The Marmes Rockshelter

Much of what we know about the people of the ancient world has come from archaeological findings in caves and rockshelters. A rockshelter, by the way, is wider than it is deep, while a cave is deeper than it is wide. Rockshelters and caves provided people with shelter, usually temporary, where they could camp while hunting game, gathering wild plants, fishing, or gathering materials for making tools.

More than 13,000 years ago, Indian people began using a rockshelter, 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep beneath a basalt ledge, in southeastern Washington which later became known as the Marmes Rockshelter Site. The site is located near the confluence of the Snake and Palouse Rivers. This was a time, just two millennia after the maximum advance of the glaciers, when the ice age glaciers were retreating into British Columbia. The climate at this time was cold. The ecosystem at this time was a mixed forest of pine and spruce, not the sagebrush prairie ecosystem found in the area today.

Cremation was a common way of dealing with dead bodies, and by 9700 BCE, the Marmes Rockshelter was being used for cremations. One corner was used repeatedly and had a hearth that was ten feet across. The cremations may have been spaced decades apart. With regard to the mortuary practices at Marmes Rockshelter, anthropologist James Chatters in his book Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans writes:  “Marmes Rockshelter, it seems, had been an ancient crematorium.”

Prior to cremation, the bones of the dead were cleaned of their flesh. Within the hearth are the bones of at least six people: three adults (a young woman, a young man, and an adult of undetermined age and gender) and three children between the ages of 8 and 14. Ochre and large implements were used as offerings.

At this time—9700 BCE—the Indian people using the rockshelter were hunting rabbit, elk, deer, and antelope, as well as fishing. As with ancient Indians in other parts of North America, the people who were using the Marmes Rockshelter were using atlatls (a type of spear thrower) as a hunting weapon.

In a layer of the site dated to about 7,000 years ago, archaeologists found a fairly large quantity of Olivella shells which would have had to come from the Pacific coast some 200 miles away. The presence of the shells this far inland suggests that a trade network with the coastal tribes existed at this time. Most of the shells had holes drilled through so that they could be strung together as necklaces.

The archaeology at the Marmes Rockshelter site, ranked among the important North American archaeological sites by archaeologists, can be considered incomplete at best. Archaeologists—or rather archaeologist Richard Daugherty and a few of his students from Washington State University—began in 1952 to survey the area which would be flooded by the Lower Monumental Dam. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that any attention was paid to the Marmes Rockshelter. By 1968, it was apparent the Marmes Rockshelter was a significant site and the Army Corps of Engineers, the builders of the dam, funded a salvage archaeology effort. The Corps of Engineers also reluctantly agreed to postpone the closing of the dam’s gates for a year. Work on the site continued in 18-hour shifts through February 1969. Ruth Kirk and Richard Daugherty, in their book Archaeology in Washington, write:  “By February 1969 only about a quarter of the floodplain deposits had been excavated and work in the rockshelter was incomplete, but time ran out.”

With time running out, the archaeologists decided to sacrifice precision for speed and used bulldozers to get to the deeper layers, an action which probably destroyed some of the archaeological evidence.

With an emergency appropriation from President Lyndon Johnson, the Army Corps of Engineers attempted to build a cofferdam to hold the rising waters away from the archaeological site, but the dam failed. The rising waters inundated the rockshelter and 83 other known archaeological sites in the area.

The archaeologists, racing against the rising waters of the reservoir, attempted to protect the site as much as possible with plastic sheeting and dump truck loads of sand. Ruth Kirk and Richard Daugherty wrote:  “Someday the reservoir will silt in and archaeological excavation may resume. For the time being nothing more could be done. The site, with all its remaining evidence, lay drowned.”

Marmes Rockshelter today lies under 40 feet of water.