College of Liberal Arts

The Chronicle

A Newsletter of Research & Creative Activity, Scholarship, Teaching, & Service  |  Spring 2011

Illustration of the Dionisio Point village as it may have looked 1,500 years ago, with plank houses near the shoreline
Illustration of the Dionisio Point village as it may have looked 1,500 years ago. View larger image »

Archaeologist Receives NSF Grant to Study Ancient Coast Salish Village

By Gail Siegel, College of Liberal Arts

Photo: Doug Epperson presents a bonus prize (a giant green M&M lady) to Donna Evans of the Department of English

Colin Grier / Photo by Gail Siegel

Two thousand years ago hunter-gatherer ancestors of the Coast Salish peoples of British Columbia established large, permanent villages on islands in the Salish Sea. They lived in large plank houses, kept woolly dogs, and harvested a variety of marine resources. Evidence suggests that at nearly the same time as these villages arose, certain individuals amassed significant personal wealth and status.

Colin Grier, an archaeologist and assistant professor of anthropology at WSU, hopes to explain how and why the Coast Salish transitioned from a nomadic life of hunting and gathering to form a complex society where people lived together in permanent communities, jobs became specialized, and a social class system emerged.

Grier has been awarded a $188,065, three-year National Science Foundation grant to collect and analyze data that may help identify what caused these changes.

"Through the NSF grant, we will attempt to find out how all of these changes happen in a region," he said. "It really connects with the big question in anthropology about how societies made fundamental transformations and leaps of scale and resource production, the by-product of which is inequality."

The excavation site

After he turns in final grades in May, Grier and a group of WSU graduate and undergraduate students will pack their camping gear and digging tools and head for Dionisio Point on the north end of Galiano Island in southwestern British Columbia.

Dionisio Point aerial view and excavation pits
Aerial view of Dionisio Point (left) and excavation pits. / Photos courtesy of Colin Grier.

This WSU cohort, joined by colleagues from Canada and members of the Penekalut First Nation, will continue their excavation of a longhouse that was inhabited more than 1,500 years ago.

The longhouse, one of five that formed a large village, is believed to have housed multiple distinct family groups, with up to 60 people living in it.

Grier's team will also continue their excavation of a second longhouse in an adjacent site where last summer they discovered a very unusual feature, a large, deep roasting pit full almost exclusively of sea urchin remains that may be the vestiges of a status-building feast.

Excavation of the pit will resume this summer as Grier continues to piece together the story behind it and how this successful but socially stratified settlement came to be.

Resource intensification and social complexity

Archaeologists have long theorized that the transition to more complex societies hinged on the development of agricultural practices and technologies, but data from the Coast Salish region present an alternative picture.

While the Coast Salish peoples lived in a temperate rain forest where farming was possible, they engaged instead in diverse resource intensification practices. Grier's team is investigating these practices, revealing new evidence that residents of the village constructed huge clam beds, burned off sites to increase wild berry crops, and aligned rocks in intertidal zones to funnel and trap fish for easy harvest.

"People were investing in all of these resources that were producing more and more, and these [resources] were becoming owned, through investment of labor, by people who were using preferential access to promote their own positions," said Grier. "We're trying to connect the data to the idea of how this happened."

The data includes records of debris from refuse piles and fire pits, plant remains, stone tools, and animal bones found in the house. Some of those materials will be analyzed using radiocarbon dating, and others will be the subject of genetic and isotopic analysis.

"This project addresses the central and long-standing goal of anthropology, to illuminate processes of change in the emergence of complex societies," Grier said.

Comparative study in Korea

In addition to his research in the Pacific Northwest, Grier, who holds an international scholar position at Kuyng Hee University in Seoul, South Korea, is also conducting comparative research on the Korean Peninsula.

"I engage in field research and analysis in partnership with Dr. Jangsuk Kim with the ultimate purpose of assessing the processes that fueled the emergence of social complexity in small-scale, coastal societies around the world," said Grier.

About Colin Grier

Grier earned his doctoral degree at Arizona State University and has published articles in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology, the SAA Archaeological Record, and as coauthor in the Journal of Archaeological Science. He also coedited the volume Beyond Affluent Foragers (Oxbow Books, 2006), which drew together case studies from scholars addressing similar issues in diverse areas around the globe. He joined the WSU archaeology faculty in 2007.


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