Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What is the purpose of your excavations? Archaeological research at Cooper’s Ferry aims to recover information about the earliest Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, particularly as related to issues of how they made their living in different environments, what their social and cultural patterns were like and how they changed through time, and how these patterns relate to other early archaeological sites in the region. Evidence of past human activity in the Pacific Northwest exists today in key places within the landscape, known as “sites”, and hold important records that can be investigated, studied, and interpreted by archaeologists. The Cooper’s Ferry site is one of those key places and retains a record that spans the period between about 13,000 to 9,000 years ago, making it one of the earliest sites in the Pacific Northwest.
How did you find this site? The site was first excavated and reported by the Idaho archaeologist, B. Robert Butler in the 1960s.
Why did you choose to dig here? We wanted to learn more about the earliest peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Our excavation block is built from the location of Loren Davis’s 1997 test pit, which lies in its southwestern corner.
How old is the site and how do you know this? In 1969, B. Robert Butler hypothesized that the earliest occupation of the site occurred at the end of the last glacial period, which he thought could date to 12,000 years ago. In 1997, Loren Davis led excavations that produced radiocarbon dates of about 13,000 years old, which may represent the site’s initial settlement.
What are you finding at the site? We are finding the discarded remnants of items left behind by the site’s earlier occupants. Most of these items are made of stone, which preserves for a very long time, and relate to aspects of the occupants’ stone tool technologies. We also find organic remains, mainly animal bone, river mussel shell, and land snail shell, which show us the kinds of foods the site’s early occupants were eating. We also find evidence of site use in the form of things we call “features”, which are three-dimensional objects or arranged objects that are not easily transported away from the site. Features can include things like campfire hearths, storage pits, stains on the ground, and patterns of artifacts that indicate a particular activity, such as the manufacture of spear points.
What’s an artifact? An artifact is any material object that shows evidence of human modification. In our own society, these items are everywhere in our lives and include our clothing, pocket knives, spoons, cellular phones, hammers, nails, combs, toothbrushes, and more. Peoples of the past made and used a wide variety of different artifacts that can be associated with their time and societies. For instance, stone tools used for cutting, perforating, scraping, grinding, and pounding are commonplace in pre-contact period Native American sites.
What kinds of artifacts do you find at the site? Stone tools, and flakes of rock that were made as byproducts of the manufacture of stone tools are the most common artifacts at the Cooper’s Ferry site. In the course of our excavations at Cooper’s Ferry we will recover many tens of thousands of these flakes, and will find hundreds of stone tools, including spear points, scrapers, drills, and hammers, to name but a few.
What did people do at the site? Although our final interpretation of the site’s archaeological record is many years away, it appears that the site served as a periodic camp for peoples who pursued a lifestyle of hunting and gathering resources that were available in the immediate environment.
How do you know that you’re not just digging through fill dirt from road construction? We know that road building activities took place adjacent to the site throughout the 20th Century, if not a bit before. At different times, excess fill dirt was placed on the surface of the site. This fill dirt is distinctively different from undisturbed archaeological deposits at the site and can be identified by its mixed nature, inclusion of historic artifacts, and the absence of pre-contact period features. In the area of our excavations, this fill dirt is up to three feet thick, and is probably much thicker in areas closer to the river, based on the results of B. Robert Butler’s 1960s excavations. In our excavations, the presence of clearly undisturbed sediments can be seen below three feet depth, in dark brown deposits that bear thousands of artifacts, and many intact features, including fire hearths.
What did people eat? Our knowledge of past dietary patterns comes from the presence of animal and plant remains at the site. We commonly recover bone fragments of terrestrial and aquatic animals, and many mussel and snail shells. Our knowledge of plant use in past diets is not as well understood due to the fact that such evidence is relatively poorly preserved at the site; however, our historical knowledge of Native people indicates that plants played an important role in human diets in this area.