Location and Environment * Chinookan Culture * Chinookan Material Culture

Site Chronology * The Plankhouse * The Meier Site Excavations * Features * Artifact Photo Gallery


Chinookan material culture included items made from stone, bone, antler, horn, wood, leather and many other materials. Here we see a variety of vessels made from wood and antler, including a spoon for eating (upper right). These items would have been carefully shaped, carving with stone, shell and beaver-tooth tools; rough surfaces could be sanded with sandstone and sharkskin.

The material culture of any group may to a degree be understood as its interface with the natural environment: material objects are used to mediate between the human and the cosmos. In the following excerpt from a work in progress (by professor KM Ames and CM Smith: see reference below), we discuss the basic characteristics of the main artifact types found at the Meier site.

Chipped Stone Tools

The chipped lithic assemblage is primarily composed of 'cryptocrystalline silicates', such as chert or chalcedony, and technologically is characterized by an expedient strategy which produced little standardization of form except in certain types, such as end-scrapers and projectile points (Hamilton 1994). About two percent of shaped tools are made of more rare raw materials such as obsidian, probably procured mainly by trade. Most raw material was procured from sources roughly 3 days' journey (by canoe) from the site.

Riverworn cobbles of all qualities were transported to the Meier plankhouse, the majority not tested in the field but within the plankhouse. The reduction sequence includes the use of bipolar percussion and hard hammer freehand percussion. Bipolar reduction was often used to open small and/or rounded cores that would be otherwise impossible to use. Pressure flaking is common on flake blanks produced by hard-hammer percussion, but billet flaking has not been identified, probably due to the small size of the block or cobble cores (cores have a mean length of 38.2mm). Pressure flaking and grinding are evident as both forming and resharpening methods. The core assemblage is largely unstandardized; of more than 500 cores, only two microblade cores and one possible bifacial flake core have been found.

Of the shaped tools, 41% are maintained (most being projectile points) and 59% are expedient, exhibiting little or no retouch. Four percent of the shaped tool assemblage, and twenty percent of the parent material assemblage, has been heat-treated by baking. Most of this heat treatment probably occurred in embers in the hearth areas within the plankhouse (discussed below) rather than in special-use thermal features elsewhere on the site, for which there is little evidence. The presence of untested cobbles, tested cobbles, cores, exhausted cores, broken tools, intact tools, lithic debitage and blanks within the Meier plankhouse all indicate that chipped lithics were produced, used, broken, recycled, lost, stored and discared within the plankhouse.

Usewear and other experiments have divide the Meier chipped lithic assemblage into the following main functional classesCUT, GRAVE, PERFORATE, SCRAPE, SHAVE, WEDGE, SAW and PROJECTILE POINT.

At the Meier site, the following type representation is seen in the assemblage:


Lithic Debitage

The lithic debitage assemblage, consisting of over 70,000 waste lithic items produced during stone tool manufacture, has been briefly treated in one study of the distribution of this material within the plankhouse (Delaney 1997). Clearly this assemblage requires further study, though the results of the cursory study mentioned above were significant and are reported below. In studying a sample of the lithic debitage, Hamilton found debitage type and raw material characteristics consistent with the finished chipped lithic assemblage (Hamilton 1994), indicating tool production on site as well as import of raw material in the form of cores and, infrequently, preforms.

Hamilton views the lithic debitage assemblage as a stockpile from which Meier people selected flakes and cores opportunistically. The term 'debitage', then, may be something of a misnomer, at least with respect to lithics greater than around 2cm in maximum dimension, items which could potentially be picked from the stockpile and used as tools (items smaller than 2cm are generally too small to hold or even haft expediently). This has implications for site formation processes, which are discussed below. Here we may simply say that what is often considered 'debitage' may be in fact a stockpile of raw material for expedient use. Curation of this stockpile would be easy in a pit or some other place or facility where debitage would not be a hindrance.

Ground Stone Tools

The ground stone assemblage has been treated only by Wolf (1994). Most artifacts are made on basalt, rhyolite, pumice or sandstone. Basalt and rhyolite are common locally in both outcrops and as river cobbles. Sandstone may have been procured from the coast. Pumiceous raw material may have been acquired through trade, or riverine or other deposits draining the Mt. St. Helens or Mt. Hood watersheds.

Wolf found that a wide variety of ground stone artifacts were present within the plankhouse, and that among these were artifacts of all stages of manufacture and use: blanks, preforms, used and serviceable items, broken items and recycled items (exhibiting usewear on old fracture margins) are all seen in the plankhouse assemblage. As with the chipped lithic assemblage, then, we may say that normally, raw material was brought into the plankhouse where it was shaped into tools which were used, recycled, discarded and (probably infrequently) lost.

