Skip to comments.Unsolved Mystery: Origin Of 800-Year-Old Artifacts Eludes Experts (Portland, Oregon)
Posted on 10/07/2002 5:12:26 PM PDT by blam
UNSOLVED MYSTERY: ORIGIN OF 800-YEAR-OLD ARTIFACTS ELUDES EXPERTS
Sunday, October 6, 2002
By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer
With almond-shaped eyes and dreadlocked hair, the faces on the 800-year-old clay amulets have been a mystery since they were first discovered on the banks of the Columbia River more than 80 years ago.
Who were these guys who lived around modern Ridgefield at the time Genghis Khan conquered Persia and King John of England signed the Magna Carta?
"They were not Chinook Indians," said David Fenton, executive director of the Clark County Historical Museum.
"Where they came from and where they went is a mystery," Fenton said. "It's really kind of fun to see the archaeologists scratch their heads and not know who these guys are.
"Any attempt to find any kind of smoking gun to identify who they were and how they got here has been unsuccessful for the past 40 years," Fenton said.
The clay carvings of the ancient ones lay largely forgotten in storage at the museum for 36 years. A year and a half ago, archaeologists began to dust them off.
They have been astonished.
These were not American Indians, not European. Their eye shape suggests Japanese or Chinese origin, but their hair is clumped in thick strands like modern Rastafarians of Jamaica.
Scientists have searched the Pacific Rim from the Pribiloff islands to Japan, Korea and China and haven't been able to find a link.
"The critical issue about the ceramics is that we do not know who made them, but whoever it was, it wasn't the more recent inhabitants of the area," said Alison Stenger, an archaeologist with Portland's Institute for Archaeological Studies.
"It's definitely a mystery," said archaeologist Harvey Steele of the Northwest Pottery Research Center in Wilsonville, Ore. "There are no easy answers on this."
The amulets were found on the muddy banks of the Columbia River as early as the 1920s. Since then, the mystery surrounding the people they depict rivals that of the controversial remains of the 9,400-year-old Kennewick man of Eastern Washington.
Castaways from Japan?
Were they shipwrecked sailors from the Orient? Perhaps some unknown tribe?
No one knows. But these early settlers brought with them knowledge that Indians did not have. They built kilns and they made art here for about three generations, then vanished as suddenly as they arrived.
"What perplexed the archaeologists as early as 1964 was there is no record of any tribe in this region having a ceramic tradition -- either creating it or using it. And they actually found evidence of kilns," said Fenton. "So they know these figures were created here."
To the delight of archaeologists, they have come up with some solid clues from the three dozen clay amulets, beads, pots, pipes, pendants and bowls in the museum at 16th and Main streets.
Dated to 13th century
A process called thermoluminescence, a kind of carbon dating used on clay, shows that the mystery artists lived between the flushing channel of Vancouver Lake and the mouth of the Lake River at the Columbia River from around 1210 to 1330.
Were they ancient fishermen or navigators who drifted eastward across the Pacific from the Orient?
"There are several books out that document Japanese fishermen who were blown off course," said Fenton. "They drifted across the Pacific and landed anywhere from northern Washington to mid-Oregon; then they married within the tribes and were assimilated."
For years, the pieces were known as the Shoto clay ceramics, after a theory postulated by German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas, (1858-1942).
The legend of Shoto
Legend held that in the 17th or 18th century, a Spanish galleon wrecked off Neahkanie Mountain in modern Oregon. There were two survivors, including a blacksmith named Shoto, who may have been Japanese.
The story says Shoto taught Chinook Indians pyrotechnology and ceramic firing that they practiced in six villages northwest of modern Vancouver.
Steele knows that at least one galleon each year sailed from Manila to America between 1565 and 1819, carrying beeswax and Chinese porcelain to Vera Cruz and following the Japanese current to Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Mexico.
"It's well known that there were many lost galleons, and it's theorized that as many as five or six wrecked near the Oregon or Washington," Steele said.
Now archaeologists say these ceramics have no connection to that myth, because they were created 400 years before Shoto could have arrived.
One of Stenger's theories is that the amulets may have been related to marriage, with half an amulet staying in the husband's village and half going to the bride's.
"But the more the archaeologists tried to connect this to a native culture, the more they came up empty," said Fenton. "So they're very firm in their belief that this is a pre-culture to the Chinook Indians."
In the 1960s, archaeologists Robert Slocum and Kenneth Matsen excavated sites near the Columbia and found some 300 pieces of "Shoto Clay." They wrote a book about it.
It wasn't until about 18 months ago, however, that the Oregon Archaeological Society got involved. Stenger, her late partner Charles Gibbs, Steele and their assistants spent 2,000 hours examining intact amulets at the museum and others in a private collection in Portland. They also discovered new pieces of similar pottery in mixed artifact collections of beads and arrowheads stored at the Vancouver museum since it opened in 1964.
There were many "ah-hah" moments at the museum in recent months, Fenton said.
"They'd look through our arrowheads and say 'Here's another one!'"
While it has some three dozen pieces, the museum probably has only a few of the clay artifacts found in this area since the 1800s, Fenton said.
Some privately owned artifacts have been discredited by modern archaeologists because they were obtained illegally or their discovery wasn't properly documented, Fenton said. Some of these were given to the museum by anonymous donors, he said.
The scientists have been careful not to pinpoint exactly where the finds were made, fearing more illegal digs.
"They've basically trashed the archaeological sites to add to the mystery," Fenton said.
The museum plans to compile a catalog of the clay finds for archaeologists to use around the world. They also plan to make a traveling exhibit for the Pacific Northwest to boost the Clark County Historical Museum's reputation and to raise funds for more collections, Fenton said.
"I's bein' Simonized," he waxed pathetically.
LOL. I read and article in my local newspaper that stated that this area has been stable for 28 million years. I just keep thinking there's something around here that is 28 million years old. Keep looking.
Spirit Cave Man
Sorry, I don't know how to do a 'ping' list and consequently, I don't have one. If you want to start one, I'll alert you everytime I post something like this and then you can ping .