site was selected, in part, to restore a bit of Paradise historic character lost when various historical buildings were demolished in the mid-1900s. Construction of the new visitor center not only promised to restore much of the original landscape design to the area, but created an opportunity, and obligation, to investigate archaeological remains of Paradise Camp still preserved under the 1950s pavement.
The 2006 flood at Mount Rainier dramatically altered the terrain of the park. Archaeology and History in the Nisqually Corridor: Results of the 2006-2007 Flood Damage Survey (2008) focuses on three areas where damage was most severe, and where reoccurring flood damage remains most likely: Sunshine Point, lower Kautz Creek, and Longmire Historic District.
For more information on these reports or park archaeology, contact:
Benjamin Diaz, Park Archaeologist
Why do we protect archeological resources? How can I help?
Preservation of both artifacts and their context is critical because the archeological record is a finite, fragile and non-renewable resource. Archaeologists are ever mindful of the fact that collection of objects through excavation or surface collection is a destructive activity. Once you remove an object from its original context, you can't recreate its relationship to other objects and it loses most of its scientific value.
The archeological record is somewhat like having only a single copy of a history book covering large expanses of time. Damaging or removing parts of an archeological site is like tearing a page out of that book and destroying it. Once destroyed, all the information on that page is lost and a significant part of the human story of Mount Rainier is gone forever.
Because archeological resources are so fragile and unique, a number of federal laws have been passed to protect them.
You can play a significant role in the protection of archeological resources on public land by sharing your observations with park staff. If you find an artifact (or think it might be an artifact) during your visit to Mount Rainier, please leave the object where you find it. Record the approximate location of the object (on a map if you have one or in relation to a nearby landmark) and try to describe the object (color, size, shape, material). Photographs of the object and the area where it was found are also very helpful. Take this information to a ranger or other National Park Service employee. Be sure to give them your name, address and phone number, and any other information about your find. They will forward the information to the Cultural Resource Specialist who will investigate further and will see to it that you are credited with the find. But please remember that it is illegal to collect, remove, damage or alter archeological resources on federal and Washington state lands without a permit.
Volunteer and Research Opportunities
Mount Rainier National Park maintains an active program of inventory, monitoring and management of archeological resources. Contact the park at the address below if you are interested in learning of future opportunities to participate in these activities as a volunteer.
The park encourages academic research which contributes to the understanding and proper management of the archeological resources in its care. To discuss proposals or ideas for such research projects or partnerships, please contact the Archaeologist-Cultural Resource Specialist.
Last updated: June 30, 2021