Wolf's morphofunctional classification also considered gross use wear characteristics on the artifacts. The classes employed in this study are well-known types common on the Northwest Coast in general and the Columbia River in particular (Minor 1983, Pettigrew 1973) and their functions are generally well-known. These categories are ABRADE, MORTAR, BOWL, MAUL, PESTLE, NET WEIGHT, CLUB and ADZE/CELT as well as some ancillary, indeterminate classes. Assemblage composition for the Meier site is seen below:


Bone and Antler Tools

The bone and antler assemblage has been studied by Davis (1997). Much of the assemblage is composed of fragments of terrestrial mammal long bone shaped by cutting and chopping (occasionally with metal blades), 'groove-and-splinter' technique, abrasion, splitting, graving and perforation. Many items are made from the metapodials of land mammals such as deer and elk, which would have been commonly encountered in hunting expeditions and were themselves favored prey animals (Ray 1938). Artifacts made of bird bone, beaver tooth and other organic materials are also found. Sea mammal bone is not used for artifacts.

The plankhouse interior yielded bone and antler tools, broken bone and antler tools, worked bone and antler items (interpreted as incompletely manufactured artifacts), caches of metapodials and antler tines, and chips of bone and antler debitage. This clearly indicates that -- as in the ground stone and chipped stone classes -- raw bone and antler material was brought to the plankhouse, within which it was stored, shaped, used, reworked, broken, discarded and lost.

The Meier site bone and antler assemblage is similar to other assemblages on the Lower Columbia (Ames et al 1994, 1996, Minor 1983, Pettigrew 1973). Gross usewear characteristics as well as artifact form were both considered during classification, which is based on a typology used by Ames (1996) on a functionally similar assemblage in British Columbia. The functional types utilized by Davis as well as this study are HARPOON VALVE, PROJECTILE POINT, PERFORATE, WEDGE, ADZE, CHISEL and ORNAMENT. In addition, several hundred chips of bone and antler debitage (chips and shavings of bone and antler usually 2-5cm in maximum diameter) are recognized as informative and are classified in this study as BONE/ANTLER DEBITAGE. Some very rare types are also found, including HANDLE.


In sum, the assemblage described above may be organized as follows:

wide variety of relatively yielding materials, including meat, hide, vegetal matter.
Multipurpose tool.
resistant materials, such as bone, antler and wood.
Wood, bone and antler working. Both early-stage (e.g. groove-and-splinter) and late-stage (e.g. decoration on finished artifact) work may be represented.
both rotary and simple, of a relatively resistant materials, such as wood, bone and antler.
Perforation of antler, bone and wood for a wide variety of tasks.
a wide variety of medium-hard materials, such as hide, wood, bone and antler (hide scrapers are discussed in the text).
General-purpose scraping.
on moderately resistant material, such as wood, but unlikely on such material as bone or antler.
Woodworking, probably in both roughing-out (early) stages, as well as later, smoothing stages.
of resistant raw materials, such as bone and antler.
Splitting resistant worked materials. Small size suggests use on bone and antler rather than wood, for which there are bone/antler wedges of appropriate size.
resistant materials, such as wood or bone, but unlikely antler.
Wood and bone working in rather early stages.
terrestrial animals.
Hunting terrestrial game, such as elk and deer.
wide variety of raw materials, such as bone, antler and wood. Differences in abrader raw material (e.g. basalt vs- pumice) suggest differences in worked material, and are discussed in the text.
General-purpose abrasion tool for wide variety of activities.
MORTAR/BOWLPercussive base
temporary container.
Probably used for a wide variety of crushing and pounding activities, including both extravtive and maintenence activities.
MAUL/PESTLEPercussive hammer
used on variety of non-lithic materials.
Wide variety of uses in woodworking (mauls) and, in conjunction with mortars (pestles), activities such as food processing.
fishing net weights.
Fishing, likely for salmon or sturgeon.
aquatic species, such as sturgeon and seal.
In most cases, hunting of aquatic mammals, such as seal. Some hunting of terrestrial mammals as well.
aquatic mammals.
Sea mammal hunting, primarily.
BONE/ANTLER WEDGE/ADZEWedge & adze medium resistant materials, such as wood.Woodworking, in potentially all stages (early, middle and late), but emphasis on early to middle stages such as 'roughout'.
moderately resistant material such as wood.
Woodworking, probably more commonly towards end of production process, such as in finishing work.
moderately resistant material, such as leather,
as well as pushing material through holes, as in basketry. Possibly pressure applicant, as for pressure-flaking.
Probably mostly representing hide-working and basketry construction. Some few items may be pressure flakers.

A list of the 142 artifact types recognized in Cameron Smith's doctoral analyses may be found in this file. The types are arranged here alphabetically, and account for all 14,966 artifacts recovered from the PSU excavations at Meier.

Slightly modified FROM:

The Nature and Spatial Distribution of Activities in a Proto-Historic Northwest Coast Plankhouse

K. M. Ames and C. McPherson Smith

Draft work in progress, January 2000.

Click HERE for an online version of this report (including bibliographic references).

This website created and maintained by Cameron M. Smith.