For me, archaeology has always been one of those sciences that are difficult to relate to. I see ancient daggers and pottery shards, and I appreciate how old they are, but I have a hard time picturing what the people who used them were like.
At Cathlapotle, I gained a new appreciation for how exciting archaeology can be. Seeing the actual site really helped. The researchers took me down into a trench that sliced right through the middle of one of the old plankhouses.
In the walls of the trench, I could clearly see marks where structural beams used to be. In the dirt, I saw yellow jasper arrow points, agate darts, notched net-sinkers for fishing, pestles for grinding plants, and other objects.
Suddenly, I could imagine a bustling city of Chinook, working and walking around the houses and near the river down the hill. I could almost hear children playing. I could practically see canoes in the water.
It was also amazing to see the spirit of the past come back to life with the creation of the new plankhouse. All of the volunteers I met were generous with their time and inspiring to talk to. And their excitement was contagious.
“I can just envision busloads of children coming to see the plankhouse, and it’s really touching,” said Sam Robinson, a Chinook tribal council member. It meant so much to him that the Chinook are finally receiving some long-deserved attention. That emotion touched me, too.
Robinson also infused some magic into the project. “When we blessed the site,” he said, “birds were flying overhead, acting differently. Fish were jumping over canoes in the water. Eagles were flying around. Nature is happy to see the Chinook involved again.”
Maybe archaeology isn’t just about the distant past, after all.—Emily Sohn