Archaeology

The mud above, the dig below

Mark Budger November 27 1978
Archaeology

The mud above, the dig below

Mark Budger November 27 1978

The mud above, the dig below

Archaeology

It has been called “the Pompeii of the New World.” Tit for tat, the archeology students who work year-round in the mud at Ozette, a 2,000year-old Makah Indian village on the coast of Washington state, prefer to call Pompeii “the Ozette of the Old World.” Unlike Pompeii,

Ozette did not end in red hot ashes and lava, but in deep blue clay that slid down over its houses, preserving them and their contents almost perfectly—a rare occurrence on the rainy Pacific coast. {= However calm and academic g his manner, Richard Daugherty, the director of the Ozette Archeological Expedition and a professor of archeology at Washington State University, gets carried away when he speaks of Ozette. “There is no other site like it in

the world,” he says. “We think that between 400 and 500 years ago a large mudslide hit these houses and there

have been more since. The skeletons we found show that people were sleeping—

a litter of puppies was cuddled against their mother—so it likely occurred at night. The catastrophe hit suddenly, apparently without warning—and it has all been preserved.”

Ozette is not only unique for its archeological perfection. In an area where the native population is suspicious of the proddings of anthropologists and archeologists, Daugherty and the Makah nation have developed a relationship of trust. All artifacts will be kept by the Makah, who have almost finished preparing a museum to house them and to show younger generations (and visitors) how the Makah used to live. In fact, it was the Makah themselves who asked Daugherty to begin the dig in 1970 after a severe storm washed away part of a sea bank revealing old cedar walls and wooden artifacts. Since there was a real danger that the whole site could slide into the ocean, Daugherty undertook what he thought was a rescue dig. He soon realized that the preserved vegetable material his team found was undreamed-of evidence of the lives and material culture of the Makah—a first in the archeology of the Pacific Northwest and, indeed, in the Americas.

The Makah are a Nootkan-speaking people who emigrated from Vancouver Island to the northwest corner of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula sometime in the vague past. Ozette itself is 15 miles south of Cape Flattery, and the Makah still lived there as late as 1910 when the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs had them moved closer to the only reservation school at Neah Bay. The village marked the point where migrating fur whales pass closest to the Pacific shore and the Makah (like the Nootkans) were whalers, hunting them from canoes using harpoons fashioned from mussel shells for the kill. Ozette is littered with whale bones. Their meat was eaten, their blubber rendered, and large bones were used to reinforce drainage ditches meant to protect the village from mudslides—obviously with little success. Living right on the sea coast, hunting

and food gathering were relatively easy for the Makah; life was not simply a matter of survival. The culture was a rich one, as are other Pacific Northwest Indian cultures; the artifacts at Ozette reveal a high degree of artistic accomplishment.

Among the 50,000 or so artifacts found so far (assistant director Paul Gleeson says that even 100 yards farther down the beach the soil would not have preserved them) are finely carved clubs of wood and whalebone, wooden boxes, baskets, nets, mats, combs, bowls, looms and paddles. A large effigy of a whale fin carved out of cedar and studded with sea otter teeth is very similar to one in a sketch (dated 1778) of the

interior of a Nootkan house on Vancouver Island, by John Webber, Captain Cook’s artist. Steel blades were uncovered at a level that predated contact with whites, confirming that the coast Indians already had access to metal, though nobody knows where they found it.

The longhouses themselves (three have been dug out so far) probably did not look much different from those sketched by Webber. They were built of cedar planks lashed to uprights, approximately 60 feet by 30. Inside were sleeping platforms—20 to 40 people lived in each house—and cooking areas, both individual and group. Daugherty and crew won’t discuss the skeletons that they found out of deference to the Makah, who still remember the names of people lost to the coast’s perennial mudslides. “In any case,” says Gleeson, “from a researcher’s point of view, very little can be learned from skeletons in comparison with the other materials that have been found.” Uncovering such wealth has meant developing new techniques of excavation. Though trowels, shovels and brushes are still useful, most of the excavation has been done with water forced from pressure hoses. “It’s too easy to break a fragile piece of wood with a trowel,” says Gleeson.

One could flip a coin as to whether the dig has been more important for the archeologists concerned or for the Makah. “It has probably had more impact on cultural pride than anything we’ve ever done,” says tribal councillor Mary Jo Butterfield. “The best thing is that it is the younger people who have become involved, learning to run the museum, making replicas, developing a new sense g of pride. It has flowed over into the com5 munity.” Makah people have helped ex° cavate, are learning the techniques of i conserving artifacts—and it is they who ü will run the museum.

The Makah believe the museum is essential if their heritage, uncovered at Ozette, is to have any meaning, any lasting effect. They’ve had some help: two-thirds of the $2-million funding came from the U.S. government and the display area was designed by Jean Andre, chief of design of the British Columbia Provincial Museum. But most of the work—building the showcases, the longhouse, the whaling canoes, and replicas of artifacts that can be handled by the public—has been done solely by the Makah. It is a matter of self-congratulation that the workers’ average age is 23, director Greig Arnold (who holds a degree in anthropology) being just 27. Opening date is tentatively March 21, 1979. “It’s the first day of spring and it’ll be my son’s first birthday. We’ve got to open then,” says Arnold, justifiably proud. “And we’ll

celebrate for a week.”

Mark Budger