The Archaeology of Water

Humans have a long and fundamental relationship to water. We are made of water (2/3rds of our body weight). We die if we go three days without it. All the plants and animals we rely on for sustenance require water too. Our essential bond to water transcends time and place. All people everywhere and for all times have shaped their lives and cultures around water. And we continue to do so. This core bond makes water an ideal theme to explore through archaeology and heritage.

We have built our communities next to oceans, rivers and springs.

black and white photo of Willamette Falls in 1878

Willamette Falls, 1878. Photo courtesy Oregon Historical Society Research Library, 612.

Waterfall on the Willamette River at the settlement now known as Oregon City. Important Indigenous fishery since time immemorial. Became a focus of 19th century Euro-American development. Efforts are now underway to restore the fishery and broaden Indigenous connections to this important place. To learn more about ways contemporary Native People in our region foster connections with water, visit the “Sacred Chuush” virtual exhibit and view the panel discussion: Tribal Canoe Lifeways

We’ve piped it, dammed it, dug canals to direct water to our crops.

Black and white photo of Bonneville Dam, 1938

Bonneville Dam, 1938. Photo from Oregon Encyclopedia, courtesy of Oregon State University Archives, Wasco County Pioneer Association, WCPA 1868B-2.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmark, Bonneville Dam was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930s. It was the first of the large federal dams on the Columbia River to provide power and help with flood control and river navigation. Dams like Bonneville have given the Pacific Northwest “cheap and clean” power for close to a century, but they have come with a cost. The dams contributed to severe declines in migratory salmon populations. Raising the pool height behind this dam (and others) destroyed countless Native American fishing locales and drowned thousands of archaeological sites, which still need our protection. To learn more about ways the federal government is working to preserve cultural heritage, visit the FCRPS exhibit: How Well Do You Know Your Dam Columbia River History? and view the lecture: A Flood of Support, Collaborative Cultural Resources Management at the Willamette Valley Project.

We’ve built canoes and ships to travel in it.

a drawing of two large Spanish Galleon ships

Reconstruction of the Santo Cristo de Burgos (above, left). Image from Oregon Encyclopedia, courtesy of the artist, Roger Morris.

Spanish galleon that transported goods in a global trade system between the Philippines and Mexico in the late 1600s. The ship was lost at sea. Scholars have proposed that shipwreck debris found on the Oregon Coast in the Neahkahnie Mountain area is from this very ship. To learn more about Oregon shipwrecks view the lecture: Lost Ships, Lost Sailors: Mystery Wrecks of the Pacific Northwest.

We’ve modified freshwater wetlands and estuaries to promote certain plants and animal habitats and restrict others.

Wapato growing at Crane Lake

Field of wapato in Crane Lake, Sauvie Island. Photo by Melissa Darby, 1994

Large fields of wapato used to blanket the wetlands of the Willamette Valley and other parts of the Pacific Northwest prior to Euro-American settlement. Wapato is a highly nutritious small potato like-tuber highly valued by Native Peoples for food and trade. To learn more, please visit these exhibits: Mystery of the Missing Wapato in the Northern Great Basin and Wapato for the People; and see David G. Lewis’s blog on the Draining of Wapato Lake, near Gaston, OR.

The extended view of time that archaeology, traditional knowledge and history provide teaches us that we can’t take water for granted. Lakes expand and contract. Springs come and go. River channels find new pathways. Sea levels rise and fall. When it is scarce, we have more wildfires. If we look hard enough, we sometimes find lessons from the past that could help us adapt to changing water supply in the future.

A nearly dried up lake on a bright summer day

Summer Lake, April, 2008. Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Located in Oregon’s arid east side, Summer Lake is now a shallow alkaline wetland but during the last Ice Age, it was deep and huge. Extinct megafauna like horse and mammoth roamed the area; small fish were abundant in the lakes and cattails and sedges were plentiful. Records from Paisley Caves located in the hillside well above the current lake, show that people visited the area regularly over the past 14,000-15,000 years. To learn more about environments and lifeways in the late Ice Age of eastern Oregon, view the talks in the “Archaeology on Tap” series  and Paisley Caves lecture: There’s something fishy in the Great Basin

This year’s Archaeology Roadshow provides just a sample of ways that water intersects the human story, as told through archaeology, history and traditional knowledge. Enjoy the virtual exhibits, come to our Zoom presentations. We invite you to form a new and deeper connection to water than you had before.