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A Journey to a New Land

Yesterday's Camels
Multimedia Library

Dr. Barbara Winter

SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology


The traces people leave behind provide clues to their activities and their lifeways. Yet these archaeological traces are very fragile. Some evidence is preserved over millennia, but it is selectively preserved. Only some objects, only some features from long ago can still be found today.

The clothing, tools and structures made by the earliest people were made from both organic and inorganic materials. Organic materials come from plants and animals, and these decay very quickly. They leave very little trace after only a few years. Inorganic materials, on the other hand, are those which are made from stone or metals and these last much longer in most environments. They are inherently more durable. They don’t decay as quickly.

The archaeological record, therefore, is incomplete. It reveals only a glimpse of the past. Archaeological evidence may be hidden away in places that are inaccessible today. Archaeological sites may have been washed away by glacial floods. They may have been buried by tones of glacial debris. Poor preservation conditions may have caused the destruction of the organic materials and even some of the inorganic materials.

On the Northwest Coast there are rare sites that do have organic materials. These are preserved in flood conditions when clay is deposited over top of these organic materials and preserves them. This is because the clay excludes the oxygen - it seals the oxygen out and doesn’t allow the organic materials to decay. This means that today we can find organic basketry, clothing, hats that can date from thousands of years ago. They are encased in a thin layer of blue clay and we find them in sites in various places along the coast.

If the site is inundated with water, if it is under the ocean, if it is an intertidal site, if it is near the river, the water excludes the oxygen and it causes an anaerobic environment. Without oxygen, the microorganisms that cause the decay are excluded and the object is preserved.

So archaeologists can find very old organic materials on the coast, sometimes dating to thousands of years before the present. But we have not found any organic materials that date back to the earliest occupations. If we had these organic materials they would give us a clearer and more complete picture of the lifeways of these first peoples.