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Archaeology Course Research Reveals Tribal Territory Expanse


This summer, a group of nine students, including five Hamilton students Lindsay Buff, Anna Arnn, Petra Elfström, Mariah Walzer, and Grace Berg spent six weeks in the picturesque Slocan Valley, British Columbia, as participants in Hamilton’s archaeology field school led by Nathan Goodale, associate professor of anthropology, and Alissa Nauman. Recent graduate Max Lopez ’15, rising Hamilton senior Emily Rubinstein and University of Montana graduate Molly Eimers served as research assistants.

Beginning in 2009, Goodale and Nauman have conducted this field school on a biannual basis to provide experiential learning about archaeological excavation and survey field methods. The site, Slocan Narrows Pithouse Village, is an indigenous village that was occupied from about 3000 years ago until approximately 300 years ago. The village is characterized by 31 housepits, deep depressions in the landscape representing the remnants of prehistoric winter dwellings and spanning both sides of the Slocan River. The goal in previous years of research was to date each of the housepits to its time of occupation.

Now that the housepits have been dated, the archaeological project’s current question is to understand the spatial organization within the housepits, or the way in which space was used for different activities. Groups of three students with one research assistant excavated three different housepits of varying ages and sizes this summer. The results from the excavation and subsequent laboratory analysis will allow for a holistic understanding of how the inhabitants lived in this village throughout time.

Although the analysis of artifacts lends insight into past life at the village, testing the elemental composition of soil samples taken throughout excavation is an essential task as well. Spikes in the amount of certain elements, such as phosphorus and calcium, indicate human activity and decomposed animal bone, respectively.

Some of the noteworthy artifacts uncovered this summer include four arrowheads that date between 1200 years ago to European contact (early 19th century); the base of a projectile point from between 3000 and 2500 years ago; one large mammalian (likely elk) pelvis; several stone tools; hundreds of pieces of debitage, or small pieces of stone that flaked off as a byproduct of stone tool production; and hundreds of very small fragments of burned animal bones. The stone materials found originally came from a variety of sources, nearby in the Slocan Valley as well as a more distant locale – Kettle Falls, Washington, 110 miles to the south – indicating the vast territory occupied by the original inhabitants of this village.

In addition, potential hearth features were discovered in each of the three housepits, suggesting that each house had a central fire hearth and in some cases, a peripheral fire hearth. One group of excavators also found evidence of a fallen roof beam and a posthole, both support elements of a pithouse roof. Another group uncovered sets of rocks cracked by fire, which were probably boiling stones that were heated in the fire and then dropped into baskets in order to boil water. Laboratory analysis to be undertaken by some of the students from this field school in the next school year will lead to better understanding of this summer’s excavation and of pithouse organization.

Part of the 2015 field season included a trip to the Colville reservation in Washington, home to the Colville Confederated Tribes. The field school was generously hosted at the Twin Lakes Youth Camp spending several days working in the Klondike Mountains near the town of Inchelium, Washington, to try and find rock outcrops that may have served as lithic source materials to the prehistoric Sinixt during the mobile summer months. The source material searched for was fine-grained dacite that formed in the Eocene epoch. When fine-grained volcanic rocks form, they develop a chemical signature distinct enough to be used to distinguish different rocks when analyzed using x-ray fluorescence technology.

The project was joined by Professor of Geosciences David Bailey, who had worked on the sourcing effort during the 2012 field season. Having done a general sourcing of the area near Slocan Narrows in 2012, a known match was located in the Klondike Mountains near Kettle Falls, Washington. This allowed the 2015 sourcing effort to concentrate their search on the Klondike Mountains to collect rocks of similar composition to the known match-fine grained dacite. Rocks were collected from four different locations and further analysis will allow the project to potentially match volcanic artifacts to their original geographic locations.

In addition to spending eight hours a day practicing proper excavation methods and a brief lesson in field techniques and lithic sourcing, students were exposed to the modern day implications of archaeological work. Students had the opportunity to talk to several members of Sinixt First Nation Band, the living descendants of the prehistoric occupants of Slocan Narrows. Despite the fact that these descendants still occupy their traditional territory in British Columbia, the Sinixt members are not legally recognized by the Canadian government.

The Sinixt are currently fighting for aboriginal status in Canada. Students on this field school got firsthand exposure to the complex political and environmental issues surrounding the site, learning that archaeology is not simply a study of a static past, but has a significant impact on modern peoples.

Students from other institutions who were participants in the field school included Allysa Webber and Mike Graeme from Selkirk College (British Columbia), Rachel Mead from Oberlin College, and Maddy Adams from Reed College.

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