Dig It: Archeological record shows skilled carpenters

While stones and bones comprise the bulk of artifacts discovered by archeologists in the interior of B.C., in reality these items only represent a tiny fraction of the materials utilized in the past

Archaeologists are often only left with the non-perishable remains of past groups to learn details about their former lifeways.

This typically involves stone artifacts and occasional charred bone fragments from long-ago meals.

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While stones and bones comprise the bulk of artifacts discovered by archeologists in the interior of B.C., in reality these items only represent a tiny fraction of the materials utilized in the past.

Soil conditions typically do not favour the preservation of organic materials in archeological sites. After hundreds or even thousands of years buried in the ground, items constructed of plant or animal materials have long since decomposed.

There are circumstances in which the conditions are ideal to preserve organic items, such as within glacial ice (as discussed in a previous Dig It column), but those situations are location-specific and incredibly rare.

It’s easy to focus on what is in front of us as archeologists and forget about the diverse and complex array of items used in the past that were manufactured from wood and other organic materials we rarely encounter.

Stone adze fragment used to cut down trees, recovered from the Shuswap area. - Phoebe Murphy

Fortunately, certain artifacts that do survive in archeological sites can provide clues about the types of perishable items manufactured and used.

I recently experienced this while analyzing artifacts collected from an archeological site excavated during the summer.

While all of the recovered artifacts were manufactured from stone, the vast woodworking technology of the past was illuminated through the presence of certain types of artifacts.

Woodworking on a large scale was inferred through the presence of stone adze fragments and stone wedges.

Adzes were used to cut down trees, while stone wedges were used to split wood for various purposes.

Finding these items within an archeological site suggests trees were felled and processed in the general area, perhaps for use as structural timbers for the abandoned pit houses located nearby.

Other wood-processing tools were also present within the archeological site, including a distinctive, slightly curved stone-scraping tool.

Dig It
Another stone adze fragment. - Phoebe Murphy

This specially designed tool was used to strip the leaves, small branches and bark from the stems of shrubs to form wooden shafts.

These wooden shafts were important components of various tools, such as digging sticks, spears and arrows.

Oral history from Indigenous elders, community knowledge-holders and ethnographic documents completes the picture by providing invaluable details about which types of plants were preferred for making wooden shafts.

Saskatoon, yew, Rocky Mountain juniper, ocean spray and hawthorn are a few of the local species selected because of the natural straightness of the branches and strength of the wood.

Many of these plants were observed growing within or near to the archeological site under examination and most are ubiquitous throughout the Southern Interior.

These are just a few examples of specific woodworking tools found in archeological sites. Many more woodwork tools existed in the past.

It’s not surprising that a variety of tools were designed for this purpose.

Essentially every aspect of daily life had a component constructed from wood, including timbers for housing, hunting and fishing technology, transportation, plant-harvesting equipment, basketry and so on.

The use of wood was endless and past groups tailored a specific and expansive set of tools to work with this medium.

Although the wooden items of the past have often long decomposed, an archeological site comprised entirely of stone artifacts can still provide information about past woodworking and help to fill in details about daily life in the Southern Interior thousands of years ago.

Phoebe Murphy is a Kamloops archeologist. Interested in more? Go online to republicofarchaeology.ca. Dig It is KTW’s regularly published column on the history beneath our feet in the Kamloops region. A group of nine professional archeologists living and working in the area contribute columns tthe print edition of KTW and online at kamloopsthisweek.com.

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